Beginnings and endings

A New Year’s essay on music and chess

Many years ago, when I was studying for my PhD, my supervisor, the music analyst Derrick Puffett, remarked to me that it was odd that music scholars tend to spend much more time analysing how a piece begins, rather than how it ends. I think that this was a slightly barbed comment, given that I had just presented him with several pages of text and a complex graph analysing how the whole of Der Abschied, from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, grows out of the single stroke on the tam-tam that begins it. Der Abschied is the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde, and its title means ‘The Farewell’, so I was at least writing about a sense of ending as well as concentrating on a beginning.

This post is appearing on 6 January, traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. It is the end of Christmas, and the beginning of the new year. Entirely suitable for some reflections on beginnings and endings, then.  T. S. Eliot also noted the relevance of beginnings that seem like endings in his poem on the Epiphany story:

[…] I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

(T. S. Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, 1927)

A sculpture of the Epiphany in Notre Dame cathedral, Paris. Two of the Magi appear to have brought chess-themed gifts. (Image: Bridgeman Education)

I have often thought about Derrick’s remark concerning beginnings and endings. It is quite true that analyses of musical works do often spend a lot of time on the opening of a work.  For more than two decades I taught music analysis to undergraduates studying at the University of Oxford here in the UK, and every year I tried to dissuade them from beginning their essays with the phrase, ‘In bar one…’.

The Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings runs to five thick volumes.

It is  also, of course, usual to write about the ‘opening’ of a game of chess. Indeed, the tendency to concentrate on openings is even more pronounced in writing about chess than in writing about music: hundreds and hundreds of volumes have been written about openings; they are often the largest section in a chess bookshop or a keen player’s library. At the beginning of the game, the first player has a choice of twenty possible legal moves. While some are much more popular than others, every single one of the twenty has been tried in master-level play at some point. Even apparently weird choices such as 1.Na3 (the ‘Sodium Opening’) have some theory attached to them.

Chess endings also have a five-volume encyclopaedia.

Endings, of course, are similarly fascinating to chess players, and endlessly discussed and analysed.  As the number of pieces left on the board diminishes, the paradoxical truth is that the need for precision and calculation actually increases. In the opening, almost all of the 400 different positions that can result from each player making a move can be viably played by either side; in an ending, there are often a similar number of possible legal moves as in the opening, but there may be whole sequences of play where only one of the moves available to either player can avoid defeat or secure victory.

A musical opening, and its ending

I now want to explore this inter-relationship of beginnings and endings in both music and in chess. My aim is to show once more how closely related these two ‘arts of playing’ can seem as technical, creative activities. To begin with, here is a remarkable opening to a piece of music. Indeed, one of my favourite pieces of music, both to listen to and to use in teaching. It is Mozart’s String Quintet in C, K515, composed in the Spring of 1787.

Mozart’s String Quintet in C, K515, bars 1-5

Here is a performance of this wonderful work. For the moment, you only need to listen to the first nine seconds; I urge you to come back and listen to the whole thing after you finish reading this post.

So, why did I describe this opening as remarkable? Well, as I used to point out to my student analysts, you can tell just from these first bars that the movement they introduce is going to be exceptionally long. In fact, I believe that the first movement of this quintet is the longest movement in ‘sonata form’ that Mozart ever wrote, at 368 bars. For comparison, the first movement of Mozart’s longest symphony, No. 41 ‘Jupiter’, K551, written the following year, is 313 bars long. I wrote a post early in the history of this blog entitled Is writing in sonata form like playing chess?, and it is not surprising that this form gives such a good example of how an ending is implied in a beginning.

The point is that Mozart’s opening bars announce themselves to be written in what is usually called the ‘Classical Style’, which relies on balance and symmetry of design; but at the same time they deliberately disrupt this balance. Mozart’s tune is very simple: just an arpeggio outlining a C major chord, played by the cello, and finished off (with a little twiddle) by the first violin. Not unlike another deceptively simple tune written by Mozart in the Summer of the same year (1787), featuring two arpeggios, and very well known:

Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik in G, K525, bars 1-4

Returning to the tune that opens the quintet: it is apparently very straightforward, but there is one unusual thing about it. The tune is five bars long, when in the classical style, you would expect it to be four bars long, like the tune that opens Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Instead of a two-bar phrase answered by another two-bar phrase, the quintet opens with a three-bar phrase answered by a two-bar phrase.

