Thursday, April 28, 2005


J. S. BACH "St. Matthew Passion" (1729) No. 19, CHORALE with RECITATIVE: "O Schmerz!"

"O Pain!" cries the Narrator, locked in miserable sympathy with Jesus's every nerve-ending as the Romans slash their whips across him over and over. "Here shudders the tortured Heart! How it sinks! How pale its Face!"

In the Lutheran church the congregation looks on in holy dread as the orchestra pulses a pedal tone, a jugular throbbing with fear. The tenor, eyes wide, narrates a grisly scene as though convulsed by a vivid hallucination- Jesus whipped and dragged friendless before the Judge. The choristers punctuate his story with bursts of a hymn tune that has been cut to pieces and strangely harmonized, its diminished harmonies underscoring the suffering and impending tragedy of the scene. This, in 1729, was how you did the Passion of the Christ.

In this case, the Passion according to St. Matthew. DeVoto chooses, for the next entry in his anthology, a "chorale with recitative"- the chorale in this case being the same Herzliebster Jesu (which we've now seen in no less than five versions). This is the second use of this chorale in this work- Bach uses it earlier in the piece in a more conventional harmonization. Now - for this pivotal dramatic moment - he alternates passages of tortured tenor recitative melody with blocks of Herzliebster Jesu, reharmonized and fitted with new words to suit the dramatic moment.

I'm not sure if there's an equivalent of tunes like this for the modern audience. I'm sure, if you're a regular churchgoer, certain religious songs are so familiar that you could still recognize them if they were cut to pieces for compositional purposes. Ives chopped up American tunes regularly for his compositional processes- but who recognizes one in ten of them anymore? The density of Ives' allusions can now only fully appeal to scholars of Ives and American religious music. Which is to say that I've heard of the Old Rugged Cross, but I certainly can't hum it.

What is the effect like? Well, to make a slightly ridiculous analogy:

TENOR: "Oh, she comes! Her Hands are Red with Blood! The Stones echo with her Footfalls!"

CHORUS (minor key): "She'll be comin' around the Mountain when she comes!"

TENOR: "She will wreak her Vengeance on the Evil-Doers!"

CHORUS (major key): "She'll be comin' around the Mountain when she comes!"

And so forth.

This part of the Passion of St. Matthew is only 27 measures long, but it certainly doesn't feel that way when you're analyzing it. The harmonies are extremely dense and seemingly every other chord is diminished, creating a very 'black' feeling (the infusion of tritones and major/minor seconds seems to do that- sort of like how the 'black' and thorny style of Shostakovich is instantly discernible). Speaking of 'thorny'- I should mention that the tenor recitative line is very chromatic and a little hard to sing.

It's in F minor, although the key signature has three flats. I don't know if this is for purposes of utility (for the modulations) or whether the keys of the surrounding movements are in the three flats. As it is, Bach writes in that D-flat accidental quite often. I am wary of distinguishing full-on 'modulations' and 'tonicizations' in this piece, since the sheer number of diminished chords and unexpected chromatic developments make the situation ambiguous. It is, mostly, in F-minor, with excursions/tonicizations of A-flat Major (the relative major, natch), B-flat minor (the minor subdominant - add 2 flats), and C minor (the minor dominant - subtract one flat).

The way the modulations work tends to go like this: the recitative starts in one key, modulates (or, you know, tonicizes), and then modulates again to arrive in a new key at which point the choir starts its fragment of Herzliebster Jesu. This choral fragment usually undergoes a modulation, which leads in turn to a new key for the beginning of the next section of recitative. These fragments of recitative and chorale are short - three or four bars - so the modulations are frequent (and chromatically intense, owing to all the diminished sonorities). At the end of the piece, we get a seven bar (long, in this context) passage of recitative which moves through a curious sequence in F minor (IV7, ii dim7, V, V/V, V6, vii dim of V, V 4/2, vii dim7) of sufficient ambiguity that we aren't that surprised that, after arriving at a tonic, we immediately modulate into C minor and then somehow conclude on a G major chord (which doesn't quite feel like a dominant of C minor in this context).

