Without being able to ask the artist, one sometimes wonders about the depths of meaning one encounters. Are they intentional creations—where the creator sought for and purposefully aimed at those depths—or, are they serendipitous brilliance? There’s a third possibility, that they could even be something in the viewer’s head that the author never intended.
Where does all that meaning come from?
The questions are inevitable as I play through a piece of music, a simple little thing really. I can’t get over the depths I have encountered. Maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe it’s the convergence of the material and the music.
If one must be tormented by an earworm –one of those tunes that one can’t get out of your head—let it be this kind, a wonderful composition lodging in the brain because it’s such a good composition. My mind is reverberating with the sounds of Percy Grainger’s Bridal Lullaby.
But that’s not how I encountered the piece. I found it appended to the Merchant Ivory film Howard’s End. There is a brief orchestral phrase in B-flat minor, striking a kind of tragic pall over the beginning. Then the piano begins, in the related key of F-sharp major, a luxurious curtain of notes.
Although that opening orchestral phrase is from the film’s composer –Richard Robbins—there is a direct segue into Grainger’s composition. As a result the combination may seem to be a single entity in your first encounter. For awhile I assumed Robbins had written the entire composition, something like a piano concerto whose piano solo follows the orchestral introduction. And then I had a close look at the credits, discovering the name of Percy Grainger.
I am pondering all of this after having again played through Percy Grainger’s brief piano solo, the aforementioned Bridal Lullaby. The composition was a wedding gift to one of the great loves of the composer’s life, after their failed love affair. As she moved into a new life and married someone else Grainger sent her the composition with its dedication to Karen Kellerman (her married name), a kind of bitter-sweet blessing and wish for her happiness.
Encoded in the music is a mixture of sweetness and sadness, a sighing resignation, parallel chords sliding downwards in a musical gesture of surrender to fate or just fatigue.
Imagine you are a composer, a young man in love with a woman for a dozen years. You love her, or desire her but your mother hates the woman. After several attempts to make it work, you finally accept fate because she’s found someone else to marry. You may wonder just what that will be like, but if you’re a gentleman –as I believe Grainger was—you’d truly and sincerely wish her well, even as part of you said farewell not only to her, but also to your own truest dream of happiness.
Could your wedding gift to her be music, a composition intimately addressed to her privately? That is the implication I see in a piece called “Bridal Lullaby,” as though –here’s a crazy thought—this man is singing his beloved to sleep in her new bed.
Is it possible to imagine that you were marrying a new man, with your former lover singing you to sleep? That is what the title implied to me, especially when I read that he sent the original to her. It is like a last love-letter, albeit one written and sent across the enforced and formal gulf created between them by the new marriage.
Watching Howard’s End I had no idea of any of this, yet the conflicted and troubled sensibility in the music is unmistakeable, a good match for the two times we encounter the composition. The first time we’re watching Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) walk around the property of Howard’s End, at the film’s beginning (click the link above). The house represents something older in Ruth’s life, something like the memory Karen Kellerman had of Grainger and their love. And when Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) walks into the house for the first time, the music comes to us as if to suggest another life from before, no matter what falsehoods any liars might proclaim. And indeed although we encounter several falsehoods, the tune is truth and wins out over those falsehoods. From what I understand about Grainger it’s as though his inner life was concealed, and only laid bare in the notes he composed and/or played at the piano.
Oh sure, there’s the matter of the film & its plot. But it can just as easily be understood as the case of the tune that would not be denied.