So what is the effect of this lop-sided phrasing? In order to achieve the balance that the style in which he is writing requires – in order to obey the rules by which his music communicates – Mozart answers his five-bar phrase with another one. This creates a balanced, but still rather oddly-shaped, ten-bar period overall. Mozart then ‘balances’ these ten bars with another ten-bar period leading to a cadence. But by the end of bar nineteen, this curious competition between balance and lop-sidedness requires an entire bar of silence in bar twenty to ‘make up’ the proportions of the whole. And then, to use a chess term, Mozart plays an ‘opening surprise’:

Mozart String Quintet in C, K515, bars 17-25 (c. 0:25-0:35 in the video above)

The surprise is that in bar 21, Mozart reprises the opening of the work, with two differences: firstly, the violin begins the tune and the cello answers, instead of the other way around; secondly, and much more strikingly, the repeat is in the minor key, C minor instead of C major.

I hope that this has managed to explain why I said that the opening five bars could not belong to anything other than a long work in sonata form. Five bars are balanced by five bars. These ten bars are balanced by a further ten (the proportions only completed by a gap), and these twenty bars, which get no further in terms of form than most pieces of this sort do in eight bars, are then ‘balanced’ by a completely surprising reprise. Given that the form still requires a contrasting ‘second subject’ to be set against this first tune, you can see that Mozart is settling in for a lengthy operation: what turns out, in fact, to be a brilliant display of his total command of musical style and form. In fact, this fits in with what we know of Mozart’s reasons for writing this quintet. In 1787, he took out an advert in a Viennese newspaper, offering three string quintets for sale, in manuscript, copied under his personal direction and available from his publisher. In other words, he was at a point in his career where he wanted to make money from selling works directly to performers, rather than relying on a wealthy aristocratic patron (although he spent plenty of time cultivating the latter when he could). In contrast to Haydn, who remained a court servant more or less throughout his career, and anticipating Beethoven, who was to arrive in Vienna just a few years later, Mozart was behaving as an entrepreneur, a fully independent professional composer. All of which is a rather long way of saying that this quintet (and its companion, K516 in G minor – Mozart never got round to writing the third promised quintet, and had to arrange an earlier work instead) was written as a display piece, to show just how brilliant Mozart’s technique could be.

Having dealt with this work’s opening, what about its ending? I could of course write at great length about the way this movement finishes, but what I want to do is to point out how its conclusion, like its great length, is made necessary by the way that it opens. Its ending grows out of and finally resolves the imbalances of an overall well-proportioned design. In doing so, the ending carries within itself the legacy of the opening.

Here is the moment that heralds the very last phase of the movement. These are the bars that lead up to what a music analyst like me would probably call the ‘structural close’, the point after which the tonic chord is prolonged to the end – to borrow a phrase beloved of chess commentators, after this point it is ‘just a matter of technique’.

Mozart, String Quintet in C, K515, bars 256-272

Here, Mozart overlaps versions of the two-bar phrase with which the first violin originally answered the cello, in five-part canon. There are entries of the phrase on every instrument in turn, each coming one bar after the previous one, as I have annotated in the red boxes. As the first violin then leads the movement into the coda, the interruption to the opening at bar 21 still survives, with a hint of the minor key in the second viola and cello (the blue box). If you want to listen to this bit, it can be found at about 10′ 10″ to about 10′ 50″ in the video above.

A chess endgame, and its beginning

Mozart displays his brilliance of technique in  handling imbalances to achieve unsurpassable mastery of the situations he creates. That sentence could equally be written of the current World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen. Which goes a long way towards explaining the origin of the epithet I did not invent, but used in a previous post, Magnus Carlsen: the Mozart of the chess board.

There is for this post, on this date, only one game which is ideally suited to be placed beside Mozart’s wonderful display of how openings and endings reflect each other: the sixth game of the recently-concluded World Chess Championship, in which Carlsen defeated his latest challenger, the Russian Grandmaster Ian Nepomniatchi. This game was the first decisive one of the match, by far the most interesting, and indeed the turning point: after this game, ‘Nepo’ collapsed and Carlsen won easily, with a score of 7.5 / 3.5 after just eleven of the scheduled fourteen games.

