Variation and Interpretation

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One night several years ago when we lived in the Hudson Highlands, I was driving home from book group. It was late and it had been snowing for several hours.

I love being alone in the night with snow. It always reminds me of one of my favorite paragraphs in the world, the last sentences of James Joyce’s The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Our hostess that month lived about 45 minutes away, so I’d carpooled with friends, chatting the entire time. On the way home, after I dropped everyone off, I turned on the radio. I had for company someone playing the piano. I recognized the piece, but there was something so different about what I was hearing that I didn’t make the connection for a minute or two.

Then it hit me with a flash: it was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And played on the piano, not the harpsichord. But it didn’t sound like Glenn Gould.

I find it particularly appropriate to listen to this piece of music when the rest of the world is asleep. The legend is that Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations for a Count who struggled with insomnia. The Count asked Bach to write some clavier exercises to be played in the middle of the night, something to soothe and cheer him through long, sleepless hours. The Variations are named after the Count’s talented young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; I imagine the poor young man being roused from slumber on any given night to play for his patron, because the Count apparently never tired of hearing them.

The Variations were published in Bach’s lifetime, but for many years afterward, they were regarded as dry, rather difficult pieces to be played on the harpsichord. In the middle of the 20th century, however, a brilliant young pianist changed popular opinion of Bach’s piece forever.

I know Glenn Gould’s landmark 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations as well as I know any piece of music. I’ve listened to it probably thousands of times. It has been a great friend to me, as the Variations were for the Count who commissioned them.

But what I was hearing that night on the way home from book group was alien: haunting, personal, almost painful in its execution. In sharp contrast, the version I knew so well — lively, technically flawless — evokes a detached, peaceful mood.

Puzzled, I drove on and thought about book group. We’d read a modern classic: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Its main character, Susan Burling Ward, has chronic myopia when it comes to the life she has chosen. Throughout her life, she compares her situation unfavorably to that of her best friend, Augusta.

She doesn’t realize that she has all the ingredients for a wonderful existence. Her interpretation of herself, the reader easily sees, is faulty. She has, in fact, married the better man; her life of “exile,” as she terms it, has defined and refined her work as an artist, not limited it.

One woman in our group raised a question: How do you know when to be content? When you’re in the middle of living one of life’s countless challenges, how do you stop looking over the fence at seemingly greener grass?

It’s a good question, and an old one, one that has given philosophers pause for centuries. After a lot of thought on the topic myself, I think the secret lies in our interpretation of what we’ve been given.

Happiness is a choice. For some it’s a harder choice than for others, but it is there all the same. One need look no further than Victor Frankl for proof of this truth. I myself have been given all the components for a perfect life: good health, abundance, lovely friends and children, meaningful work, and an amazing man who loves me.

But if I’m not careful, I can take the route Stegner’s heroine takes. I can focus exclusively on what I see as being wrong: my aging body; brain chemistry that defaults to a baseline level of melancholia; the current state of our yard; the child who is misbehaving on any given day. The list could go on for quite a while, if I let it.

But that interpretation of my life is a sure path to misery. This is one of the points Stegner makes in his beautiful book.

Once home, I sat in my dark car in the driveway for few minutes so that I could discover the identity of my mystery musician. At the stroke of midnight, after the last few notes of the Aria died away,the DJ came on the air and informed me that it was, indeed, Glenn Gould playing the Variations — but that this was a performance recorded shortly before Gould’s death in 1982.

This was the same music played by the same artist I thought I knew so well. But the interpretation was so different that it changed the piece completely. More than a quarter century older, wiser, at the end of his life, Gould let his life inform his art and transform it. He put himself wholly into his work, and both were changed thereby.

My takeaway from that quiet, snowy night? Stop looking over the fence. Instead, do all you can to green up what you’ve got. Take plenty of time to savor all that is good in your life. It is simpler to write than it is to live, but the secret to happiness is in the interpretation.

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