Subline Moments in Music History

There are great pieces of music, sure, but here we take a more voyeuristic attitude and reveal our ideas of sublime moments in music history, brief passages or perhaps even just a note in a context that give us a spine-tingling response.

François Couperin
Les Barricades Mystérieuse, from
Deuxième Livre de Pièces de Clavecin,
Sixième Ordre

Incredibly, the entire piece (about 2 minutes long) is itself a sublime moment. If we had a list of best compositions ever, this would be on it. Played entirely in the lower register of the harpsichord, it has a unique sonority, magnifying the extraordinary effect of the 4 voices which continuously overlap in non-stop suspensions, not to mention its rhythmic peculiarities. In rondo form, it is a perfectly balanced composition with not a single extraneous note. The printed score is amazing too: until I managed to play it for myself I couldn't believe that those printed notations could create the music I was hearing.

Benjamin Britten
Peter Grimes

Near the end of Act III, Grimes (about to kill himself) is being hounded by the villagers, now a mob enraged at him for no good reason but convinced he is a murderer. They mill about on stage in some musical chaos that gradually resolves itself into a fortissimo tutti with the crowd shouting "Peter Grimes!"–-"Peter Grimes!"-–"Grimes!"–-"Grimes!" The spaces of absolute silence that fell in between those shouts were bone chilling and blood curdling; I shiver just from the memory. There are no coughing or candy-wrapper disturbances from the audience during that moment.

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet #10 in E-flat, Op. 74, "The Harp",
coda to first movement.

The fun begins 42 bars from the end of the movement. In one of those great Beethoven moves, just when you thought the thing was over, the 1st violin suddenly starts a furious passage in 16th notes and the others echo the "harp" motif that gives the quartet its name, while the harmony suddenly shifts to distant quarters. As the harmony makes its tortuous, chromatic progress, the 1st violin shifts to an arpeggiated motif over the harp figure and the 2nd violin introduces hints of a melodic figure that appeared earlier in the movement but didn't contribute much then. Now, it's a poignant, yearning that finally leads the rest of the group into a brilliant E-flat Major, a victorious statement of the melodic fragment, and then a quick and satisfying end to the movement.

Antonín Dvorák
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in b,
third movement.

This entire concerto is one of the few that I think is brilliant music, beyond its interest as a concerto. The moment that always gives me the chill comes in the third (last) movement and, as seems to happen often, occurs somewhere in between things. The development of the gruff opening motif has finally given over to a bridge that will return to a treatment of a sort of vocalise that's been heard before; it's also a way to get the concerto from the b minor into a major key for the finale. As the modulation gets underway, the cello begins playing bird-like scales and trills, moving ever upward into the clouds that seem to be parting to greet it. The line hangs there, waiting for just the right moment, and then a solo violin appears from above with a pure rendition of the aria, around which the cello dances pirouettes as they float down together and the concerto moves to its finale.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations (Clavierübung IV: Aria mit verschiedenen Variationen), BWV988,
30th variation: quodlibet.

The Goldberg Variations are stupendous, but that's beside the point for the moment. The last variation is a quodlibet, a strange concept in which two popular songs of the day join the counterpoint for the finale. In the third bar from the end, all the variations, everything that's happened in the previous hour of music, seems to culminate in one brilliant, shining, suspended moment: a simple G-major triad in the right hand, in a weak rhythmic location no less. It's breathtaking.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra,
first movement.

In general, although I recognize his genius, I'm far from the biggest Mozart fan there is. However, there are moments that reach even me. In this double concerto, it happens in the simplest of ways during the opening, as the piece moves from the orchestra's exposition into the solo exposition of the themes. In a stroke of genius, Mozart has the two solo instruments anticipate (by about a bar) the repeat of the exposition by playing a single, long note in harmonic suspension that holds until the repeat is underway and the notes become just the beginning of the opening melodic statement.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto #6 in B-Flat, BWV 1051,
first movement.

It's another case where the entire movement is sublime. It's strings only in this case, and without the violins no less, so there's an immediate, rich sonority. The movement begins immediately, with dilly-dallying. It plunges right in with a perpetual-motion figure that doesn't stop until the end. To my ear, the entire movement is perfectly balanced, not a note extra. There are landmarks, nevertheless. For one, although it sounds like there is a melody that guides things, the score shows that the melody is really a fiction created by the brilliant counterpoint. I'm also enchanted by the way, after an excursion into the minor, Bach brings the whole piece back into major seemingly with a little flick of a minor to a major third; he's done that to me elsewhere, too (Pilate's Dream in the "St. John's Passion", for example--another sublime moment). Finally, just before the movement comes to its inevitable close, there's a delaying trip into the subdominant that creates a fascinating instability in the music that somehow doesn't destabilize it. Masterly.

Richard Wagner
Tristan und Isolde, closing scene.

Most of the second act is taken up with that lengthy, harmonicallyslippery love duet between the title characters, that builds, andbuilds, and builds, and ends with the most maddening musicalcoitus interruptus ever. You know there's going to beresolution (and release). Finally, Tristan is dead in the thirdact, so Isolde can get on with dying and be with him eternally(hey, it's opera). Anyway, the love-duet music returns andwe're in for another 15-minute chromatic roller-coaster ride. Itbuilds, and builds, and builds, and builds, and finally, when we know we're at the moment to resolve the chord, the orchestra takes a breath and Isolde sings alone the 'g' that mystically resolves the chord at last. A definite frisson there. With everything worked out at last, she expires in the next couple of bars and the orchestra mops up quickly. (It ends so quickly after the musical orgasm, you just know it was written by a guy.)