It's interesting how Bach distinguishes between the recitative and chorale passages- the recitative gets throbbing sixteenth-note pedal tones (very menacing) which frequently shift by a semitone to usher in an unexpected diminished chord to introduce a modulation. These abruptly cease for the chorale passages, which feel monumental and stoic by comparison (the lack of 'heartbeat' makes them observers of the narrative rather than participants, I think). When the recitative starts again, the sixteenth note pedal does as well. It's like a movie cutting between a close-up of a terrified face (the jaw termbling) and a crowd of mournful - but calm - observers.

Oh, and DeVoto takes special care to point out that Bach uses an augmented sixth chord in this piece, which is apparently a really rare thing for Bach. If you're curious, it's right there in measure 23 (in inversion). It sounds sort of weird in context, since everything else feels diminished but in a slightly different way (all the other predominant chords tend to be viis / Vs etc), and makes for an eyebrow-raising choral climax. This is highlighted by the fact that, if you're playing this edition at the piano, you have to turn the page to get to measure 23. It's kinda like in comic books where they have a 'splash' page with an alarming full-page image at a major structural point.

So, I think that sums it up. Next post: more Bach, but at a keyboard, and mercifully free of Herzliebster Jesu.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Herzliebster Herzliebster Herzliebster Herzliebster Jesu Jesu Jesu Jesu

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

CHORALES on "Herzliebster Jesu" (four of them): Nos. 105 and 78 from "St. Matthew Passion" and Nos. 59 and 111 from the "St. John Passion"

It's easy to develop the subconscious belief that Bach wrote his chorales solely as fodder for future harmonic analysis. Which is to say that - unless you had an unusual choral or (Lutheran?) church organist background - you'd never heard these pieces before they were stuck in front of you for a music theory class. You might have come upon them in their proper context (i. e. within a cantata or passion oratorio) but almost certainly never as the neat filets laid end-to-end in Schirmer's Riemenschneider edition.

Looking over that Riemenschneider book just now, I'm struck by how ugly it is- the notes are tiny, the staves are jammed together, and trying to play from it at a keyboard gives me a headache. What's worse is the sheer amount of information between the thin paper covers- I feel weary when I hold it and think of all the "revised, corrected, edited, and annotated" chords inside. How are we supposed to use this book? Isn't its existence an implication that the serious musician will go through it from front to back, somehow slurping all the information and sweetness and high baroque voice-leading technique from each one? I tried, a couple years ago, to play through the whole thing, ticking the chorales off one by one over the weeks and making pathetic little margin notes like "highly chromatic" or "interesting cadence" with my pencil. Judging from the markings, I abandoned the enterprise after 142 of them (out of 371).

And what do I remember about these chorales, which are supposedly such a treasure-house of music knowledge? Very, very little. They all blur together as a sight-reading exercise (I had my reasons for playing them rather than doing pencil analysis at the time). Now, as I go back to play a chorale or two at random for this entry, I have many of the same thoughts, and one in particular: these are awkward to play at a piano. The alto and the tenor lines keep crossing, and you'd need a giant's hands to play some of these spacings. I suppose that's a lesson in itself about baroque choral harmony: when your fingers get tangled up, it drives home how tangled-up the voice leading is.

I do, now, appreciate just how weird some of Bach's harmonic choices are. This strikes me most when I pick some chorale at random out of the book- I throw a dart and it hits chorale No. 138. This one starts in E Minor but then lurches through a particularly convoluted little patch of diminished chords into E major and cadences on the B dominant. The chorales are often like this, harmonically- normal normal normal VERY ODD normal normal. In No. 138, I can only assume it's something to do with the text, since the music switches to the parallel major for the 'exquisite' ('erlesen') night. Really, the parallel major amounts to a distant key, even if they share the same tonic, and it seems almost lazy that Bach gets there using fully diminished chords (which are, of course, harmonic skeleton keys). He has lots of 'tricks' like this- one of his favorite being the unexpected arrival of a weird, severely chromatically-altered chord which then, in a couple steps, resolves through standard voice-leading practices to some mundane key which isn't too far from the original tonic.