This game was the longest in the match, and indeed the longest game in the history of chess World Championships. Even more reason to place it alongside Mozart’s longest sonata form movement. Like the quintet, the game began conventionally enough, Carlsen playing 1.d4 (P-Q4) and Nepo answering 1…d5 (…P-Q4).  A completely ordinary beginning, just as an arpeggio is the most ordinary of tunes with which to begin a piece of music. But on move six, Carlsen introduced the first hint of imbalance with a rarely-played move, not unlike Mozart’s decision to create a five-bar phrase out of his opening material:

Carlsen vs Nepo, Game 6, White’s 6th move

And two moves later, Carlsen brought about a position never seen before in any recorded chess game:

Carlsen vs Nepo, Game 6, White’s 8th move

The imbalance in the position, which in general terms remains very even, already indicates that Carlsen is anticipating a long game, in which he will attempt to demonstrate his superiority in understanding the potential of the imbalance he has created. And this he does: I am not going to comment on the ‘middlegame’ of this tremendous contest any more than on the middle part of Mozart’s quintet, except to show the moment at which Carlsen chose to make the imbalance a structural feature of the game, so to speak, when he exchanged his queen for Nepo’s two rooks on the twenty-sixth move:

The equivalent to Mozart’s technically accomplished five-part canon is the moment at which Carlsen decided to sacrifice a rook and reduce the struggle to an unbalanced collection of just a few pieces on each side, on the eightieth move of the game:

Carlsen vs Nepo, Game 6, White’s 80th move (Carlsen has taken a pawn and delivered check)

Thirty-five moves later, Carlsen steered the endgame to a total of just seven pieces:

Here begins the equivalent of the musical coda: an exercise in pure technique, as Carlsen, keeping all his pieces close together, gradually pushed his two pawns up the board towards the ‘final cadence’ of queening one of them. Here, he was following a mixture of calculation and creative instinct truly the equal of Mozart’s, since the ‘correct’ moves at each turn can only be calculated by powerful computers. The actual moment at which Nepo (a phenomonally strong player) eventually went astray was on his one-hundred-and-thirtieth move:

Carlsen vs Nepo, Game 6, position after White’s 130th move

Here, Black has twenty-six legal moves; more than the twenty available on the first move of the game. Of these twenty-six, only two avoid defeat. Nepo chose one of the other twenty-four moves, the entirely reasonable-looking Qe6 (…Q-K3), pinning the white rook:

Carlsen vs Nepo, Game 6, Black’s 130th move

For the curious, the two moves that preserved the draw were …Qb1 or …Qc2 (…Q-QN8 or …Q-QB7). As one Grandmaster commenting on the game put it, ‘Who knows why?’.

From here, though, with the certainty of a ‘strong perfect cadence’ in the Classical Style, Magnus Carlsen brought about his challenger’s resignation in another seven moves:

Carlsen vs Nepo, Game 6, position after White’s 137th move (the end of the game)

The final position of the game still reflects the opening: the choice of queen’s pawn rather than king’s pawn on the first move of the game leads directly to the king’s pawn and king’s bishop’s pawn being the two that eventually survive to reach Black’s end of the board; the imbalance introduced on moves six and eight leads directly to the unbalanced forces on the white and black sides with which the game ends. Just as Mozart’s final section perfectly reflects the opening of the quintet, Carlsen’s brilliant endgame grows perfectly out of the apparently quiet opening of the game. This is indeed a display by a true World Champion.

In my beginning is my end

The subtitle of this concluding section is taken from T. S. Eliot, whose reflection on the Epiphany I quoted earlier. ‘In my beginning is my end’ is the opening line of ‘East Coker’, the second of his Four Quartets. The poem is a meditation on time, and its final words are ‘In my end is my beginning’, reversing the formulation with which it starts. It is a powerful notion, that as a process unfolds in time, each phase it passes through is both determined by what came before (in my beginning is my end), and yet a transformation of it (in my end is my beginning). It might describe a meaningful human life; it might also describe a meaningful piece of music (the collection is called Four Quartets in allusion to Beethoven’s last string quartets, whose effect Eliot was trying to reproduce in poetry); or it might also describe a satisfying game of chess. Beginnings and endings demarcate and define a span of time, and the way something begins can determine how it is likely to end.

