Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Piano Factory

Today Harmonic Analysis Diary takes on a sonatina by a composer who's usually crammed down among the footnotes- Muzio Clementi.

Clementi, along with Telemann and John FIeld, is among the composers who got screwed by the Great Man Theory of music. These men were talented, prolific, successful composers, but (alas) you can only fit so many pages in the music history textbook and, as a result, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and the other huge names get top-billing and, over centuries, an inertia whereby they now seem more like deities than artists in the public conception.

(I feel that the media revolution of the past decade - the arrival of the internet, the sudden ubiquity of digital recordings and digital media -- is gradually undoing this injustice, slowly but surely exhuming masterworks that wouldn't have had a chance twenty years ago. Nobody is going to knock Bach off his pedestal, of course, but future generations will be only a few mouseclicks from juding for themselves whether Pachelbel's work deserves footnote status).

Anyway, Clementi was a superstar of his day. He bested Mozart in piano competitions (just think: somebody at that concert undoubtedly yawned and wished Mozart and Clementi would hurry up), wrote reams of music (much admired by Beethoven), started a piano factory, worked as a music publisher (put out the first English editions of Beethoven's sonatas, for instance), tore trees in half with his bare hands, taught a bear to play chess, etc etc.

His music is, moreover, the purest distillation of the 'classical' style I can imagine, so much so that it borders on caricature at times. Whereas Haydn and Mozart liked surprise and private harmonic cleverness, Clementi usually preferred an unbroken hum of elegance and exquisite filagree. This is not to denigrate his work- I am sure most unbiased listeners would find his piano sonatas the equal of those of Haydn and Mozart, albeit much more conservative.

DeVoto serves up Clementi's:

Sonatina in D Major, Op. 36, No, 6 (1787)

as an apertif before a passel of Mozart works. The piece is a little thing, just two movements, and technically challenging only for people who suck at the piano (i.e. me).

The first movement, Allegro con spirito, is as tidy a sonata form as you could find, as pruned and symmetrical as the gardening in Regent's Park. (Please excuse me if that analogy seems forced, but the neat rows of ruthlessly-pruned geraniums really do evoke a similar level of rigor and geometry). Schematically:

Theme A, transition (modulates), Theme B (repeat to top), Development (modulates to subdominant, then back to tonic), Recapitulation (Theme B in tonic now, yawn), End (repeat from Development if so inclined).

If this seems dry, you should hear it. You can practically see the gears clicking into place as Theme B arrives right on schedule or the harmony goes just far enough afield in the Development to constitute having been a Chromatic Episode. However, this rather harsh view misses the point- the audience in Clementi's day presumably didn't mind the form because it was just a vehicle for the music. It probably wouldn't have occured to them to find it dull anymore than we question the rigid panel format of a Doonesbury comic strip.

So, what does it sound like? For the most part, the right hand plays elegant classical melodies, sparkling runs and scales in thirds while the left hand chugs along in a variety of classical accompanimental patterns. (Unfortunately, it's hard to get away from words like 'elegant' 'sparking' and 'charming' when writing about this stuff.) The sonatina really is almost a textbook for Kinds of Classical Piano Accompaniments, and the change of accompaniments patterns is a key feature that separates, say, the Development from Theme A in the mind of the listener. I should note, too, that Clementi is tasteful in the way he uses these accompaniments- a case in point is in measure 4, where he momentarily varies the outline of the Alberti pattern to avoid parallel octaves and, I would say, just provide a little variety. Moreover, the clarity of the resulting texture - it's often basically two-voices - has an soothing, graceful quality. ("Graceful", too, gets old fast.) There's very little of the muddy churning that composers like Beethoven deploy for drama.

Harmonically, there's not much to say. I, ii6, IV, V, etc. (all the primary ingredients of the classical common practice) obediently thump away beneath the melody. Clementi does use pedal tones, though, in a way that is exciting, effective, and wholly idiomatic. The chromatic episode in the development is pretty standard: fully dimished 7th chords that serve the dual purpose of creating some turmoil while giving Clementi an EZ-Pass card to the subdominant, the whole passage enriched with anticipations and apoggiatura figures.

The second movement, Allegretto spiritoso, is a lot more interesting from an analysis standpoint. Schematically, it's a simple ternary form A (fine) B (da capo), but the lack of rigidity seems to let Clementi create something much more playful.

Whereas the first movement was the stodgiest 4/4, the Allegretto glides from foot to foot in a version of 6/8 that feels like 2+1+2+1. The pristine, balanced phrases of the first movement are abandoned for short, motivic phrases that enchain from one another, the tail of one acting as the head of the next. Even the rigid right hand/left hand independence of the first movement is softened now, the right hand's melody often seeming to have less importance than the left hand's accompanimental commentary. In short, this is a movement about rhythm and gesture rather than tunes.

In terms of harmony, this movement is interesting because Clementi is less dependent on accompaniments that outline a chord (though they do crop up). As a result, there is a greater degree of harmonic ambiguity, and the interest comes from the motivic energy and variations in the thickness of the texture. Indeed, the entire A section is almost a sort of developing variation, gradually embellishing the skeletal melody with runs and thirds until it finally launches into a bombastic churn as it charges the finish line. ("Churn" is also on the list.)