My tone might sound curiously bitter, and I imagine this is the fault of the Riemenschneider concept. Amputated from their places within oratorios, their texts buried in an appendix, the harmony of these chorales can seem perverse and arbitrary. The 'Bach chorale' as a concept seems pointless- a short block of 4-part harmony with no emotional musical purpose except to get in and out of some neighboring keys with a little harmonic flash. I also wonder if it wouldn't be fair for another Albert Riemenschneider to put out a massive paperback of the collected Telemann chorales, for comparison.

DeVoto deals with this problem pretty elegantly in "Mostly Short Pieces". He is clearly familiar with the sensation of having a page of no-context chorales plopped in front of you- enjoy scrunching your little V6s and V of Vs under the bass notes, kid! So, instead he tears a page from the "178 Chorale Harmonizations of J. S. Bach: A Comparative Edition for Study" by a Professor Donald Martino. This book by Martino is a darn good idea: he takes chorales based on the same hymn tune, transposes them all into the same key, and then stacks them on the page in a sort of score format so that you can see the alternative harmonization choices very easily. (Of course, the damn thing is out of print.)

The chorales in question are taken from the St. Matthew Passion (Nos. 105 and 78) and the St. John Passion (Nos. 59 and 111). I copied these out onto manuscript paper (figuring that in Bach's era most musicians learned a lot by copying out music) and then did a standard roman numeral analysis of each. And what did I come up with? Well, giving a blow-by-blow on what happens harmonically in each chorale would be chloroform in print, so instead I'll describe how they vary. (Incidentally, I found an instance of parallel 5ths- the horror).

1.) Bach cadences on different pitches within the original tune ("Herzliebster Jesu", the Crüger version of which I discussed in an earlier entry). There's more variation with regards to these cadence points within the first half of the tune, as the melody tends to demand cadences at certain points in the last few phrases. This sheds a little light on the way Bach uses abrupt diminished sonorities to steer to goals in seemingly strange keys- if your text demands a cadence, these little bursts of intense harmonic activity will give it a little more solidity even if it's occuring at an unusual point on a well-know melody line.

2.) Bach is pretty relaxed about how he treats the "Herzliebster Jesu" melody line. He embellishes it with sixteenth notes and passing tones in the different chorales, and even varies those accidentals which are flexible within the melodic minor (i.e. the natural/sharpness of scale degrees 6 and 7).

3.) These chorales DeVoto picked are actually really mild examples of the sort of chromaticism of which Bach is capable- Bach sticks to the tonic minor and relative major, only briefly touching on the submediant major in one chorale and, arguably, the subdominant minor. Even in these cases, the tonicizations feel more like extended V/iv stuff rather than a new key- the things are barely 10 bars long, after all.

Next post: more Bach, in context.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Doubles: Mine vs. Georg Friedrich's

Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 12 (1729), III. Air with Double

I should admit up front that, for a long time, I didn't appreciate Händel. I'm a clarinet player, and he was a century too early to have written anything for my instrument- the only times I encountered him in performance were lame occasions when I had to play baroque trumpet parts in understaffed youth orchestras. So, when I thought of Händel, it was of: the Hallelujah chorus. Or little asian kids sawing through the Water Music. Or the Royal Fireworks showing up on every Lazerlight "100 Greatest Pieces of Classics Music"-type compilation. He was, in other words, just another big monolithic name from classical music history and I gave no more attention to his music that I would the artistic qualities of a "RIGHT LANE MUST EXIT" sign.

