What basic musical figures tie together the music of different centuries, different worlds, different genres? Do certain groups of notes possess intrinsic meaning, or is meaning invariably imparted by particular cultural communities? This talk, illustrated with audio examples ranging from Romanian folk laments to Led Zeppelin, explores recurring patterns across hundreds of years of music, testing the proposition that music is a universal language.
The journey begins with the Chacona, a rollicking Spanish dance that seems to have originated in Latin America in the late 1500s. Its distinguishing characteristics were a hypnotically repeating bass line and sexually suggestive lyrics. In one of the most fascinating transformations in musical history, the chacona became, within a few decades, the chaconne, a widely used European form that acquired regal splendor in the operas of Lully and a tragic cast in Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor.
We also follow the adventures of the “Lamento,” a chromatic descending bass line that appeared in Baroque opera around 1640 and was transfixingly appropriated by Purcell in Dido’s Lament and by Bach in the B-minor Mass. The same relentless descent is a leitmotif of twentieth-century pop music: a
notable example is Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” As we follow these fateful transformations, inheritances, and resemblances, we confront not only questions of musical meaning but also the ever-tense, ever-fruitful relationship between popular traditions and notated classical music.
Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008 he received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation and served as a McGraw Professor in Writing at Princeton.