At first, the B section seems radically simpler - it uses more standard accompaniment figures - but it soon becomes apparent that, rather than a simple contrast to A, B is being used as a sort of development. Clementi takes the motives of A and spins them out (rather than simply embellishing them as he does progressively in A). He explores the bombastic churn in an extended minor key pedal tone episode and then, for contrast, takes the motives and puts them through their paces in a dainty, unvaried two-voice texture. All of this builds to a flashy scale passage that cutely hints at the da capo return to the tonic by shoehorning a flattened seventh scale degree into the upward scale.

Next post: Mozart arrives.

Also, feel free to check out the new corollary to this diary at naturalharmonics.blogspot.com, in which I talk about music much less formally.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Let us all sing a happy song!

The next tray in the musical steam-table that is "Mostly Short Pieces" is:

SAMUEL WEBBE's "Glorious Apollo", a glee from 1784

It's hard to imagine, now that we have fine programming like "Lost" and reruns of "Designing Women", that men used to get together, regularly, to sing.

For fun.

These groups - catch societies, glee clubs - were basically bunches of guys who got together at the local tavern to drink and sing. Catch societies existed to facilitate this drinking/singing: members pooled their money to buy booze and sheet music. Over time, these clubs commissioned a fair body of partsongs which now fill thick, hardbound books in music libaries.

These pieces - catches, glees, canons - were designed to contrapuntally interesting but still easy enough to be singable after five or six beakers of punch. Samuel Webbe had a knack for them: he won lots of medals from the Catch Club of London.

(A 'catch', if you were wondering, is a form of canon that often has the cool trick of revealing a secret message when all the polyphonic lines have entered- a lyric from one line filling a pause from another to string together a bawdy sentence.)

"Glorious Apollo" is apparently one of the best-known glees. (I add 'apparently' because I've never really delved into modern glee culture to make a serious study.) It's a simple choral piece in three-part harmony. All the lines have almost identical rhythms (occasionally somebody gets a weak-beat passing tone to provide interest) and there are no rests. Presumably, everyone just cuts the end off the cadences' whole notes to take in a lungful of air, or sneak breaths as they go. Depends on the level of inebriation, I suppose.

Harmonically, "Glorious Apollo" never departs from rock-solid F Major. The closest Webbe comes to modulation is the occasional secondary dominant in the lead-up to a half cadence. The chords are pure Common Practice, too- I, V, lots of diminished first inversion viis, and the occasional ii or IV. Sometimes a neighbor tone is used to create a little dissonance, but this is always resolved immediately.

This is three-part harmony, so I guess Webbe was taking pains to create rich, full-sounding chords without the benefit of the extra inner voice. In this sense, it's an interesting study of how a composer can alternate three-tone chords with two tone chords (i.e. one pitch of which is doubled) to vary the harmonic texture.

Structurally, this glee is a sort of big binary form - A-A1. The second section differs from the first in some tweaks to the melodic lines, which are necessary to accomodate the new verses, and an overall faster tempo indication. The first half of the piece is 'Con spirito' and for the repetition Webbe kicks it up with 'Piu Allegro'. This seems like a good, simple way to add interest without making significant changes to melody or harmony that would constitute 'development' and so require a recapitulation. Of course, the scheme hardly qualifies as 'binary' in any meaningful sense, but sometimes you've just got to slap a name on something.

Within each of the two sections, Webbe has an interesting scheme of:
A (solos) (forte)
A (full chorus) (still forte)
B (full chorus, ending on dramatic fermata) (pianissimo)
C (solos) (piano)
C (full chorus) (forte now)

This is pretty nicely done. Even though the music is boilerplate late 18th century harmony and melody, the constant alternation of loud/soft and solos/full chorus in the repitions are good, fundamentally interesting musical effects that are easy for amateurs.

Now that I think about it, the greatest boon to contemporary amateur choral music would be the re-introduction of booze. People like to sing in public, as karaoke shows, but it's only really fun after a few drinks. In America, group singing is confined to the national anthem and - who wants to relive this with their pals on Saturday night? - masses of grade school children sitting indian style and mewling out 'America the Beautiful'. So, what do we need?

Liquor. And new catches, about popular topics like presidental incompetence or heroes of NASCAR.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Haydn at the Piano, Again

Okay, very sorry about my last post. It floated out into the sort of petal-plucking moon-eyed self-satisfied jerk prose that ruins a lot of writing about music. Therefore, I have resolved to tether the zeppelin of my prosody firmly to the iron ring of...not sounding like too much of an ass.

It's kinda funny how DeVoto arranged "Mostly Short Pieces", because on the heels of my last post's hulking symphony movement comes this extremely short, casual set of piano variations. If it weren't for the sheer number of little ink notes scratched onto the paper, I'd imagine that this piece was the sort of thing Haydn knocked out in an afternoon. The piece in question is:

HAYDN "Six Easy Variations in C Major (Hob. XVII/5; 1790)

I learned these variations at the piano since they're not too difficult. Once again, I'd wager that this music was intended for 'domestic use'- it feels nice under the fingers and has many fun little surprises for the musician to bump his head on. I wonder whether, in Haydn's day, a set of variations like this was approached the way we might pick up a crossword puzzle today. I know, this isn't a great analogy - you never 'solve' music - but I'm trying to say that it's the little surprises you linger over while learning the piece that provide most of the pleasure. This is particularly the case with theme-and-variations: your muscle memory learns to play a particular passage and then, when it encounters the passage 'again' in a variation, gets tripped up by the changes. This usually results in a faint smile, chagrin, and perhaps a glance back at the first passage. This is the musical version of scratching out the first three letters of MASS to write ONUS.