In placing a masterpiece by Mozart alongside a masterpiece by Carlsen, I have intended to show how the combination of rule-respecting technique, precise calculation, and creative flair are united in the minds of both the composer and the grandmaster. Beyond that, I have wanted to unpick a little more the reasons why music and chess can both provide metaphors that illuminate aspects of lived human experience. Both music and chess can illustrate our instinct as creative human beings to make sense of the world around us and our path through it. Framing my attempts to analyse great music and a recent great chess game with quotations from T. S. Eliot may seem pretentious; but I believe that the correspondences I have tried to describe here account for a large portion of the enduring fascination both of music that appeals to the intellect, and of the Royal Game.

After a long pause in my contributions to the blog, as the whole world has paused in the midst of a global health crisis, I offer these observations to my readers with very best wishes for the coming year of 2022.

Baugin’s story about chess and music

Narrative in a seventeenth-century still life

The image at the head of this post is a beautiful “still life” of 1630 by the French painter Lubin Baugin (1612–63), now in the Louvre (image: Wikimedia Commons). In this painting, a closed chessboard lies on one side of a table, and a lute on the other. So chess and music frame the composition. But this painting is more than a depiction of everyday objects; it tells a story. This post aims to unpick the narrative in this particular painting, and place it in a larger context.

The narrative arises from all the other elements in the painting: the lute lies on some written music, one corner folded up to aid page-turning; next to it lies a green velvet purse and a pack of cards; on the chessboard stands a vase holding three carnations, one pink, one red, and one variegated; a glass of red wine and a loaf of bread complete the scene. The narrative told by all these elements is clear: it is one of the intimacy of lovers at play. This may seem surprising to readers unfamiliar with seventeenth-century symbolic imagery, but this interpretation is consistent across all the objects. Pink or red carnations symbolise love, and the fact that the three blooms are of progressively deeper shades (and one is of two mingled shades) perhaps suggests that love between a couple has deepened through the other activities represented in the scene.  The purse perhaps holds money won or staked in the game of cards implied by the pack lying next to it; the topmost card of the deck is the knave of clubs, and the card below is a heart, so perhaps the young man – “le valet” in a French pack of cards – has taken the heart in a trick.  The chess board belongs to a game for two players, where one tries to catch or “mate” the other. The lute is an instrument with which a lover might traditionally woo the beloved. The bread and wine suggest a shared meal, and also perhaps the Eucharist – it is worth remembering that holy communion would usually have been celebrated at a wedding.

The association of chess and music with lovers’ pursuits is a theme found often in late medieval and Renaissance imagery, and it may well be the subject of a future post in this blog. For now, it is enough to register the way that Baugin’s skilfully arranged painting tells a story through its selection and arrangements of objects. Its meaning is not just pictorial, but narrative.

Narrative and visual art

It may seem slightly strange to claim that a painting represents a story. Narratives, by their nature, unfold in time, and a painting is probably the most static kind of artwork imaginable. Unless it consists of several scenes to be “read” in sequence, like a comic strip or a medieval saint’s life, the canvas remains fixed in one place. It invites contemplation of a single moment in time. You cannot even view it from different angles like a sculpture or a piece of architecture. Moreover, a “still life”, as its name suggests, is the most static and apparently non-narrative genre of visual art. However, in my opinion Baugin in this painting is playing with exactly these apparent contradictions between the flow of time that produces narrative and the frozen moment that defines a still life image. And by the end of this post, I hope to demonstrate that his choice of chess and music as the activities to depict in this still life are far from incidental.

Narrative in another French still life

I am not an art historian, but I do know that still life paintings became enormously popular in seventeenth-century art, especially in the Netherlands during the “Dutch Golden Age“. Many still life paintings play with the contrast between our own lives, which are constantly in flux, and the unchanging moment frozen on the canvas. Here for example is another French still life now in the Louvre. In this case the artist is unknown, but the similarity to Lubin Baugin’s picture is striking:

French C17 vanitas with chess (Louvre)
Still life (Vanité), unknown French artist, 17th century (Louvre; image: Wikimedia commons)

A remarkable number of elements in this painting are almost identical with the Baugin: a closed chess board and a musical instrument (a baroque guitar this time) frame the composition; there is another pack of cards and green velvet purse; there are flowers in a vase (tulips this time).

And yet the symbolism of this anonymous still life is entirely the opposite of that in the first painting. The guitar has no strings (there are no pegs in its pegboard), and rather than lying on music it has clearly just been playing, it is perched awkwardly on top of a mirror and a sword. The velvet purse is empty, its contents spilled next to it. The cards are disordered, rather than neatly piled ready for a new game.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder Still Life 1614 (Wikimedia commons)
Still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 1614 (Getty Centre; image: Wikimedia commons). An image featuring both carnations and tulips, as well as other flowers, and many insects.

