Bach: Violin Sonata no. 1 - 1st movement
Leo Marillier (violin)
“This piece is somebody improvising, which is exactly what it now sounds like, right? So this is what I want to imagine. I want you to imagine you’re an Italian and you are out in the countryside and you’re going out on a journey.”
— Benjamin Zander
Ben Zander: Very beautiful. Amazing. You’re beautiful, really. Extraordinary. You’re an amazing artist. You remember what I said at the beginning. This is not a student. This is a fully-fledged artist with an identity, with a personality. This is ready for the world, what you’re giving as a violinist. Thank you so much. So it’s really thrilling to hear you. And this piece is so often misunderstood and you don’t misunderstand it, which is great because normally it’s played very, very slowly and with a kind of religiosity which is inappropriate and I find very great sympathy with your whole approach to it. It’s just a very, very beautiful thing. The main thing that you bring to it is a sense of movement and shaping, which is unusual and very, very beautiful and convincing. The only thing I found missing, if I may just suggest some things. In a situation like this, you’re not really talking about changing anything.
Ben Zander: This is a beautiful performance and if you decide to walk away and play it exactly the same way for the rest of your life, it’s fine. It’s beautiful. There’s nothing wrong here. But what I found as listener was that I got lost. I loved what you did, but I didn’t know where you were. And so I don’t know whether you felt lost, but I felt lost. And if I felt lost, I suspect they felt lost because though it was very beautiful, we didn’t know where we were going. All right. So, should we look a little bit at that whole issue and see where are we going.
Ben Zander: What’s happening at the beginning is that there’s a chord and then there’s another chord, and then there’s another chord, and then there’s that chord. So all it’s saying is, “I’m in G minor.” That’s all it is. So would you do that? And just play… and then… And then… with nothing else. Just those chords, would you do that?
Ben Zander: Yeah. You look very serious about it. Actually, it’s just G minor, you see? Composers do that. At the beginning of a piece, they say, “I’m in a certain key,” and they do it in various ways. You know Eroica symphony… “Hello, I’m in E flat. Now let’s get going.” It’s very common for composers to do that. So this is G minor. And then… And then…
Ben Zander: All right, so let’s try that. Just the chords. Good. And everybody can understand that, right? There are people here who… this is a musician. This is not a musician. This is a five-year-old. Everybody can understand that, right? So now, would you fill in between those chords? The little roulades that go… But don’t change that feeling heavy, and then light and then heavy and light.
Ben Zander: Great, beautiful. It’s very, very clear, right? We haven’t done anything yet, except say we’re in G minor. Now comes the next thing. G, G to F, E flat… The D, right? And then… Should we go as far as that? So let’s try from D. Right, good. Now we’re still in G minor. Nothing has changed. G… Now G… A change, right? Something striking. So… Sorry… D… Do that.
Ben Zander: Good. Now, this is dangerous because this chord is the dominant of this chord. And this chord is the dominant of our home key. So it looks dangerously as though we’re getting towards the dominant, but he doesn’t want to get there so soon. So he says… Oops. He goes off into a Neapolitan chord. That’s like saying, “Oh, I got there too early and I’m going to go off into the distance.” So… And then F, E…
Ben Zander: And that’s too soon to get to D minor so he goes on… He’s reached the dominant. That’s a real arrival point. So we try one more time from here. Just do the G minor. Can I suggest one little thing? This piece is written adagio, but it’s not adagio in eight, it’s an adagio at four, right?
Ben Zander: So if you think adagio means actually easy, it doesn’t mean reading slow, because if you’re driving in Italy and they want you to slow down, they say, “Adagio, adagio, right?” They don’t mean come to a standstill. They mean, just take it easy. So, if you think of this figure… One, two… Should we try from here? And… Still G minor, now…
Ben Zander: Yes, you got to the dominant and we have a sense of arrival. We’ve been on a journey from G minor, and then we go on this journey and we arrive at D and what I’d like you to imagine… Because what is this music? What does it look like? What kind of music is this?
Leo: It’s… in terms of emotion?
Ben Zander: Yeah. What kind of… Thank you. Look at this. What does this look like? What does that look like? Look here. What does that look like?
Audience member: Improvisation.
