The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Movie uses Bach to imitate Alzheimer’s

February 21, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

The other night I was watching the 2006 film “Away From Her.”

It’s a moving tale, based on the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by the Canadian master short story writer Alice Munro, of a wife and husband who must confront her progressing Alzheimer’s.

I had the seen the film before, when it first came out, but this time I had another one of those epiphanies, those moments when things make a new sense.

It’s not unlike the experiences I recently blogged about concerned Alfred Hitchcock’s “Nortorious” and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

Early in “Away From Her,” you hear the famous first Prelude in C major from J. S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book I. That’s the same great and gentle piece, so flowing and so melodically and harmonically rich, that was later used as settings of “Ave Maria” by Schubert and Gounod.

Here’s a link to a performance by Friedrich Gulda, who taught virtuoso Martha Argerich,  on YouTube of the piece:

It’s a famous piece, one of the most recognizable in all classical music..

First you hear it while the wife Fiona Anderson (played by Julie Christie) is in the house.,

Then she goes out alone, cross-country skiing.

And she gets lost and can’t find or remember her way home.

And you hear the same Bach theme — but this time with some kind of variation or descant playing as an overlay. So like Julie Christie’s character in the movie, you too are confronted with something that seems at once familiar and unfamiliar.

One can only imagine that confusion growing more and more intense.

It’s a great example of “mimesis,” of art imitating life.

If you get a chance, watch the film, and see what you think.

It is very well scripted, directed, acted and photographed.

And if you know more great uses of classical music in movies, please let me know.

The Ear wants to ear.

Posted in Classical music

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