I will not pretend to be able fully to decode the symbolism of the tulips, which at this date (the height of tulip mania) were some of the most expensive consumer goods in Europe; but in Western art of this period, they were usually taken as symbolic of the brevity of life and beauty.

The repeated symbolism of decay, abandonment and interruption is continued through the other elements of the painting. In addition to the chessboard and pack of cards, a cup with dice rolled out of it reinforces the message that gaming has finished. And most prominently, a skull looks at itself in a mirror.

The elements in this picture, compared with Baugin’s, may be similar; but the narrative is opposite. In fact, the implied narrative of this second picture is also much more conventional. It is given the French title Vanité, which is a generic title for still life paintings which suggest a meditation on the brevity of life and the deception of worldly pleasures. This conventional narrative of course exploits the inherent contrast I noted earlier between the unchanging moment immortalised on the static canvas and the “changes and chances” of the world which it depicts.

Narrative in a Dutch still life

This genre of painting, as I said, is associated most with Dutch artists of this period, whose version of the generic title was Vanitas. Here is an example by a well-known exponent, Pieter Claesz. It is a Vanitas still life of 1628, once again almost exactly contemporary with Baugin’s picture:

Pieter Claesz Vanitas with Violin 1628 (Wikimedia WGA04974)
Still life with self portrait (Vanitas), Pieter Claesz, 1628 (German National Museum, Nuremberg; image: Wikimedia Commons).

Here the narrative is even clearer: the violin is broken, the glass overturned, the quill discarded by the empty inkstand, the candle in the lamp has burned out; one hardly needs the skull under the violin’s neck. We are forced to contemplate a world in which nothing can have enduring value, because nothing can endure. The tiny self-portrait reflected in the crystal ball invites us to place ourselves in the picture, observing with the artist the inevitable decay and wearing out of everything that surrounds us in daily life. The story that the picture tells is that this is our destiny. Significantly, music is included as one of the pleasures of life that is revealed as ultimately worthless. Far from being a window into a transcendent world beyond this one, it is something that will cease along with everything else.

Why is Baugin’s narrative different?

Still Life with Chess-board, 1630 (oil on panel)
Still life with chess board, Lupin Baugin, 1630. Image: Wikimedia commons.

What fascinates me most about Baugin’s still life is the contrast between the narrative it contains and that of these other, more conventional still life paintings. By comparison, Baugin’s picture is full of optimism: the games have been laid aside, the lute carelessly upturned on the music, but one feels that the two who were so recently playing chess and playing music must only have gone away in order to do something even more exciting, and will undoubtedly return to their playing soon.

This, it seems to me, makes an important assertion about both chess and music. Today, both fields have become so professionalised that their function as social activities is easily lost or forgotten. In an age when my performance of a Bach Prelude and Fugue can be immediately compared by anyone with a mobile phone to that of András Schiff, and when my playing of a complex chess endgame can be immediately shown to be full of errors by chess software on that same mobile phone, we need (or at least I need) reminders that music and chess alike are ways of interacting with other people. They are, properly, the pursuits of friends. Our play is part of our human flourishing. That is the message to take from your silent contemplation of Baugin’s enigmatic and beguiling canvas.

A seventeenth-century chess narrative

I hope that the above has convinced you that chess and music are far from accidental subjects for Baugin to have chosen to depict in his still life, which turns out to be rather a subversive work, celebrating friendship, affection and freedom in play rather than meditating on the melancholy inevitability of death. These two currents, pleasure and melancholy, are found throughout seventeenth-century art. To end this post, I want to turn to a game of chess and a work of music contemporary with the pictures I have been discussing, to see what kind of narratives they might unfold.

I am very attached to the idea that a game of chess is properly understood as a narrative form. The narrative is of course created by both players, rather than a single author, and they do not know how it is going to end when they start out. But seeing the unfolding of the game as a story, and the pieces as characters, is almost essential to following it in a way that makes it comprehensible.

The game I have chosen was played by possibly the first professional chess player to have lived, Gioachino Greco Cusentino (1600-1634), often known simply as “Greco” or “El Greco” (and not to be confused with the Spanish Court painter with whom he was contemporary).