Ben Zander: Improvisation. It’s improvisation. It’s somebody improvising, which is exactly what it now sounds like, right? So this is what I want to imagine. I want you to imagine you’re an Italian and you are out in the countryside… And come here… And you’re going out on a journey. You start in G minor, and we can end in D over there, so we can start here.
Ben Zander: And maybe we could have a couple more people so that he can have people to talk to here. Great. More, more, more here. So we’re starting in G minor, right? You introduce G minor. Here we go. Yeah, but you’re going on a journey with these people. These are the people you’re telling. So G minor.
Ben Zander: It’s very interesting because you actually got your eyes closed, but it’s very hard to talk to people when you’ve got an eye… And it’s possible. Blind people talk to people, but if you have eyes, I would recommend… It’s easier if you follow the journey with them. G minor. Now we start the journey…
Ben Zander: We got that. Bravo, you see and look at his face. He said, “Oh, wow. He got to me. He got the domino.” Great, that’s fantastic. So the interesting thing is that the whole group felt that experience of going G minor, and then going on this journey and arriving… He may not know that it’s dominant. He may not say, “Oh, we arrived in D.” He doesn’t care about that. He knows that he’s gone on a journey and that he’s got to get back, right? So let’s find out how we get back. Okay.
Ben Zander: Back to the study here. So we got to D. Now he… So basically that’s the same as we had at the beginning, except it starts on the dominant. So try that… Now that chord. That’s the difference because all of this is G minor… And we think you were going… Like we did at the beginning, but at that point (singing)… Wow. Now, where are we going? All right. So we make that the difference. So we try from the D again.
Ben Zander: Oh. That’s beautiful. You play that so beautifully and I’m reminded by those Bach Cantatas. (Singing). So typical in the Cantatas and that sighing… Weeping… I thought that was great how you did that chord. That makes everybody’s eyes go up. Do it one more time and make everybody in the place when you get to that chord say, “Oh, wow. Where are we going now?” Okay. One more time from the D.
Ben Zander: Good. Bravo, Bravo. You’re amazing. You’re just amazing. Leo. Beautiful. What he’s doing here is improvising. He doesn’t know where to go. And now… How would it be if we were here? And then let’s try this one. No, that won’t work. So how about this one? No, this one… This one… And finally, he decides on the destination. I would suggest a kind of restlessness in this, that he doesn’t really know where to go. Go from here…
Ben Zander: Now try something else. Now surprise yourself and go on. And finally reached another destination. Subdominant C minor, right? So, that’s what’s happening. Isn’t that beautiful? That’s going a journey from the D arrival on this journey, and he finally arrives in C minor.
Ben Zander: Now something very interesting happens because he plays this… It looks as though it’s going to be the same as the opening and it is actually, but it’s in the wrong key. It’s in the subdominant. It’s in C minor. So play that as much like the beginning as possible to suggest that you think you’ve gone back to the beginning.
Ben Zander: Now that’s the difference. That chord is the difference. That doesn’t belong in C minor, right? So that’s the surprise. Like this chord was a surprise, do you remember that one? This is a big surprise because up till then, it looks the same as before. That is the dominant of our home key, right? Isn’t that great? So that’s a great moment. Do from here…
Can you remember that… Listen one (singing). Beautiful. Now… Again, he got to G minor too soon so off he goes to the Neapolitan. So you can be a little playful with it. Say, “Oh lordy, I got there too soon. I better go off.” You’re great. You’re just great. I mean you’re unique. You play this music like nobody else, which is fantastic and you’re getting such sense into it.
Ben Zander: So would you do from here… And when you get to the Neapolitan, surprise yourself… And then… Oops, excuse me, I got there too soon. So should we try that? Good. Finally, we reached G minor. Finally, we get there. That’s the end. We could end there except there’s one thing missing, which is in the very beginning of the piece. There’s one note that isn’t explained. You have a G minor.
Ben Zander: Where does that B flat come from? Out of nowhere, suddenly that high B flat comes, so he has some unfinished business, and here he comes. The unfinished business… There it is. That B flat. And that gives you the intensity, which takes you to the end. So, should we try once more how about this?
Ben Zander: Finish. There it is. That’s the journey. Bravo. Beautiful. Now. Fantastic. Fantastic. Isn’t that amazing? So this is what I’d like you to do; I’d like you to do the journey again from the beginning. Start here, establish G minor and then start out on the journey. If you like, when you get to the Neapolitan chord, you can go down that path here if you want. Get to the D, which is the dominant, and then go on the journey and come back again and end here. Should we do that from the beginning? Here. And can I recommend that you have fun doing it because you’re improvising? You’re wandering around.