Gradually, though, I began to appreciate Georg Friedrich as a distinct musical personality. His story is interesting -- his physician father, his time studying law, the years in Italy, the ebb and flow of his popularity in London -- but what I find strange is that Händel's music is very hard to slot into the neat timeline of classical music as a developing style. I think my confusion stems from classical history's desire to make each generation of composers into 'children' of the previous. Mozart and Haydn, it is implied, could only descend from the mighty Bach (albeit through progeny like C.P.E. and so forth). As a result, Händel doesn't fit neatly onto that lineage chart- a German who wrote primarily in the Italian style and did most of that writing in England. Moreover, most of Händel's work is in genres which are no longer popular- organ concertos, oratorios, mythological Italian operas, coronation anthems(?!). There are lots of pieces by Händel that are suitable for a generic classical radio station -- his concerti grossi, some keyboard pieces, instrumental chamber music -- but only the Water Music and Royal Fireworks could be called 'beloved.' When I ask people what they think of Händel, they usually say immediately that they 'prefer Bach' or otherwise find Handel 'tame'.

So what is so 'tame' about him? His style seems bland, I think, because it is so perfect. His melodies are so solid and carefully balanced that you never feel any giddiness or uncertainty- they are beautiful and satisfying but simultaneously dense, like an antique Egyptian statue of a seated pharoah- too low and heavy to be overturned. Also, Händel's sense of harmony was much less inclined to dissonance than that of a composer like Rameau- his chords have a serene quality, the progressions gliding along so sweetly that diminished sonorities seem superfluous.

How did I arrive at this conception of his music?

DeVoto only includes one thing by Händel in "Mostly Short Pieces"- a middle movement from a 1729 concerto grosso scored on three staves for Violino I. II., Violino III. e Viola, and Tutti Bassi (this bottom stave includes thoroughbass figures).

Looking at it on the page, nothing could be blander. It's in E major, 3/4 time, and the motion proceeds in a stately fashion by quarter notes (and later eighth notes). Accidentals are extremely rare and we only get four dynamic markings in the whole piece (forte and piano are the two options). It's an 'Air with Double', a 'double' being a French term for a kind of simple variation through ornamentation.

This piece, I saw, is basically just a long, simple tune repeated a few times with ornamentation. I did my usual chordal analysis of it and felt curiously unsatisfied- it was just the usual progression of I iii6 vi I6 IV V sort of stuff. This analysis felt useless for anything besides determining where various modulations occur.

So, I decided to see what would happen if I, myself, were to write this piece. I took the Violino I. II. melody and wrote new alto and bass lines for it, wondering how close my harmonization instincts would be to those of its author. In retrospect, I should have done this before completing my original analysis of the piece since I found that in many instances I felt compelled to write something deliberately different from Händel had done. This turned out being more work than I expected- the piece is only 84 measures, but the style requires constant manic vigilance with regards to voice leading.

When I finished my version, I ran my notation program's 'Find Parallel Motion' utility. Sadly, I had over a dozen instances of parallel motion. I glumly fixed most of these and then - curious - ran the same utility on Händel's original (I had entered it after mine). Händel, it turns out - and this was very gratifying for me - had about as many parallel motion instances as me (all of them open to debate since they usually involved different registers and voice switching). This says something about theory books and how they teach harmony.

How were our versions different? My Air with Double is a little more reliant on diminished sonorities- it is (yes, I am very satisfied with myself) more interesting on a measure-by-measure basis. Händel's, though, has a better grasp of large-scale harmonic movements- his modulations feel more inevitable, largely because my more frequent diminished sonorities distract from the accidentals when they occur. My piece is somewhat more likely to use minor chords at pivotal melodic moments -- a vi instead of a IV, for instance, -- making it a little more bittersweet that Händel's, which is more like a stately wedding dance.

