Thursday, March 31, 2005

Back When Christ Was A Flower

Entry No. 2 in "Mostly Short Pieces" is Praetorius' version of "Es ist ein' Ros' entsprungen," which is one of those carols which is so gorgeous and so - well, I require an adjectival form of 'balm' besides 'embalming' and 'balmy' - that it never wears out. Christmas carols in general, in fact, have always seemed to me uniquely capable of a pure bittersweet that sends shivers down a nerve from the ear to the heart. Yes, that was a bit more maudlin than I intended. (It's curious how music from earlier eras cries out for that sort of high-flown, embarrassing descriptive language that makes us - me? - very uncomfortable at this end of the 20th century. It reminds me of a letter from one of Kafka's friends where he gushed "You are fire, light, warmth to me!" - or something along those lines - which nobody would consider saying today. Supercharged words like that would get you derided as both pretentious and flamboyant- is this because dramatic language has been somehow hijacked by adolescents and effusive gay men, or is it just an American trait to be always suspect of excessive language?) At any rate, though, back to "Es ist ein' Ros'", which I rank alongside "In the Bleak Midwinter" as the perfection - sort of the quiddity, in the way I conceive the genre - of carol-ness.

The only picture I've ever seen of Praetorius is a woodcut which I take to be the frontispiece to one of this theoretical works or chorale collections or something. He's decked out in a doublet with a short-cape, clutching a pair of gloves in one hand and a manuscript in the other. He's wearing his hair about neck-length with a wide, straight moustache and a bushy goatee- the overall effect is the sort of person you'd imagine administering a secular colony in North America around 1600. I have always liked his music, preferably in the form of an arrangement of a dance from Terpsichore for sackbuts and shawms and tabors and hurdy-gurdies and all those other great extinct instruments that seem so raucous and alien today.

This chorale, though, is exactly the opposite of those busy dances. Except for a bit of fancy suspension-work before the end of each section, the voices move in lock-step block chords, almost like what you'd imagine the rhythm of some plainchant might have been. The effect is- limpid? Sweet?

Praetorius - Michael? - uses mainly root-position chords, which gives the whole piece a very calm, solid feeling. Simple chords, too, but so well-chosen that the minor vi chord at the end of the first phrase is pout-inducingly timid and charming. I'm not sure how, but a sense of humility is a great part of what makes carols so sweet. DeVoto's introductory comment talks about two brief 'tonicizations' in this chorale which, to me, seems like a little bit of a stretch, but mainly because I feel like harmony of this sort moves so fast that you can't call something that happens in so short a space a tonicization when the chords lead almost immediately back to the original key. (This is a general problem, I think, with the state of music theory- the vocabulary remains very poor for describing the nuances and effects of the way these harmonic procedures sound in different contexts- crammed into two bars in a Bach chorale as opposed to the vast proportions of a Mahler symphony. Sure, it's the same thing happening, in a sense, but to call the V of V in bar 13 of this piece a 'tonicization' feels like an exaggeration...maybe it should be called a 'glaze of V' or something.) Interesting bits of this chorale, though, are those smeared-over suspension-rich endings I mentioned- I can't really make out what some of the chords are, even. If I had to put a numeral under them, it would be something ridiculous like a iii 6/5 chord, when in fact it's just a dissonant effect of various lines converging on the end in a manner that thumbs its nose at roman numeral analysis. They form chords, sure, but the ever-present dissonance doesn't make them functional as linch-pins within the harmonic scheme.

Later, more Praetorius- but dancier.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

All Modal Cons

I'm going to start by going through "Mostly Short Pieces: An Anthology for Harmonic Analysis" assemembled by Mark DeVoto. I'm a big fan of Mr. DeVoto, mainly because he's one of the few music academics who doesn't strike me as being a colossal dick. His prose style is light and conveys a genuine enthusiasm for music- the exact opposite of the Salzers and Schachters of the world who are, presumably, just as mirthess and strict in person as on the page. (I don't know how significant those Teutonic surnames are. A German professor taught me 19th century music history, though, and he was just as buttoned-up and dour as any Prussian stereotype. He gave you the distinct impression that he liked Beethoven, but that everything else from that century was a little suspect.) At any rate, though, DeVoto seems like a good guy. Also, if you go to this page, you get to see this great picture of him slumped against a wall like a Raymond Chandler hero.

I think this anthology is out of print, unfortunately. I stole mine years ago from a huge stack ordered by the choirmaster/music theory teacher at my high school. Yes, I feel a bit guilty. I seriously don't think anybody's ever missed it, though, and I come back to it and find something I like every year, which is more good than it would be doing gathering dust in a storage closet. So, this is a book I like, and I figured I might as well go through it systematically. Here we go.

1. SWEELINCK, "Variations: Von der Fortuna werd' ich getrieben"

Sweelinck looks pretty rakish in the pictures I could find, but I imagine his lace collar and smart little goatee was pretty mild in 1600. It can't have been easy to play the organ with those giant'd think they'd get hung up on the stops or something. DeVoto's choice to get the ball rolling for the whole anthology is Jan Pieterzoon's S.'s little set of variations on the song 'Von der Fortuna werd' ich getrieben.'

Variation 1 (of 3) uses the Dorian mode based on G (i.e. one flat), so the 'naturally occuring' chords are i, ii, III, IV, v (usually this gets raised to V), viĀ°, and VII. In this first variation, you get a fair number of sharpened scale-degree-7 (i.e. F sharps) as a leading tone up to G, but this isn't a hard and fast rule- a little surprisingly, it's not sharp in a number of upward- 6 7 1 lines. A sharpened scale-degree-4 (i.e. C sharp) shows up also to function as part of a secondary dominant. The minor v chord pops up a lot (i.e. D minor) as does (I already mentioned this) the V / V, which somehow seems a little daring and forward-thinking to me, since I don't have a lot of experience with this early baroque harmony.

The most interesting feature of this opening variation, to me, is how it opens with these quasi-choral textures that give way to some just-two-voices activity at bar 9. I'd compare them to counterpoint exercises if it weren't for all the successive minor thirds. In measures 19-21 there's a brief touch on Bb major and F major and then - this is pretty crazy - an E flat in bar 22 that touches on C minor before abruptly veering back to the originally G-ish tonality to finish on a G major chord.

Variation 2's gimmick is that usually one of the voices has moving eighth notes noodling around by step while the other voices have chorale-type chord tones. That's a simplification, but it doesn't really deserve a bar-by-bar analysis in terms of motivic development or something. The interesting thing about this variation, for me, is how it rapidly alternates major and minor chords by varying sharp or natural scale degree 7 and flat or natural scale degree 3. That shifting creates what we think of as an antique 'modal' sound nowadays. It feels shifty and uncertain, and sort of 'unfunctional' compared to tonal harmony- it's not as goal-oriented. Measures 31-32 have a progression from a D major chord (V) to B flat major chord (III) that feels unusual in context. The scorecard for modulation is: a flat 6th degree heavily tonicizes B flat major, then moves back to G but undercuts it immediately by using the unsharpened 7th scale degree, then moves on F only to snap around to G again very abruptly.

Variation 3 uses harmonies much like those of the first variation, but moving at a slower tempo to allow lots of fast sixteenth note passages. These passages seem to be centered on the tone of B flat, but Sweelinck pointedly uses E natural, resulting in a nicely off-kilter modal sound. Off-kilter to ears raised on tonal music, anyway- I'm sure Sweelinck thought nothing of it. He does give us the E flat eventually though, and in fact gives us the climax of the variation in B flat major before bringing us back around to G for the ending. The ending, incidentally, feels pretty modal and unusual to our ears since he leads into the final G chord with E-flats and other things which are very clearly not parts or the IV or V chords in G that we like for solid, unambiguous endings.

And- do we like it? I'd say 'yes', because the whole piece feels fresh and loose-limbed, especially compared to the shiny polish that you find in composers like Bach and Couperin later on. There are some voice-leadings that we've come to think of as awkward, but for no really good reason- this music sounds good and feels comfortable playing by its own rules. Hats off to Sweelinck.

I. Introduction

Hi. This is going to be a journal of my progress through various music anthologies. It's not that I feel I can offer spectacular revelations about these pieces, but rather that keeping a diary like this gives me some structure and accountability in my progress, Reader, and forces me to talk about it in a meaningful way instead of just jotting things like 'Bifocal tonality- illusory?' in a spiral notebook.