Greco Royall Game cover
The cover of the version of Greco’s book published in English indicates that Charles I was a chess enthusiast

Born in Calabria, he made a living playing chess, including at the royal courts of Rome, Paris, Madrid and London. The fact that he could have such a career in itself testifies to the growing seriousness with which the game was treated as a subject of study.


No-one knows if the games that Greco recorded were actually played in the course of his travels, or whether he composed them. Many of them are very short, and in fact demonstrate tricks and traps in the opening phase of the game which make them still valuable today. It has been wryly observed that, even if Greco composed them for demonstration purposes, many hundreds of games played over the years since have followed the exact same moves, as the unwary fall into the pitfalls he was so adept at discovering.

The game I have chosen can begin with the following position, reached after the first four moves. It has followed the opening called the “Giuoco Piano” or “Italian Game”, one of those explored most extensively by Greco.

NN vs Greco 1620 move 5w
Anonymous vs Greco, 1620, position after move 4

To say that this is a well-known position would be an understatement. It is frequently reached today in games between the very best players in the world. The current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, and his predecessor, Vishwanathan Anand, have played this so-called “quiet game” frequently, leading to a resurgence in its popularity.

Let’s move on a couple of moves. Greco’s opponent makes the first decisive gesture, occupying the centre of the board with a pawn:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 7b arrow
White’s seventh move

This is just what any beginning player is taught: occupy space on the board, and control the centre. Greco took the pawn, and his opponent attacked with the other central pawn:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 8b arrows
Black’s seventh and White’s eighth moves

The narrative of the game is becoming clear: White is taking the lead in the relationship between the sides, attacking at the earliest opportunity. Greco’s knight is now theatened by the pawn, and moves away, closer to White’s king; White in turn recaptures the pawn.

NN vs Greco 1620 move 9b arrows
Black’s eighth and White’s ninth moves

And now the narrative changes. Just as a Renaissance lady too forward in a relationship might find she receives more than she bargained for in return, Greco advances his pieces towards the White king. The game becomes a story of the adventuresome knights:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 10w arrow
Black’s knight advances

This seems to make no sense (as so much in relationships). The knight is attacked by two white pieces and defended by only one. White takes it, only to see the black queen advance:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 11w arrows
White and Black’s tenth moves

Too late, White realises Black’s intent: she is already nearly captured. She rushes the knight back to defend her king, and Greco demonstrates an exquisite pattern of moves leading to mate:

This mating pattern, known as a “smothered mate”, is famous. I confess to having fallen into it myself. The fact that it remains today a trap for so many players is something of a tribute to Greco’s brilliance.

The final position is worth contemplating:

NN vs Greco 1620 move 14w

This is, in its way, not unlike Baugin’s still life. The white king is literally “still” – he cannot move, hemmed into the corner of the board and caught by the audacious black knight, a chess piece not unlike the knave of clubs who lies on the top of Baugin’s deck of cards. The game is over; Black is the dominant partner in this relationship, although the beauty of the dance is created by both players at the board. And like Baugin’s canvas, this is a picture with meaning: it tells a story, by making the viewer wonder how its elements came to be in their enchanting final arrangement.

A final narrative: seventeenth-century music

And finally, I wish to give the last word to music. Baugin’s still life features a lute, so it is only right to end with a lute song. In fact, I am going to cheat a little, because the song I have in mind was written as a madrigal, for five unaccompanied voices. However, there is no reason that it cannot be sung as a lute song, and its lyrics are entirely in keeping with the theme of this blog post.

Now is the month of maying is by Thomas Morley (1557-1602), and was published in 1597, just a few years earlier than the paintings and the chess game discussed above (but perhaps permissibly part of the “long seventeenth century”). One might think that the narrative is simply the story told by the words:

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing,
(Fa la la…)
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass.
(Fa la la…)

But this is not the narrative told by the music: it is the story told by the lyrics. The music in performance is telling us about lads and lasses and their playing in the Springtime of their youth. In other words, the performers are asking us to contemplate a scene, just as much as Baugin and the other painters I have discussed invite us to contemplate their still life paintings. We are to infer the narrative each art work tells through thinking about what it shows us. Morley’s narrative is as optimistic as Baugin’s: we can delight in the scene of the merry lads and their bonny lasses playing together. They are probably playing chess.