So what fascinating things are there to say about this set of variations? Well, the theme is a tiny rounded binary- an A section that's six bars and then a B section of 10. The lesson for Aspiring Composers to take away would be how simple he keeps the theme: I and V make up %99 of the harmony (there's a IV in the closing cadence to give it a little more weight) and the melody is a patchwork of little motivic figures. These figures are varied in their content- some are halting, some move with great motor rhythm, some have rests, many have ornaments. This sort of smorgasbord makes for a musical line which is highly memorable and almost stylized, like a row of iconic shapes (DIAMOND, TREE, MOUNTAIN, PLUS, CIRCLE) that can be easily elaborated with detail. The simple harmony reinforces this- when you hear the DIAMOND again later with a ii chord instead of a V, it will sound surprising and new.

VARIATION I: Haydn does an interesting thing where he takes the grace note ornaments from the theme and turns them into 'real' 32nd notes. This has the interesting effect of taking a little flourish and incorporating it into the 'hard' structure of the piece (he makes it into this busy little arpeggio). This variation doesn't depart much from the theme at all though, really, aside from this little bit of 'noodling' to dress up the themes. Presumably, the first variation should be taken as a warmup. It would be gauche to go too far out too soon. There's one bar of Alberti bass, though, at 13, which recalls the opening 32nd notes and hints at accompaniments to come.

VARIATION II: Okay, now were getting somewhere. Those little 32nd note arpeggios are now big and full-fledged, turning the main theme into a busy, swooping thing over a bassline that remains basically unchanged from the theme. There is, however, a hint of bassline compications that come later in bar 10, where the bass temporarily goes on its own little short-lived 32nd note thrillride.

VARIATION III: This one varies in atmosphere rather than simply elaborating existing features. The theme is turned into a bouncy little martial thing, (dotted eight-sixteenth-dotted eighth-sixteenth DUMMM-dee-DUMMM-dee) with 32nd note triplets introducing the figures- the effect is like flams on a snare drum. The bassline also comes into its own now as an independent melodic voice, trading motives with the soprano in bars 4 and 5. Then, for the second half- the Alberti bass is back! Yep, in contrast to the halting martial harrumphing of the A section we get a busy left hand for a couple bars under a melody that combines the martial stiffness with the swooping of the second variation. And, as another point of interest, we get a really weird, subtle harmonic moment when Haydn puts a fermata over an unexpected vi chord, letting us linger for a moment uncertainly on a dark moment in a variation that's otherwise given over to jauntiness.

VARIATION IV: This is a return to the mood of the theme and first couple of variations, a step back from the faux-military stuff of III. There's much less motor activity, but a little chromatic fall in bar 13 is sweet and unexpected. Also, the bassline is more flexible than in the earliest variations, and there's a little reprise of the playful I-go-you-go from variation III.

VARIATION V: (Minore) The minore variation is arguably the heart of the piece- its uncertain harmonic shifts and mixture of major and minor provide a sharp contrast to the good-humored joviality of the rest of the piece. Haydn starts in the parallel minor (i.e. C Minor) but soon moves in E-flat Major for a while (which isn't too close to C Major, in terms of modulation). Lots of diminished vii of (insert chord name) make the progressions in this variation a little dark and uncertain (diminished chords can take you anywhere, natch). Also, whereas every previous variation limited itself to a simple A (repeat) B (repeat) structure, V has a first and second ending for the B section, the second of which - through the magic of augmented 6th chords - gets us back into C major very subtly. (it's hard to say exactly how the subtlety works- it's some really deft mixture of harmonic rhythm and using the sharpened 6th and 7th scale degrees as the bassline- common to either major or melodic minor. I know- this is unsatisfyingly vague on my part.) And then-

VARIATION VI: The big finish. There's not much to say about this one. The motor activity is turned up to its maximum, with lots of Alberti bass in the left hand and the sort of 32nd note elaborations of the melody that got explored in I, II, and IV. The excitement is doubled now, in a sense, since both bass and treble are now going fast. Harmonically, Haydn uses a I6/4 to V 5/3 a lot as a way of letting us know that we're almost to the end. Things close up with a neat IV I6/4 V7 I- as tidy a suture as one could ask to close a movement.

Is there anything else to say about this set of variations? I can't really thing of anything. They're good- very well-crafted. You know there's someone with good taste holding the quill, so to speak, since it never gets boring or overwraught and fits perfectly the little area it stakes out. Not much 'notational music being written today is content to have small ambitions and satisfy them in such an elegant and satisfying manner.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Sea-Cow, a Keyboard, a Score

I set out to be old-fashioned for this entry.

Compared to the venerable plow and graybeard arch, the arthritic steam engine and social-security-collecting cotton gin – compared especially to the hand-scrawled five-line staff, the alto clef, and D. C. al fine – sound recording is a precocious toddler. In its century of life, it has progressed from the ghostly crackle of wax cylinder and shellac to sterile 1s and 0s. O, Progress! Mother of happy Leisure and her sister Sloth!

What I’m driving at is that, today, almost any ‘classical’ music you want (provided it’s by a dead German guy) is available as a recording. Your index finger taps the PLAY> button and – insert your own snobby reference to Prospero – music comes out. The only effort for you, the listener, is to muster the concentration to actually listen. (Owing to the ubiquity of music in today’s landscape, listening properly is more difficult than it might seem.) How has this changed us?

(It’s great, actually, but I’m going to hone in on a negative aspect.)

