The thing about music is that it really IS a universal language. It may not speak specific words or sentences, but it definitely conveys specific emotions and sentiments…feelings experienced, at one time or another, by every human being on the face of the planet. Joy, ecstasy, nostalgia, fear, hope… and, one the most powerful of all experiences, grief.
When writing my third novel, Requiem, I needed to find a piece of music that would convey profound grief. But there was a caveat to that…it needed to be in string quartet form, as it was being experienced by my viola player, Brett, while on stage with his ensemble, The Walton Quartet. Sure, there are plenty of sad-ish, melancholy movements of string quartets, but none of them seemed quite right. I scoured the web, asked colleagues and put out a call on Twitter for suggestions. Finally, I stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for by accident on YouTube!
Now, here’s the interesting thing. In the first draft of Requiem, I somehow forgot to mention what the piece was! I just put the description in there. When my friend and fellow author, Terez Rose did a beta read of the manuscript for me, she pointed this out. Funny thing though, she knew what the piece was based solely on my description of the music. I’d like to think that’s because my words were just SO brilliant, powerful and spot-on, but I don’t believe that for a second. I think she knew what it was because it could have only been this one piece of music!
So, here’s the test… I’m going to give you the description below, without telling you what it is. Below it, I’ll tell you what it was and show you the video that served as inspiration for the words. No peeking before you’ve had a chance to read and guess!! The only hint I’ll give you is that this particular bit of music, though originally written for string quartet, is best known today in a string orchestra version.
I’d love to hear your thoughts–did you “get it” ??? Let me know in the comments!
From Requiem, Book 3 of the Reverie Series by Lauren Rico:
If only we’d chosen something different to end the program…but then, how could we have known six weeks ago that I would suffer such a devastating loss? As soon as I got into town for rehearsal this afternoon, Joe sensed this could be a problem. He immediately offered to drop the piece, knowing that it would be difficult for me. But I’d insisted it would be fine– that I would be fine. If that wasn’t the most idiotic display of pride, I don’t know what is.
Now, as Joe begins to play the first violin part, he enters on a note so soft and subtle that it seems to materialize out of the ether. I can’t help myself, I commit the cardinal sin of chamber music performance: I close my eyes. Playing in a setting this intimate, with no conductor to direct the ensemble, requires the keenest attention to body language and facial expressions. But if I can’t see my colleagues, then I can’t see the worry or the sympathy that they’ve been telegraphing to me silently all night. If I can’t see Joe, or Neville, or Philip, I can lose myself in Brett.
I play underneath, listening as Joe spins the lamenting melody that will possess the next ten minutes of my life. The rest of us– second violin, viola and cello, slip in beneath him. We provide a slow-moving blanket of music to catch the sound of the first violin’s tears. Not that this is some self-indulgent funeral dirge. This music is raw, unbound emotion…grief at its harshest and cruelest.
It’s pining for something forever lost, wishing you could retrieve all of that time you wasted, because you now realize that there will never be another hour. Or minute. Or second. There will never be another heartbeat.
As our individual parts melt into one another, we become mourners standing around a gravesite, bound only by our collective agony. Aside from that single thread that tethers us to one another, we are each lost in our own internal suffering; bereft and desolate.
When it’s my turn to echo the melody begun by the first violin, I find relief in allowing my viola to shoulder the wordless tune for me. Under my bow, I feel it growing and spreading and building. And then I pull back, allowing the cello to take on the burden of this lament.
Then, little by little, the tension starts to coil and our individual parts weave together into a single intense sound. Our unified agony turns in on itself until we are lost in a frenzy of ragged desperation. This is the sound of a fist, raised and shaking its ire towards the heavens, crying out at the injustice of it.
And then there is silence. It is the silence of the dead. It hangs for one very long moment before transforming itself into the softer, lower chords of acceptance for that which we cannot change. When the original melody returns again, it’s no longer haunting… it’s haunted. The jagged edges of sorrow and despair have been rubbed smooth by grudging acceptance. And then Joe is there again, the first violin in its final moments, with the same rhythm but different notes– a lower, tempered play on the opening measures.
As the Adagio comes to its conclusion, the sound stretches thinner and thinner until there’s nothing left to hold it together anymore. Just air. And then shadow. And then darkness.
The flame is snuffed. The casket is lowered. And now there is nothing left to prove that this moment ever even existed. That is, except for my broken heart.
Okay…. so what’s your guess? Haydn? Mozart? Rachmaninoff? Debussy?
If you guessed The Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (in its original string quartet configuration) then you guessed right!
Here’s the version by the always-amazing Dover Quartet that moved me enough to write the words above: