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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Kronik

Beauty, Chekhov, Mozart, Bach

Thirty-five years ago, while scanning for music on my car’s FM radio, I landed on a New York City classical station just as Bach’s Violin Concerto Number 2 in E Major played. If you want to feel firsthand the glorious uplift the piece inspires, listen here. And if you want to experience that feeling in words, read Anton Chekhov’s story The Beauties, which I first came across in 2011 during my MFA studies.

Chekhov, perhaps confronted by striking beauty one day during his travels as a physician in Tsarist Russia, chose the best way he knew--and perhaps the only possible way--to portray the ineffable: he chose metaphors for the otherwise indescribable feelings his encounter evoked. And being Chekhov, he took those metaphors and made a timeless work of fiction out of them.

His first-person narrator has two brushes with beauty, and after the first one is moved to reflection: “…the boy herding the cows, and the surveyor driving in his chaise over the dam, and the gentleman out for a walk, all gaze at the sunset, and every one of them thinks it terribly beautiful, but no one knows or can say in what its beauty lies.”

When I heard that Bach concerto, I might have been driving down Manhattan’s West Side Highway, with the Hudson River blue in the gloaming, and the gray daytime skyline yielding to the enchanted nocturnal one, each individual building its own sparkling constellation.

Or I might have been in traffic on a nondescript suburban highway through Westchester or New Jersey, with little beyond cars, billboards, frontage roads and malls for scenery. Impatient one minute as I contemplated the chain of brake-lights ahead of me, I was transported the next by the ethereal order of Bach’s notes and instrumentation.

It doesn’t really matter where I was: the music itself was a landscape, specific to that concerto and that point in time. Looking out at such a place, we cannot say, as Chekhov wisely knew, “in what its beauty lies.” We reach the limit of description because we are at the limit of comprehension, a state defined by the seeming impossibility of such beauty, let alone its preservation. Most beauty is ephemeral, with the sort found in nature perhaps the only permanent example, yet all beauty makes us long for more—but of what? More chances to enjoy sights or sounds or scents, or more ability to own them somehow, or simply more time in which to appreciate them—which we often do not get or fail to properly understand when we do.

Bach did for me what my upbringing hadn't: he opened my soul to the wonders of classical music. I was in my twenties then, and was sure my father, Viennese by birth and thus in his DNA a classical lover, would celebrate my returning to the fold, so to speak, after a decade carousing with the ruffians of rock and roll. He was pleased, certainly, but true to his roots, he expressed the hope that I'd one day be as captivated by Mozart as I was by Bach.

Disappointed at the time, in hindsight I think I understand. I recall his facial expression during a performance of The Magic Flute long ago, in his home city’s famous opera house. His eyes shone with something off-limits to me: memories of his happy early childhood, possibly, or perhaps of losses due to the onset of Nazism in 1938 and the subsequent travails he and his family endured. Maybe he was thinking of his many relatives and friends who, unlike him and his parents, did not manage to escape.

Or it might simply have been beauty, activated by music that he had loved all his life. Perhaps in his heart was the same sensation which had so moved Chekhov’s narrator: “I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment…but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream.” If what my father felt at the opera that evening was painful, then that was his right, and if it was joy, then I am happy for him in long retrospect. He was not someone to volunteer what he felt, and I rarely asked.

It occurs to me now that what I saw when I looked at him, with the stage action reflected in his glasses, was itself a singular beauty. I didn’t realize it then, but nothing else explains the longing that strikes me when I recall the moment. It is “a painful but pleasant sadness,” a “sadness vague and undefined as a dream”, and if my father could see me when I hear Bach, then perhaps he would know what I saw that night, and vice-versa, ad infinitum.

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