The miracle of the PLAY> button has gradually left us, in certain particulars, numb. For instance: most classical radio stations treat Haydn symphonies (Harmonic Analysis Diary is doing a movement of a Haydn symphony today) as gentle wallpaper- suitably interesting to keep you awake during a commute, but comfortingly bland and ‘classy.’ In that sense, they’re interchangeable- here’s a slab of 18th century music, faintly dusted in wig-powder and stamped with a cute name like ‘Clock’ or ‘The Bear.’ To really hear these pieces and get excited by them is difficult, especially if you can go home and cue up Varese or the Flying Luttenbachers and get your visceral kicks out of that cacophony. Music as a construction – as a ‘piece’ rather than music as sound – has faded as a concept.

I had never heard Haydn’s Symphony No. 100. I am only mildly ashamed of this. Let’s face it: at this point in history, there are just too many masterpieces out there for anyone to have caught them all before the age of 40. Plus, the way I see it, this lacuna in my listening history gave me an opportunity to learn this famous piece the ‘old’ way.

Which is what I did- I learned it at the piano. Please, dear Reader, don’t have any delusions about my score-reading abilities. I’m fine at actually reading scores, mind you, but I don’t have anywhere near the piano technique to produce an acceptable keyboard realization on the fly. So, I did it as best I could- I learned all the tunes, learned their accompaniments, worked out the chords, and generally familiarized myself with the first movement. This made for an interesting relationship with the piece. It was like having a partially disassembled car strewn about the floor of the garage- you can crank the windows up and down within the amputated doors, run the engine, flick the lights on and off, admire the hubcaps. However, despite all your tinkering, you haven’t actually seen it hurtling down the road, and you certainly haven’t driven it yourself.

This, presumably, was what it must have been like for symphony enthusiasts before sound recording- there’s a powerful sense of anticipation and curiosity. You ‘know’ the piece, you can converse about it, but- has your imagination done justice to the excitement of that timpani entrance, or the sweetness of the high woodwind counterpoint?

Anyway, so I finally slung on my Sony MDR-7506s and popped in the Royal Concertbouw as conducted by Sir Colin Davis…


Jesus, what an amazing piece.

It makes you understand encores and repeat signs when you’ve learned a piece that way- you really want to hear it in every detail, to hear, in a sense, your own work pay off. You notice the little details of a sharpened accidental here or there (they gave you pause at the keyboard), the unusual way the woodwind phrases are articulated, the way the contrabass pizzicatos aren’t as loud as you’d expected. (Also, no matter how well you think you’re imagining it, an actual timpani entrance is ten times more exciting.)

Having said that, I’m loath to give the piece a conventional harmonic analysis. As I’ve moved through “Mostly Short Pieces”, it has often occurred to me that talking about the grand harmonic structure of a piece – particularly pieces from the ‘common practice’ period – doesn’t convey what makes you excited when you hear it. When you isolate themes and key areas, you neatly snip the grand ligne that is the spine music as an experience. When, in this movement, the final theme of the introduction begins at measure 93, only the most irritating, pedantic listener would actually think to himself – chin on fist as the pizzicatos buzz and the violins start their graceful little tune – “A-ha, that’s the ‘third’ theme- new, contrasting material to round off this introduction.” Therefore, I’m going to try talking about this piece the way Haydn might have ‘pitched’ it to an amateur music enthusiast at a dinner party- layman’s terms, imagery.

It’s a fantasy of war, armies, regalia- hence the name. Haydn himself apparently agreed to let Salomon advertise this symphony as ‘Military’. This is music from a different age of war: fifes, drums, cavalry charges, shining cuirasses.

The piece begins with an introductory Adagio so stately that it’s like a parade march in slow-motion, or perhaps a general’s slow inspection of his lines before the battle as he exhorts his men with both stern warnings and familiar encouragements. The themes of this movement, so steady (typically based on an initial upward leap), don’t recur, but the later melodic material is cut from similar cloth. In this sense, the slow introduction sets the military mood and builds to a grand dominant in expectation of the exciting Allegro.

If I may depart from layman’s terms: the most surprising harmonic trick of this introduction is a surprising unprepared modulation from G Major (the tonic) to E-flat Major– a major third below. Haydn never quite returns to the tonic during the introduction, either- touching instead on C Minor before the concluding D major chord.

This Allegro begins not with a crash of charging armies but a shrill, sprightly melody played in the flutes and oboes. This tune (the first theme) is the martial racket of fifes on the march- the winds play it once and pass it on to the violins. And then, chaos- the tune in the violins is spun out into motor rhythm figures that roll and roll in undulating waves while the trumpets and horns sound and the lower strings chuk-chuk-chuk like the clump of heavy boots. Then, just as the tumult dies down, the same fife tune strikes up in the flute and oboes again (in the dominant now), once again dissolving into bruit, though, amid the churn of strings. Then, the smoke clears- a new marching tune begins (technically the second theme, since the first theme was used twice)- this time in the strings. Gathering instruments and volume, it drives on to the end of the introduction.

Harmonically, this introduction moves from tonic (G) to the dominant (D). The surprise comes after the two empty bars between the introduction and the development- a big question mark for the listener. Then, not too loud, we’re abruptly in B-flat Major – a major third down from the D Major at the end of the introduction. Once again, Haydn’s shifted down by a major third without preparation.