Ben Zander: Most people think of this music as terribly serious to be played in a church. Sometimes people spend more time waiting to play this piece than… They sit there for a long time to get into the mood of seriousness and devotion and reverence to play this piece. Actually, it’s a piece of improvisation. So imagine you wander in. Wander in. Just for fun. Just to do it. Wander in and then just play. Yeah. Come from here. You’re going. You’re just saying hello. So, “Hello.” G minor. G minor. Now journey…
Ben Zander: Bravo. Beautiful. Is that amazing? Is that amazing? Is that beautiful? Is that beautiful? You’re such a great artist and such an amazing musician and a composer and great violinist. The one thing missing in you is your desire to communicate what’s happening in the music with an audience. This is the journey of the piece. And this time, you gave it away to them with such clarity and such generosity, because they all felt connected to you. And that’s what Bach’s trying to do.
Ben Zander: You know Bach had 20 children. This was not somebody who was sitting up in a loft. You know what it takes to have 20 children. You have to actually be active, right? You understand. So we forget about Bach… That he’s a very gutsy, communicative person. And that’s what came over today. And so our job as performers is to find out what the journey of the piece is.
Ben Zander: What’s happening with the note? What’s happening with the harmonies? What’s happening in the journey from G all the way to D and then back again? I wish I’d had you go down the aisle here for that middle section, for the subdominant. It would’ve been great if you… I forgot. So you got there too soon. You had that feeling, “I’m home too soon. I should be somewhere else.”
Ben Zander: That’s the way to think of music. Music is a journey through harmony, and it’s always a journey from the tonic, from the home key, away to the dominant and back to the tonic. That’s the form of classical music that… And then later on, people took that and changed it and then went to a different key. And so on, but in this music, it’s about tonic going to the dominant and dominant going down.
Ben Zander: And it’s a journey. It’s a journey in space, but it’s oral space. And when you get it… I don’t know how many of you followed that, but I suspect this lady, did you find it? You followed it. See, isn’t it great? It’s great. So that’s our job and what it’ll do for you, Leo… Fantastic as you are, I mean, to achieve what you’ve achieved… And many people give me recordings. They hand me recordings all the time and I listen for a few minutes. That’s all I have time for.
Ben Zander: You gave me a recording and I listened to it from beginning to end. It tells you who you are, right? You’re very special and what’s missing as yet is that desire to give it away, to communicate, to make sure… You mentioned your audience is like a cow and then with a ring in its nose and you’re taking them like this and you’re saying, “Come with me. Come with me. Come with me. Come with me. Here we are. This is the dominant. Now we’re getting to the subdominant. Okay, you come,” That’s the way to treat an audience. Can you see that?
Leo: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ben Zander: And what I think he brings is an amazing freedom and imagination to your playing. I mean, this is rare, what you do. It’s that improvisatory thing. And when you look at it… Isn’t that amazing? When you look at this… This is the music, what it looks like. That is like, isn’t that amazing? It’s just wooo… It’s just fantasy, freedom.
Ben Zander: So beautiful. I admire you very much. I think it’s great. Now, we don’t know what Leo’s going to do with this. He might say, “Well, that was fun or interesting or irritating,” or whatever he might say. He might go off and do something quite different, which is fine, except that we’ve had this conversation. And you’ve seen this improvisatory quality. And I think when you play it again, you’ll include the audience in a new way. Is that right? Great. Well done. Beautiful. Bravo. Bravo.
Ben Zander: Now, Leo. Just imagine this is Zena. She’s five. She’s been to all our classes, right? Missed one. I remember I almost canceled the class when you didn’t come. And Zena sits here for two hours and listens to the journey of classical music and finds it fascinating. If you could play… You don’t have any five year old children yourself? No. Right.
Ben Zander: Do you know any five-year-old children? No.
Leo: A few.
A few. But if you would practice playing for five-year-olds, it would be very useful for you because it would take you out of your head into the life of what it must be like to be a child listening to music. Would you do that? Find a few five-year-olds, and if you can’t find them, just pay them. They’ll come. Great. Well done.