A Musical Year – December: “My Friend is Unwell” by Khachaturian
Here I go: The first post within the category I’ve decided to start (as explained in this post), within which I’ll post each month a description of the piece of music that reminds me the most of the particular month we’re in.
I was somewhat surprised as I sat down to consider which piece of music reminded me the most of the month of December. It was not, as one might have guessed, one of the baroque pieces that I always listen so much to during Christmas Händel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, or even Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas which, for some reason, I’ve always associated with Christmas.
Rather, what came to my mind was a piano piece by Aram Khachaturian (of Sabre Dance fame) called “My friend is Unwell”. The piece is from a little collection of pieces for children called Pictures of Childhood. I took piano lessons all through my childhood and early youth, and as I was never a talented pianist, pieces intended for children always suited me the best. So my much-tried piano teacher gave me Pictures of Childhood to play when I was in my mid-teens, and I took a great liking to them immediately.
“My friend is unwell” stands out to me and reminds me of December, because it holds such a clearness of sound and such a clenchedness of emotion. The title is unusually specific, and I guess that accordingly the piece ought to remind me of childish grief and loss and sickness, but much more than that it reminds me of the bleak landscapes of midwinter: Of bare trees, snowclad meadows, and an afternoon sun struggling in the sky, managing only to send a few oblique beams across the plains, before descending. If one could peel all our Christmas traditions off of December, all the heavy greens and reds of the spruce and the Santa’s hats, and the warmth of the roast meat and sugar canes on your tongue, “My friend is unwell” is what December would sound like, I think. I love the little piece, I love the way its chords are always slightly disharmonic and the way the melody wavers constantly between minor and major. ….Ehhhh, I wish I could put this more eloquently. As Anna and I discussed recently, most people, even those with some musical schooling, really lack the vocabulary necessary to describe music, and I am no exception. Well, perhaps this new category will give me an opportunity to develop my vocabulary within the musical-theoretical genre!
I wish I could bring a link to Khachaturian’s piece, but I’m afraid it doesn’t exist anywhere online, and I don’t even know of any good recording of the piece, being familiar with it solely through my own amateurish presentation. But you should definitely check out the piece, if you’re not already familiar with it! It’s a most beautiful, melancholy and haunting little melody, and it reminds me of December.