The development is ‘the hellish roar of war’- uncertain modulations (usually by way of augmented 6th chords), intense fragmentation of the chipper marching tunes of the introduction, and a choice, weird chromatic effect. In this effect, Haydn seesaws repeatedly between a major chord and it’s neighbor a half-step above. This produces ostentatious parallel fourths- but, hey, war is hell, right? The orchestration grows increasingly raucous- trumpets blast and timpani roll, there are dynamic extremes like crescendi from piano to forte in the course of a single bar. When the tumult finally dies down, there’s an uncertain statement of fragments of the marching tune in a few keys – E Minor, C, G? – as though casting around to see what’s going to happen.

Feeling around with hesitant motor figures in the winds and oboes, we suddenly find ourselves at a reprise of the original fife tune. And then- the tune again, with full orchestra! In other words, we’ve arrived at the big recapitulation/conclusion. Staying – pretty much – in G Major, Haydn roars through all the march tunes again with bigger sonorities, spinning them out a little with playful extensions. (“Oh boy, we got ‘em on the run now!”) And then – one last surprise – there’s a thump as we drop down a major third into E-flat Major. This is the final unprepared modulation, and Haydn steers back into the tonic almost immediately. From there, it’s all stirring string swoops and trumpet calls to the end, the whole orchestra charging ahead at full gallop.

Next post: we bid farewell to Haydn with some keyboard variations.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Rich Smell of Charles Rosen

Once, when I was an undergraduate, I barged into a practice room in order to set up for a chamber music rehearsal (I like to show up early, if I can, to get reeds soaking and my horn warmed up). Anyway, I’d heard piano music as I approached the door, but assumed it was some student preparing for a lesson so imagine my surprise when I opened the door to see-

Charles Rosen! Charles Rosen at the piano!

He was bundled up in a knee-length overcoat and had a snap-brim cap pulled down on his head, making him look very old-fashioned and European (his clothing wouldn’t have looked out of place in a photograph from 1944 or so). I blurted an apology and turned to leave but then – I should mention that this isn’t a great anecdote – Mr. Rosen apologized to me and said that he hadn’t realized the room was reserved. What happened then is a little hazy. I think he must have left, but I can’t imagine I’d have stood around and shooed out Charles Rosen. At any rate, I found myself alone in the room and was struck by the peculiarly rich old-man smell that remained. This was not a bad smell, mind you, just very strong and memorable. As a result, when I read the works of Mr. Rosen, there’s a reverse-Proustian madeleine effect- I read his very limpid, interesting musicology and immediately recall his scent.

I mention Mr. Rosen because I am a great admirer of his writing on the subject of the sonata, and had it constantly in mind as I approached DeVoto’s next entry in “Mostly Short Pieces” –

J. HAYDN Piano Sonata in A-flat Major (Hob. XVI/46), Movement I: Allegro Moderato [probably c. 1767]

I have included a line drawing of Haydn, executed especially for this journal in order to make it a little more interesting for the eyes. I’ll talk about Haydn’s life and history (that was my favorite part of earlier entries) in the next post.

Anyway, like I said, this week is the first real sonata movement of Harmonic Analysis Diary, which makes me feel a surprising amount of trepidation. Sonata form, after all, is what made people start doing harmonic analysis in the first place, and music students learn the outline of the form as almost a religious ceremony- Introit/exposition, Agnus Dei/move to the dominant, Credo/development, Offertory/new themes, Gloria/false recapitulation, Sanctus/real recapitulation, Coda/“Ite missa est.” (And, moreover, like the musical mass, most of these things are going to be there, but not necessarily all of them.)

So, what’s this particular sonata movement like? How does it compare with the non-sonata music we’ve encountered so far? Well, if this piece has a kinship with any we’ve encountered so far, it would be the fantasia by C. P. E. Bach. Like that piece, this sonata movement isn’t particularly interested in tunes themselves, but approaches them instead as materials to be altered and enlarged upon. This, of course, a very brainy way to approach music as an art- it isn’t about the ‘culinary’ pleasure of hearing a gorgeous hummable tune and letting it play itself out but rather about carefully manipulating the listener’s experience of that tune- making it modulate, fragmenting it, recapitulating it, cutting it off midway through, going off in strange musical directions, enlarging fragments and obsessing over them. And it is through activities like this, really, that ‘classical’ music gains its deserved reputation as the art that is closest to pure thought or form. Even the most convoluted “Lost in the Funhouse” short story has to be about something in particular, but Haydn’s sonata is about- itself. Statements like these, of course, are ambiguous and might be challenged by comparisons to, for instance, abstract painting or dance, but – c’mon – we all know that nothing tops classical music for pure, evolving abstraction. Of course, now that modulating tonality’s been on the ropes for a century, that might not by true anymore.

But enough mooning- let’s get this piece analyzed. Haydn begins in A-flat Major, with a very simple tune that we, with un-academic rigor, are calling Theme Charm. Theme Charm, as you can see from the score, is based on the open upward perfect fifth (gracefully ornamented) followed by a set of descending suspensions. Part of what makes it Charm rather than, say, Solidity, is the use of first-inversion triads, which keeps the tune up-in-the-air, floating gracefully. The left-hand, you’ll note, is confined to the motif of repeated eighth-note diads, which makes the opening feel a bit like a reserved string quartet to me. A second theme – we’re going to call it Theme Swoop – appears in bar 9, characterized by fast ornamental runs and a charming turn in bar 11. It is during the course of Theme Swoop that Haydn complicates the harmony by moving first to F Minor (the relative minor) and then E-flat Major, the dominant. (Making this, so far, a Betty Crocker Mix-and-Pour sonata, according to later formulas). Bar 13 sees the introduction of a quasi-theme which I’m going to call Quasi-Theme Revving and then another quasi-theme at bar 15 which I’m going to call Quasi-Theme Stormy. For these, Haydn remains in the dominant.

