Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Inevitability of Leonard Cohen

As a long-time Montrealer myself--11 years total--I've always felt a connection to Leonard Cohen. I've known his music since I was a teenager. In first year university our English professor, probably in an attempt to seem 'relevant', included the lyrics to "Suzanne" in our poetry segment. I think I even used to sing and play that one in my 'folk-singer' phase, along with Bob Dylan, but I can barely remember. He is also the source of one of my favorite quotes. On a Canadian television show, when the interviewer said that Cohen had a reputation for being a pessimist, he replied, "a pessimist is someone who thinks it is going to rain; I'm soaked to the skin." I sometimes say that all the really interesting Canadians come from Montreal: Cohen, Oscar Peterson and William Shatner.

Somehow, in this post, I got talking about Cohen and someone commented:
What makes his Hallelujah so great? (It is great.) I don't consider the original lyrics a big deal - though they rank among his more aenigmatic poems. Is it the melody? Some other musical characteristic that I don't know how to hear? Really. Asking. 
 Here is "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen:

And here is the Wikipedia article. A great many artists, including Bob Dylan, have performed the song. In the classical world it is perfectly normal for performers to play music by anyone they like because the functions of composer/performer have been largely separated in the last couple of centuries. In the pop world, prior to the Beatles, this was also the case. But since then, popular musicians have tended to write all their own material. The two exceptions are 'covers' of songs for commercial reasons, i.e. sales--"Yesterday" by Paul McCartney is probably the outstanding example with over 2500 cover versions--or simply out of admiration for the song. I think that most of the covers of "Hallelujah" are for the latter reason. So, as my interlocutor asks, what is so great about "Hallelujah"?

I think it is the feeling of inevitability that the song projects. I was arguing about Bach and Beethoven with a violinist a while back and he said that he preferred Bach because of the feeling of inevitability that his music has. Everything happens just as it should. My friend had played the violin for 90 years, so I suspect there is something to that. But there is inevitability and predictability and they seem almost the same. Take this, for example:

That does have the feeling of inevitability about it, but for most musicians it is just a tad too inevitable, i.e. predictable. Same goes for a lot of Vivaldi. But Bach, on the other hand:

Ah, there's that inevitability. But at the same time, we are never quite sure where he is going next, we just know it is going to be the right place.

I'm afraid that I can't answer the question of my commentor. As Cohen himself said, "if I knew where the good songs came from I would go there more often." It has to do with the perfect co-ordination of melody, harmony and rhythm so that they form a whole that is both inevitable and fresh. You can play a piece by Bach a hundred times and it will still seem fresh. This song probably cannot survive that much exposure, but yes, it is a good song. Leonard Cohen has written a lot of good songs.


Anonymous said...

Oh well. Decent try. Something to do with cohe[sio]n, then.

BTW, "they" list 324 covers of his Hallelujah (including translations and Shrek).

Bryan Townsend said...

I know I can do more with this, but I was a bit pressed for time. Also, I would like to have either a proper chart for the song, words and enigmatic chord symbols not quite enough, or the time to do my own transcription. But I think the notion of what one could possibly mean by "inevitability" versus boring predictability, is fruitful, so I should do another post on it.

Anonymous said...

I like that song, but it's far from my favorite Cohen song -- and I am a huge Cohen fan. Hallelujah rises very well (a bit like Mozart's Lacrimosa) but the descent and turnaround are all a bit awkward. Mozart would have done much better. But I think Cohen is the greatest lyricist in pop music: the perfectionist Dylan never bothered to become.

I am not the only Anonymous here but I might be the only unconditional worshipper at Bach's altar, and so I have to comment on the Bach vs Beethoven comment. Bach's music is so human (more so than Beethoven in my opinion) and yet while it's plausible to imagine what mood Beethoven was in when he composed this or that piece, I find it impossible to venture such a guess about Bach. Bach's music is entirely moodless and purposeful.

Bryan Townsend said...

Leonard Cohen is probably the only songwriter in popular music who was an established poet a decade before he released an album of songs. So no wonder his lyrics are fine. Upon further thought about "Hallelujah" I think it is a bit messy--it lacks the clarity that it should have both melodically and harmonically.

I'm a bit confused about your comments on Bach and Beethoven, though. Bach's music is very human, but entirely moodless and purposeful? What means this?

Anonymous said...

>> What means this?

Oh no, I thought I could get away with writing utter nonsense...

OK, maybe what I wrote is borderline nonsensical but not entirely. Bach is purposeful because his music was written for a purpose -- either for teaching or for entertaining royalty or, most important for him, for providing musical support for liturgy. Bach never wrote art for art's sake. He wrote music like people bake bread for the day: to feed and move on. Bach had no desire to keep his own music, for posterity except for the SMP (his favorite work) and his textbooks (Art of Fugue, Well-tempered clavier, etc).

Now mood is a complex notion but I associate it here with temporary sentiments or urges: being angry or hungry, being jealous or envious, being spiteful or resentful, feeling vindictive or superior, feeling lustful or energetic or tired. The problem with mood-filled music is that it requires a match between the music and the mood of the listener. Can anyone who feels down and out or plain exhausted listen to the opening of Beethoven's 5th and not want to turn it off? Can anyone who's lost a loved one listen to Papageno's aria and not want to turn it off? But with rare exceptions Bach's music transcends this notion of mood. It's more like watching a beautiful sunset. A sunset is gorgeous regardless of your mood -- whether angry or sad or joyful: its beauty is, in some sense, immanent. That to me is what makes Bach a composer like no one else.

My point about his "humaneness" refers to the fact that most of his music is children's music (something entirely intentional on his part). That's partly why he wouldn't write opera (although contrary to popular belief he actually loved the opera!) But opera is about adults' passions, and he had no interest in capturing that in his music. Children know nothing about lust, and, therefore, neither does Bach's music.

Bryan Townsend said...

OK, yes, now I see what you mean. No, art for art's sake was many decades in the future in Bach's time. Most of his music was written for specific, immediate utilitarian purposes: for the church and for the nobility. And I also see what you mean by mood: Bach's music does seem to transcend those fleeting things and float on a higher level.

Mind you, I have often turned to Beethoven when feeling down and it can give you renewed energy and uplift.

There are those who think that Bach could have written excellent opera; those who cite the examples of the great passions and cantatas that have their own kind of drama. But he was never employed anywhere that had a resident opera company, so...

Bach wrote a great deal of music for his own children, mostly instructional music like the two and three part inventions, but I can't quite see saying that most of his music is children's music. Probably the largest body of work is the cantatas which don't seem to me children's music per se.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This (the child mentality of Bach's music [deliberately vague phrase and cf. the Christian sensibility of Matt 18:2-4) is one of the most arresting discussions of Bach I have ever heard/read. What a shame that it is buried here in notes to notes on Cohen. The accumulating richness of content in The Music Salon begins to cry out for some sort of index/Search. RG

Bryan Townsend said...

If you look on the right hand side of the blog, below Popular Posts, you will see a search gadget. I have also added a "Bach" tag to this post so if you search for Bach, it will come up.

I take your point about Matthew 18:2-4 (after I looked it up!). Yes, I think it is safe to say in agreement with the previous poster, that there is no lust in Bach. But there is most certainly sensuous beauty...