I'll close with a brief analysis of Handel's air, mainly just the big form. The opening section (which will later be subject to variation) is in two parts. The A section is 12 measures long, three phrases of four bars a piece. This assymetrical number of phrases makes the section feel naturally unfinished (well, also because it ends on the dominant in B major). The B section of the opening is four phrases of four bars each, and moves back to the tonic (E Major), briefly touching on the relative minor (C-sharp minor) before cadencing in E. The motion throughout this opening section is very bland- movement by quarter note.

Next comes the VARIATIO, as it is marked in the score. Händel repeats the same tune as section A, only now the bass is moving in eighth notes and the melody line is harmonized closely by the alto. In the first moment of real variation, in bars 37 and 38, the tune unexpectedly moves to the dominant (a little early, if compared to its iteration in the introduction) with some trill figures in the melody line. (This is a very strange moment in this piece- it feels abruptly more complicated in terms of the soprano's rhythmic activity, and I think serves as a moment of 'conflict' to throw the audience off balance to make them curious about the rest of the VARIATIO. Still, though, it's Händel, so it's not all that much of a 'conflict'- very unsettling and hard to say exactly what his intention is). Next, the A phrase is repeated again, only now the soprano is the one moving in eighth note figures, sort of noodling around the chords without playing anything particularly melodic. At measure 53, we get a variation on the B section, characterized by eighth-note motion in the bass (again) and a slightly more active alto line- the soprano just plays the tune. All four phrases of B unfold this way and then - as a sort of pre-ending coda - we get 11 (?) bars of scalar sequences that loosely reprise the harmonic sceme of the B section- all before ending with a literal repetition of the last four cadential bars of B. The VARIATIO then repeats.

I haven't heard the rest of this concerto grosso yet, but I'm guessing this Air and Double serves as a pleasant interlude between more lively movements. I can't think of anything particularly interesting to say about it- it seems like smooth, perfect baroque music in the Italian manner.

Next: Bach, four times.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Mimmo and Cut-Up Method

DOMENICO SCARLATTI, Sonata in G Major, L388/K2

I was reading somebody's recollections of Stravinsky - I can't remember who, but I'm pretty sure it was a composer - and there was an anecdote about Stravinsky offering to show the guy his compositional scrapbook. The guy expected to see a regular musical notebook with ideas jotted down, but the thing was a real scrapbook- Stravinsky had taken fragments from his notes, cut them out, and pasted them end-to-end to form what were more or less the final compositions.

The last Scarlatti sonata in this anthology ("Mostly Short Pieces" by Mark DeVoto) put me in mind of that cut-up method. This will be a short entry, which is ironic considering the pains I went to for this sonata. So, a couple words about my working method for this one:

•1) I traced the staves and barlines onto blank paper and pasted it into a notebook- the staves on the original page were too cramped to let me add symbols
•2) In my analysis, I wrote the chord symbols in the empty bars
•3) Assigning a color to each key, I highlight sections to indicate their tonality, adding a blue line to a color to indicate that it is the parallel minor

That might seem like a lot of trouble for a repetitious little 78-measure sonata that never has more than three voices, but the design of the piece is very strange and led to frequent mistakes during my analysis.

This is what happens: Scarlatti opens with a long phrase in G major that outlines the key and melodic materials that will be used throughout the sonata. So far, so good- nothing out of the ordinary except for the literal repetition of a two bar phrase. Scarlatti then embarks on some sequential descending figures, which seem like an innocuous development of the opening. These modulate, by adding a C-sharp, into a phrase in D major. Then, the first hint of things getting strange happens. The D major phrase repeats, literally, but transposed up into A major. This isn't done in a genteel way, it's just suddenly in A major- like a film with a jump cut from a man waving on a mountainside to the same man, dressed identically, waving on a seashore. Still, though, this is the dominant of D, so it feels harmonically justified.

