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.


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