24 March 2012


My thanks to Jennifer Ouellette for turning me on to an NPR Music essay titled Hannibal Lecter's Guide to the 'Goldberg Variations'.  Hannibal Lecter, you will recall, is the fictional serial killer who avidly dines on his victims (memorably portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins in the film 'The Silence of the Lambs').  The Goldberg Variations is a pivotal work by the Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations.

So how could the creepy Lecter possibly enlighten us on Bach?  Jeremy Denk picks up the story ~ "Perhaps the most famous cinematic Goldberg moment is in Silence of the Lambs:  Hannibal Lecter, chewing the face off one of his prison guards to the strains of the Aria.  This use of Bach is ~ depending on your point of view ~ either a stroke of genius or an act of cultural cannibalism. Admittedly, it's vivid, certainly one of the best face-chewing scenes I can think of.

"But it's exploitation, too.  Classical music is rarely used in cinema to express the 'actual emotion' implied by the work in question.  (The Aria is meditative, elegant, plaintive, tender, and not particularly bloodthirsty.)  Cunning, evil directors almost always use classical music as an ironic foil, a tool for dissociation.  This perpetuates a stereotype.  Classical music is unnatural.  It is not the music of normal events.  It's for massacres and deceptions of the soul (Apocalypse Now, Clockwork Orange, the end of There Will Be Blood).

"Luckily, there is another moment in Silence of the Lambs that seems to call up the Goldbergs more subtly.  When Clarice is seeking advice on catching the killer, Hannibal says:

" 'First principles, Clarice.  Simplicity.  Read Marcus Aurelius.  Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself?  What is its nature?  What does he do, this man you seek? .... He covets.  That is his nature.'

"This laser focus on first principles, the nature of things, makes us understand why Hannibal is such a Bachian.  Much of the Goldbergs has that virtue of getting back to basics ~ uncovering the potential of intervals, elucidating possibilities of composition.  Bach is teaching the world, in a way.  The piece's lessons are still being learned.  Since the harmonies are always the same, suddenly texture and rhythm pop with new clarity.  And the simplicity of first principles lurks around many of his very complicated canons, as if to say: See, that's all there is to it.

"But here's the excellent thing about Lecter as a teacher ~ he is desperate for Clarice to get the verb right.  The key, evocative verb is 'covet'.  The killer covets.  From that the whole chain of events follows.  Mostly I don't try to teach the piano like a serial killer, but often I have found myself imitating Lecter, and asking students ~ What is this passage of music doing, what does it seek?  And they reply 'mysterious' or possibly 'this is the second theme' ~ either an epithet or a piece of learned jargon.  No verbs anywhere.  It makes me want to eat their livers with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.  Instead, I just reiterate 'but what does the phrase DO?"

"Is it weird to say that a set of musical notes covets something?  And yet it seems to me central, this ache of notes for other notes."

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