At bar 18, Haydn shows a little of the motivic unity that makes the ‘classical’ style so interesting and subtle- we get Quasi-Theme Revving 2, based on the shapes of that theme but different in character- still nothing you would hum while walking down the street, mind you. Then, at bar 21, we get Quasi-Theme Stormy 2, which takes its 16th note triplet feeling but turns it into a charming cadence figure. At bar 28 we get the unexpected return to F Minor and then, in bar 29, a heavily-ornamented monophonic upward gesture that could almost go anywhere (in terms of modulation). Haydn, though, takes us back to E-flat Major for a bar and then – this is pretty amusing – to E-flat minor for a bar, from which he extricates himself with the major VI of E-flat Minor, before using a diminished chord to land squarely back in E-flat Major for what we’ll call Quasi-Theme Wind Up- a series of boilerplate cadential figures under arpeggiated right-hand runs that leads to a very solid perfect cadence.

So, the score so far: the Exposition ends in the dominant (E-flat Major) having spent time in F Minor and a brief, memorable visit to the dominant’s parallel minor (E-flat Minor). There’s a repeat sign, so the whole thing gets played again so the audience can enjoy it the second time instead of being surprised by everything.

The development begins at bar 39 with Theme Charm played in the dominant- a fifth higher (and very pretty in that register). Then, abruptly, Haydn steals a transition bar from the middle of Theme Charm, puts it in minor mode, and uses it to segue to F Minor for a melancholy presentation of Theme Minor Charm. This is like the regular theme, only filled out with some dramatic ornamental runs. Also, Haydn doesn’t let the theme play itself out to a conclusion- the cadential runs are unexpectedly complicated by imitative counterpoint in the left hand, and they repeat themselves to become a sequential passage in which this counterpoint visits the tonic (A-flat Major) before thundering into the most dramatic part of the development- the working out of Quasi-Theme Storm. Starting in F Minor, Haydn takes the motives of Quasi-Theme Storm and rumbles through various related keys (B-flat Minor, E-flat Minor, A-flat Minor), using diminished or augmented 6th chords to move between modulate and regularly exchanging the materials of soprano and bass. It all sounds like a churn, very melodramatic and harmonically exciting. Somehow, though, we end on a dominant of F Minor- the piece could go anywhere from here.

So, what happens? Well, we hear Theme Swoop again, but in F Minor now, and very melancholy after all that roar and bustle of the middle development. Theme Swoop Minor is given its own fancy concluding runs, which lead into a very still, doubtful passage that passes into D-flat Major. Heavily ornamented and uncertain in the melody, the left hand begins its pattern of three repeated eighth-note diads, which serve as a hint of the coming recapitulation. And, sure enough, we move from D-flat Major (the subdominant) to the recapitulation in A-flat major at bar 78.

But, oh wait- you got clowned, audience! Yes, it’s a false recapitulation. Do you remember that brief touch upon the parallel minor at the end of the exposition, well, now we get a four bar visit to A-flat Minor at bar 83, very alien and strange, gracefully altered with trills and other new ornamentation, making it one of the most charming things in the piece. After that, though, we get a proper recapitulation- we meet all our old friends, Quasi-Theme Wind Up and Quasi-Theme Stormy and Quasi-Theme Revving, all in A-flat Major now. It all moves to a hard, perfect cadence. And then there’s a repeat sign, so we can all hear and enjoy the stormy bits of the development again.

And I think that does it for our first big sonata movement. Next post- a whole symphony movement.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Domestic Use

The twenty-second entry in Mark DeVoto's "Mostly Short Pieces" (published, once again, by Norton, although out of print right now) is:

J. HAYDN; Adagio in F Major (Hob. XVII/9) (published in 1786) CLICK ON THE SCORE IMAGE, IT POPS!

Now, as I've mentioned before in this diary, the piano is not my primary instrument. It is a testament to Mr. Haydn's great skill as a composer, then, that even a even a flipper-fisted sea cow of a pianist like myself can execute a credible performance of this Adagio.

This leads me to think that this piece was intended 'for domestic use,' a musical category which seems increasingly alien as the modern era rolls on. Over the 20th century, our culture's sense of entertainment changed to the point where 'playing' an instrument (for recreation) seems like a misnomer. Performing on an instrument - even without the worry of an audience - requires much greater concentration and physical work than, for instance, reading a book or watching a movie. The idea that someone could write little domestic pieces, get them published, and then that people would then buy them and play them to amuse themselves is almost hilarious today. If a friend confided to you that they'd started a mail-order website to sell their little piano works, you'd probably try not to smirk and predict (accurately) a dismal business failure.

Now, there are still lots and lots of people who learn to read sheet music in school. They diligently practice the flute or flugelhorn, play in their school orchestra or wind band, enter some school-sponsored solo competitions where they memorize a sonata movement and get accompanied by an unfortunate, overworked pianist and then- they stop? With the exception of the nerdy handful who go on to fill out community orchestras, there seems to be about a %99 attrition rate for people who learn classical instruments. It's not their fault- there's just very little to do with a flute in our society after the 12th grade.

The idea of an instrument being something fun that could occupy a place in personal recreation has more or less evaporated. Getting together with friends to ride mountain bikes is seen as good exercise and a social activity, but getting together with friends to play trombones (undoubtedly excellent for the lungs) is almost inconceivable.

