Several words came to mind for Variation 19 of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as I was playing it. Cheerful, friendly, genial, amiable. Amiable! That’s the one. With its roots in the Latin words for love and friendship (amīcus (“friend”) and amō (“I love”)), “amiable” was clearly the best choice. It’s music which dances in 3/4 time, like a waltz, but earthier. Perhaps more like the Polish folk dance, the mazurka.
I don’t know that anyone actually strives to be amiable. It’s a personal quality which suggests someone who is conflict-adverse, inoffensive, appeasing, boring, wishy-washy. On the other hand, our amiable friends are pleasant to be around, their presence helps maintain harmony within relationships, and let’s be honest, sometimes a lack of drama can be pretty wonderful.
Amiable isn’t a word that we come across very often, but for choral singers we’re immediately reminded of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ brief gem of an anthem, O how amiable, which sets words of Psalms 84 and 90. It was originally written as part of an outdoor drama, The Abinger Pageant, which was performed in 1934 to raise funds for the local parish church and included texts by E.M. Forster. Not your average church pageant!
The Abinger Pageant begins with these words: What shall we show you? History? Yes, but the history of a village lost in the woods. Do not expect great deeds and grand people here. Lords and ladies, warriors and priests will pass, but this is not their home; they will pass like the leaves in autumn but the trees remain. The cast was mostly made up of local residents in the show’s two performances, along with a variety of farm animals. It concludes with a final stage direction noting that “the arena is again occupied by the flock of sheep.”
Not a story about lords and ladies, warriors or priests, but about something earthier, like the mazurka. A story about the amiable people – and their amiable sheep – who form a dependable foundation for a harmonious society.
Save the Date: Thursday, June 22, 7:30 p.m. Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton, playing music for two pianos by Bernstein, Gershwin, Glass, and Reich. With special guest Joan Phalen singing songs of Bernstein and Sondheim. A change of venue – losing the intimacy of a house concert, but gaining the space and acoustic of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, 4201 Albemarle Street, NW. Donations gratefully accepted to benefit the work of empowering the homeless that is done by Samaritan Ministries of Greater Washington.
I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.