Then, just as abruptly, the G-sharps vanish and we're back in D, repeating the same cadence in D, for that matter. And then - this comes as a real shock - we get the same phrase repeated with B-flats and F-naturals- so, D-minor? Scarlatti pops from the major to the parallel minor with no warning, as though the film of the man waving on the mountainside had abruptly flipped to photonegative. We get a two-bar cadence in D-minor, which then repeats exactly. This repetition is, for some reason, unsettling (we will call this repeated phrase Cadence Photonegative). But then, with no warning, we're back in D major again- once again repeating cadences literally (we will call the repeated phrase that occurs here Cadence Photopositive). The phrase spins out to a standard conclusion in D major, ending the A section.

The B section starts with a feeling of deja vu- it is identical to the opening of the piece, only transposed from G major to D major, right down to the repetition of phrases. Then, out of the blue, we get four bars of A minor - which is a direct transposition of what we called Cadence Photonegative before. This time, though, it isn't preceded by a passage in the parrallel major, we just a get a block of the parallel minor of D major's dominant. Then, with no preparation, we get a two bar phrase in G major (our home key) which repeats itself identically. This is followed by an iteration of the chord progression we called Cadence Photopositive, but this time transposed to G major. We get a passage of sequences in G major now, seemingly drawing the piece towards a conclusion when - this feels really weird now - we abruptly hear Cadence Photonegative again. Scarlatti has abruptly shifted from G major to G minor for this phrase, which (as before) is a two-bar fragment which repeats itself. Then, without pause, we hear Cadence Photopositive! Again! It's in G major, which transitions to more arpeggiated sequence figures that lead to a standard G major cadence.

So, if you managed to follow that, you probably understand why I wanted to color code the thing. The effect of this sonata is very strange- you keep hearing the same phrases at different transpositions, abruptly cutting from one tonality to another (somehow related) tonality. Between these islands of repeated cadences are arpeggiated sequence figures in harmonic limbo- they're not really functional harmony, they're just keeping busy. Also, the piece is not melodically very interesting- the surprises and interest all come from the weirdly-joined blocks of harmony. In fact, I don't even know if I could sing this piece despite having developed an intimate relationship with it. In this sense, it is like the music of Stravinsky- you can sing a bit of the beginning, but the music is predicated on unexpected, lurching changes. As a result, you are more like to invent your own weird transitions that sound like the idea of the original than sing it literally. You switch randomly between the fragments in a way that is just as sensible as the original. This piece could have gone on indefinitely, transposing fragments up into dominants and random parallel minors for hours.

Next post: Händel, a bit of a concerto grosso.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


No. 10.5 DOMENICO SCARLATTI, Sonata in D Minor, L413/K9

Surely the composer graced with the most striking name is Domenico Scarlatti. If you append the following titles to that name - ... the Red Corsair, ... the Masked Assassin, ... the Silken Highwayman - you get an idea of what a prime place Mr. Scarlatti might have occupied in quasi-historical harlequin romance novels had he pursued the career of dashing criminal. Instead, though, we content ourselves with Domenico Scarlatti, the Genius Composer and Master of the Harpsichord.

(Incidentally, the picture I found of Scarlatti is surprisingly bland. I was hoping for something like the picture of John Bull, with a black background and a sheen of Spanish cruelty. Instead, though, we get the standard issue gentleman-in-a-tidy-wig standing by a keyboard with a piece of manuscript in his hand. His face is long and noble - the sort of face you might pick for a bust of Virgil - and his body is a swell of velvet and lace and multi-butttoned waistcoats. If only we could have had one of the darker Goya-influencing Spanish painters - Velasquez? - to take a crack at him...)

DeVoto includes two of Scarlatti's sonatas (he only wrote 600 of them). I am going to spread these out over two posts. I should note, going into it, that I think Scarlatti is fantastic- his approach to harmony is thrilling and unorthodox. Devoto calls some of his harmony 'bizarre,' which seems fair enough if you consider him within his historical context. Still, what strikes me is that all of Scarlatti's harmony functions, and therefore serves to point out how artificial and conservative most tonal theory books are in their treatment of the subject.

The Sonata in D Minor, L413/K9 is a short bipartite work, about 62 measures of 6/8. It is, for the most part, in two voices, although Scarlatti so often adds the interval of a third or a small block chord to one of the voices that the texture doesn't feel particularly contrapuntal. This piece is a long, long way from Fux counterpoint exercises- Scarlatti doesn't shy away from long sequential passages in parallel thirds (e. g. measures 9 through11). Sequences and literal repetitions are some of his favorite devices, allowing him to do a few things:
•1) prolong a certain sonority to make the 'bizarre' change which follows it more interesting (I think unusual harmony requires judicious use of non-bizarre areas to keep from becoming monotonous and disorienting - i.e. Richard Strauss 'Salome' gobbledygook)
•2) throw the audience for a loop with the following trick- measure A, measure A repeated, measure B, measure B repea- oh wait! It's not repeating literally! He's changed something!
•3) establish keys without using actual cadences- a scale in thirds contains certain implied chords that create a quasi-cadential effect. This allows Scarlatti to establish not so much a key as a scale- he can use these sequential passages to leave a certain ambiguity about major/minor to keep the audience on its toes. And, of course, these are easy places to introduce accidentals for modulations (something he doesn't do in DeVoto's examples, though).
•4) Ornament the repetitions to show off

Okay, so what happens, broadly, in the harmony of this sonata? Section A offers a long passage of thorny, antique-sounding D Minor (an effect created, I have noticed, by using v chords- the opening chords are i V i v ) before moving to an unusual set of scalar passages that imply F major without actually coming to a proper cadence. Scarlatti goes on in F major, but continues to cloud the subject by using trilled suspensions and a chain of appoggiatura figures. Even though the chords are Is and Vs, we don't feel a solid, uncomplicated arrival in F until bar 25, where an ascending F scale dispels any doubt.

Section B starts as a continuation of this now solid, comfortable F major. We get I, V7, I - v?! He uses a minor v in F major? It certainly sounds that way until it becomes apparent that Scarlatti has instead - pissing on most freshman theory book rules about modulation - moved to G Minor in an unusual and striking manner. The perceived v chord in F major is, in fact, a iv chord in G Minor, natch. In the same vein, the v6 chord in G minor a couple bars later is in fact a iv in A major (yeah, a minor iv chord in A major- Scarlatti rightly realizes that the divisions between a major and parallel minor aren't nearly as rigid as the books imply). The A major section, in fact, turns out to be a dominant for the D minor which reasserts itself (one could, I guess, argue that there never was a iv chord in A minor, that it was just a premature arrival of the D Minor tonic- but it doesn't sound that way when you hear it).

The other big harmonic surprise comes after a few bars of establishing D Minor- we're back into G Minor again? Scarlatti uses the altered-repetition trick (see trick No. 2 on the list above) to include a D Major chord in D Minor (yes, it does sound cool) which acts as a dominant for the arrival of G Minor, which arrives after a very weird little progression- V-sharp, VI, dimished ii6, V-sharp6/5, i and then- sequence. This sequence is, like I mentioned earlier, in either D Minor or F Major, and after that bit of strange time in G minor we're not sure which.

Well, it's D Minor (the piece is only 63 or so bars, he can't spin this out forever), which gets reaffirmed with many more queasy appoggiatura figures and lots of V chords that lack thirds. This makes for a certain bleak character.

It's hard to imagine the first reception of these pieces- did he sit beside Princess Maria Barbara at the 'gravicembalo' and play through them for her, or did she sight-read them? Is she the one who nicknamed him 'Mimmo'?

