Jeff Buckley and Baroque Music

By Michael W. Harris

N.B. – This was written the Sunday after the election, after Leonard Cohen’s death, and after Saturday Night Live’s masterful blending of so much of the country’s reaction to both. It is going up a week later only due to my writing schedule.

It was just one of those weeks. When it seemed like the universe just knew what was going to happen and have a plan. Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen died in November 7th but it was not announced until the 10th. Regardless, it was a double whammy to many coming so close to the American presidential election, and indeed one of Cohen’s most famous songs, the wistful, gospel like “Hallelujah,” seemed to sum up so much of our somber reaction to the news that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.

So it was that Saturday Night Live opened their post-election episode with Kate McKinnon performing “Hallelujah” as Hillary Clinton, white pantsuit and all.

She delivered the perfect message to so many Americans. We can’t give up. There is still work to be done.

I too took to listening to “Hallelujah” myself after I heard of Cohen’s death, but all I have on my iPod is Jeff Buckley’s cover of it on his album Grace. And while much of that album sounds like Radiohead circa The Bends, both “Hallelujah” and “Lilac Wine” stand out as something quite different. And it was while listening to “Lilac Wine” that it hit me: baroque opera.

Earlier this year a friend pointed me to Buckley’s cover of “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. It is remarkable cover, even if the only recordings are of poor quality. It is tender, fragile, and beautiful. But the form of baroque recitative and aria found in “Dido’s Lament” is especially present in “Lilac Wine.” Just compare the two:

The formal similarity is striking. “Lilac Wine” opens with a recitative section, simple guitar strums with Buckley’s lyrics, before moving into the aria. And while “Lilac Wine” does not quite have the ground bass of “Dido’s Lament,” there is sort of one, though it is not all that indistinguishable from normal pop music progressions. “Lilac Wine” also has a nice, brief mid-song recurrences of the recitative section.

“Hallelujah,” however, does not have this same form. Rather, it comes from Buckley specific setting of the song as it compares to other covers. The arpeggiated bass line of “Hallelujah” reminds me of many of J.S. Bach’s preludes, especially ones like the C major prelude of the Well-Tempered Klavier or the first Cello Suite, especially in the way he creates melody out of simple arpeggios and accents. This is not present in Cohen’s original and only somewhat present in John Cale’s cover (the first cover). Buckley brings it out to a much greater degree.

Kate McKinnon performance seems to be referencing Cale’s version rather than Buckley in the SNL cold open. But regardless, it seems to have provided some people a moment of cathartic release. Something so many sorely needed.

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