(Or am I making too much of the place of sport and activities like that? How many people do ride bikes or hike together instead of watching on television? Has our society lost its taste for activities in general, so that most outings consist of going shopping or to movies or restaurants?)

So, if you want, you can consider this Adagio a musty curio from an era in which people wanted easy, fun pieces to play on the piano- the musical equivalent of a lamp-wick trimmer.

DeVoto notes that it is "a good illustration of rounded binary form, with codetta." In this case, it means that there's an eight bar opening section in F Major, which is repeated, then a brief middle section (seven bars) which moves to C Major (the dominant) before moving back to F to recapitulate the opening phrase with some chromatic melodic embellishments that segue into the coda. (As a side note: what differentiates a coda from a codetta, exactly? Is it like a four-door versus a two-door version of a car model?)

So, what actually happens in the piece, and what does it sound like? The overall impression is that it's very, very neutral- you almost have to call it fluff. There are, for instance, only three appearances by a minor chord (vi) in the entire work, everything else being bland major Is, Vs, and IVs (and not many IVs at that). With such solid, basic harmony, the piece feels level and steady throughout, like a gentle horse accustomed to plodding around with tourists on its back. As a result, those minor chords to stand out as nice surprises (a deceptive cadence after all that bland plodding wakes you up a little), the the piece still feels quite gentle and reserved.

Melodically, the right hand gets all the activity, playing a charming soprano melody embellished with tasteful little ornaments and 16th note runs (these runs and ornaments make the melody a little too busy for humming or whistling) while the left hand plays either block chords or simple 8th-note transition bits- the overall feeling is like a simple violin concerto movement (modelled on an opera aria?) that has been transformed into a keyboard piece. The right hand is the violin, while the left hand chugs along like orchestral strings beneath to provide a suitable underpinning for the quasi-bel canto top line. (Why, yes, I do realize that this combination of opera aria analogy and violin concerto analogy is like a martini containing both gin and vodka). The embellishments, when they come, are a charming descending chromatic scale in bar 21 and a melodic G Minor scale in measure 29 (the penultimate measure), which fills out the vi chord (merely arpeggiated two bars earlier) to the fullest extent. The only other harmonic feature of interest might be the occasional sharpened first scale degree (i.e. the presence of F-sharp in F major) used to highlight the 5th of V (i.e. the C-major chord, dominant in F Major)- little filagree touches like that feel very 'classical'.

Another nice feature is the way Haydn works out his (surprising, remember?) deceptive cadence in bar 22- he follows it with three increasingly bombastic V-I cadences, each separated by rests, but all strangely unsatisfying, which is to say that they don't feel 'final' in this context- they need the rest of the codetta to dissipate their energy for the piece to seem like it has come to an end. It's little details like that which elevate the piece above schlock- it may be major key fluff, but it's very, very nicely-proportioned and -executed major key fluff.

Next post: a whole frickin' sonata movement from Haydn.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Words in Art Songs, Words in Pop

With a mighty groan - muscles taut under sweat-grimed skin - I heave once more and there is a gunshotting, ear-hurting CRACK! The pig-iron bonds of my own laziness thus sundered, I get back to writing this harmonic analysis diary after over a month of idleness. And, really, if anybody actually does read this, you have my sincere apologies for not keeping up with it more regularly. Also, if, like I said, anybody actually does read this, please leave a comment or two just to let me know you exist.

In part of my last entry - the one about the relationship between academic definitions of sonata form and the current state of popular song - I had a throw-away line about how the pop song in its current form has been elevated to a refinement that surpasses that of Schubert's Vienna.

"Hey, jackass- which aspect of Schubert's Vienna?" I hear you cry. That, in retrospect, was the problem- did it really make sense to compare songs to sonatas? I didn't pay any attention to academic attempts to classify classical art songs ('lieder' or 'chansons' or whatever you want to call them), and the premise of the whole entry was arguably a very earnest comparison of apples and oranges.

The songs of Schubert's era are, of course, often just as structurally varied as modern pop songs. Which is to say that, sure, you get a lot of boilerplate intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/coda songs but, on the other hand, you also get stuff like "Erlkönig." The important thing to consider about this, though, is that you get "Erlkönig" as a response to a particular poetic text that inspired its composer to devise appropriate programmatic effects.

(Note to Readers Who Were Learning to French Kiss Instead of Practicing, For Instance, the Oboe: 'programmatic' in this context means music where certain musical events are supposed to call to mind 'literary' ideas like cannons firing or a river burbling or a bear dancing- in other words, music that tells a story instead of just being 'absolute.' This note is in itself problematic, because if you don't know what program music is, you probably don't know what I meant about the Erlkönig thing...it's a great Schubert song that switches between musical textures to tell a story from the points of view of three different characters, and also manages to be very catchy and dramatic.)

This is the key difference, I think, between contemporary pop songs and 'art songs.' For art song, the 'text' (as it's solemnly called) is sacrosanct. If you're composing in the classical tradition, your first task is hunting up an appropriate fragment by Shakespeare or Goethe or St. Vincent-Millay, which you are thereafter expected to treat - rather in the manner of ancient Judaic temple priests - as a mystically perfect text which is not to be altered.

I once submitted a big choir piece based on a set of three poems to a composition competition. One judge gave me favorable comments but noted, ominously, that I had appended a line that wasn't in the original poem, which was a very Wrong Thing to Do. (Actually, I'd just repeated a line from one of the earlier poems in the set in such a way that seemed to tie the whole thing together...it seemed justified by the musical form, by she saw it as a violation of textual integrity.)

