It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and I’m lying on our living room floor as our youngest practices piano – Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor. It’s nearing the end of the piano lesson year, so Esther knows and plays the piece well at this point. It is an astonishingly and achingly beautiful piece of music. The main theme, repeated in A minor and then again in D minor, feels like a wave of sadness and tender conversation washing over me. I don’t have the musical language or understanding to know how Mozart achieves it, but I experience the music both as mournful and an invitation to hope. It introduces grief into the room while reaching beyond it.
Moods of a Fantasia
The Fantasia is more than its pensive and pained main theme. By definition, a Fantasia brings together a variety of tunes and moods. There is also the bright second half of the piece, where Mozart shifts into D major: a light and joyful conversation. Nevertheless, the melancholic main theme remains at the heart of the piece, so much so that Mitsuko Uchida, a pianist and renowned interpreter of Mozart, concludes the piece with it whenever she performs. (The Fantasia in D minor was left unfinished by Mozart, which gives license to interpreters to end with something other than spritely happiness.) One of the striking features of the piece is the musical gaps that Mozart opens up between sections and themes, or between phrases. These are the rests, pauses, or just-noticeable silences that create mournful tension and anticipation, particularly in the main theme. They are moments when there is, momentarily, no sound… only a silent opening and expectation as to where the listener will be taken.
A small white canvas
As I lie on the living room floor experiencing the music – particularly those conspicuous silences – I’m reminded of a painting I saw recently at the Musée des beaux-arts in Montréal, by the Quebec artist Paul-Émile Borduas. It’s simply titled ‘Composition 59’ and is a small canvas painted in white with a palette knife. It’s the kind of painting that invariably elicits the response: “Any elementary school kid could have painted that!”
But the painting is a complex attempt to say something about human life. It points to the fact that our lives do not consist only in experiences and objects and relationships that can be named and painted and identified. Our lives consist also in gaps when meaning can only be anticipated; when we must wait for peace and confidence. The perceived emptiness of the canvas (it is decidedly not empty) represents the space and time that constitutes the backdrop of our lives – a backdrop we cannot resolve into meaning and against which we only wait. To stand looking at ‘Composition 59’ in a silent gallery can elicit almost the same heartache as lying on a carpet while the sound board resonates and suddenly falls silent with Mozart’s music. There is a temptation to fill those gaps by rushing to the next note or chord; to insist on some splash of colour on that white canvas. It can be decidedly difficult (often painfully so) to live with what we experience as empty. Empty, however, is the wrong word – the spaces and gaps in human life are textured with the promises and presence of God. It is not threatening nothingness that serves as the backdrop of our lives, but anticipation, abundance and love that we may learn to trust.