Pop music does it differently. The words and music of a pop song are almost always written by the same person (or, in more traditional vaudevillian working arrangments, by a team of composer/lyricist who actively collaborate). This is considered an extremely suspect and, stangely, hubristic act by the 'classical' composer. Writing the words for your own songs or - worse - writing your own opera libretto is a great way to set yourself up for derision. The writing of words and the writing of music, it is argued, are two completely different skills, and therefore best left to their respective experts.

The differences don't end here. Beyond the aspect of who is responsible for writing the words, pop music takes a completely different approach to words in general. Words and music are often written simultaneously or even - completely alien to the classical mindset - written after the music is already done. As such, there's an extreme variety in their importance to the overall artistic effect:

1) Words can be chosen for their sound quality and impressionistic overtones. (Consider the vaguely Kipling-esque use of vowel sounds and images in the opening lines to "Night Boat to Cairo" by Madness: "It's just gone noon, half-past monsoon, on the banks of the River Nile / Here comes the boat, only half-afloat, as it reaches its last half-mile".)

2) Words can be chosen for their literal meaning, speech rhythm willfully stretched out of shape. (consider almost anything by Stereolab, a band who never feel compelled to rhyme and cheerfully turn a word like 'barriers' into 'buh-REERS'.)

3) Words can be used in a traditional poetic sense, with rhyming poetry and careful use of meter. (Consider, I suppose, Joni Mitchell or Stephin Merritt or countless other 'singer-songwriters').

4) Words can be used as animal ullulations, unintelligible. (Consider the cheap, easy examples of Nirvana, early REM, or any other band that gives you the nagging suspicion that it's probably better than you can't tell what they're saying.)

So, what is the upshot of these very obvious observations? Well, this: due to its considerably more sophisticated approach to various uses of words in music, current pop music erases the line between 'vocal music' and 'instrumental' music that is so rigid in the classical mindset. In other words, it's not so silly to compare a sonata with a pop song because contemporary pop songs can't be crammed into the same little text-is-supremely-important ghetto that characterizes classical music.

And all of that, of course, is once again prelude for a flimsy little Haydn song intended for 'domestic use'. In this case Devoto offers as 21. a. from "Mostly Short Pieces":

JOSEPH HAYDN- No. 5, "Die Verlassene" from XII Lieder für das Clavier, Part I (Hob. XXVIa/1-12, 1781)

This song sets an anonymous three-stanza poem from the viewpoint of an abandoned woman. The general idea of the text is that, o woe, some guy has cruelly ditched her, but she still loves him somehow and would 'glady betray' herself again. Not exactly a literary conceit foreign to a lot of pop songs being written today.

Haydn opens with a six bar introduction, very stark and dramatic Adagio in G Minor. A potentous opening figure, doubled at the octave, descends to the dark lower half of the piano where it shifts via C-sharp accidental to D Minor (the dominant, natch). The right hand typically has two-voice harmony in thirds while the bassline gently murmurs a semitone up and down between D and C-sharp, resulting in the chords: (in D): iii6/4 dim-vii7 Nea II7 (enharmonically) I. This progression gets repeated twice, creeping upwards to finally cadence on a strong D chord which forms, naturally, a dominant that acts as the anacrusis of the G minor melody of the vocal line which is about to start.

As with the last song, there's no vocal line per se in this song- the lyrics are crammed between the staves, implying that we are meant sing along with the melody. The vocal line isn't too difficult, but the shifting 6th and 7th scale degrees of the melodic minor, modulations, and delicate trills demand a style of singing that wouldn't come easily to anyone today who hadn't had a few voice lessons.

What happens, harmonically? Well, it reminded me of Bach's tricks a little: Haydn ratchets up the angst and tension by using lots of diminished sonorities within otherwise standard progressions. So, we get dim-vii7/V V IV dim-vii7/IV IV - progressions that have been 'enriched' with these extra jolts of dissonance. For the middle section of each stanza, Haydn offers some relief with a mild 6-bar passage in B-flat Major, all burbling sixteenth notes in the left hand (thirds now instead of the sad semitones of the introduction) and a melody line that gradually climbs from serenity to (she couldn't stay happily reminiscing for long) an agonized fully dimished cry that serves as a transition to C minor (the subdominant, natch). The C Minor passage takes motives of the B-flat major portion and turns their warm nostalgia to ice, culminating in yet another fully-diminished cry of anguish. Haydn then rounds off the piece with five bars of solemn G minor that incorporates fragments of the motives that defined each of the respective key areas above.

As you might have gathered, this is a hard piece to write about. It is, after all, simple, melodramatic fluff (albeit well-constructed melodramatic fluff). It lies well under the fingers for even a miserable pianist like myself- this is no mean achievement, since it manages to sound rather sophisticated while still being very easy.

What would a modern audience think if the opening band at a club sang this? They would be confused, I think, primarily by all the diminished chords. As I explained in my last post, modern pop harmony doesn't really care about tonal function and modulation, and outside of that context the diminished chord sounds either pointlessly complex and dissonant (in a jazzy way) or just antique. To the ears of the modern audience the diminished chord (since it still possesses its tendency to strongly 'lead' to a chord) seems to comment on the subsequent tone in a melody and therefore takes the audience momentarily outside of the flow of that melody. More on that later.

Next post: a little Haydn piece for piano..