Tomorrow- another Scarlatti sonata.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bird Calls

JEAN PHILIPPE RAMEAU: "Pieces de clavecin, Book 1, Suite No. 1: Le Rappel des oiseuax"

Some composers who wrote harmony textbooks:
•Sessions (name-dropped tirelessly by academics but seldom performed anymore)
•Piston (seldom name-dropped- not adventurous enough for current tastes)
•Adler (you have never heard a piece by Adler unless you are the type who buys classical music magazines)
•Persichetti (I've played exactly one piece by Persichetti- a cacophonous thing for wind ensemble with an infuriating scheme for barring the rests)
•Schönberg (please insert your own opinion about Mr. Schönberg)

and, drum roll:

•Jean Philippe Rameau

Rameau's various works on harmony (the one I am reading is the ubiquitous Dover 'Traité de l'harmonie') are the greatest, most bracing approach to understanding tonal harmony and voice-leading I have ever encountered. His stuff is, admittedly, extremely confusing and hard to read. Moreover, he tries - in pure Enlightment fashion - to back up all his theories with the latest discoveries in (not-quite-right pre-Newtonian) science and the works of 'the ancients' (musty whiff of renaissance humanism.) However, even his 'wrong' ideas are so interesting and make so much practical sense that you're glad you've encountered them. Moreover, it offers a snapshot of harmony as it existed at the beginning of the 18th century- up for grabs, so to speak. Nobody wrote the rules on stone-tablets, instead they struggled for guiding principles derived from how everybody was already composing and - this is what is most refreshing for me - acknowledged that they weren't certain.

The Rameau work DeVoto includes in "Mostly Short Pieces" is a little AB keyoard piece (deja vu) called "Le Rappel des oiseaux" - which is, I think, something like "The Calling-Together of the Birds." Within the context of this anthology, it is suddenly more complex in terms of both harmony and melodic figuration than the pieces which preceded it- a dam has burst. Whereas Couperin uses diminished chords as a colorful trick to slide between keys, Rameau uses dissonance in big, thrilling slabs (well, within the context-this isn't Ruggles). It is, in other words, the first example of a fully-realized chromatic style.

Part A is almost entirely in two voices- they spend most of their time on and above the treble staff, frequently brushing against each other and interlocking in their figurations. It is very hard to evoke, in words, exactly how their melodies run- a little mordent figure recurs frequently (presumably the bird call) and each line moves not stepwise (diatonically, Rameau would say) but rather leaps from one chord-tone to another across whichever chord is in play. In this sense, the piece illustrates Rameau's theory that melody arises from harmony. Two sonorities make up the bulk of Part A- a long, long iteration of a i chord (we're in e-minor, incidentally) that calls to mind two birds chattering at each other, and then an equally long, long iteration of a diminished vii chord. From there, we move into a rather dark sequence based on the existing melodic figures- i, VI, a diminished vii-ish, v-ish, dimished ii-ish, then a long stretch of V moving to V iv v VI V i. I say 'ish' of some of the chords because, since the piece exists in two voices, there's some ambiguity about how exactly some of these harmonic sections should be named, although I think I'm pretty accurate about how they function. Moreover, I've glossed over some very dissonant little moments that arise from the voice leading- these inevitably are just passing sonorities before a stronger chord. Rameau is the first composer in this anthology who is almost casual in his use of bitter dissonance to act as a predominant. The diminished ii and vii are used frequently, and illustrate his idea that all such diminished chords are just piled-up thirds from an implied dominant or predominant.

Part B is much more complicated. Rameau launches into it in the unprepared relative major- G major, in this case. There is a long, long chattering iteration of the G major chord, and it then proceeds through a fairly convention progression to further establish the key- I ii V I V ii vi...

But then things get weird. An open fifth of B and F-sharp appears, moving to a V - and then a V7 - of B. So, suddenly we're in B minor- but we've only had one tonic of B minor before it mutates into a dimished vii of A minor, then into something even more diminished-sounding, and then a V of F-sharp - then another diminished chord - then- B major? But just for a couple beats before that D-sharp slides down to a D-natural, putting us back in B minor, which soon embarks on a short progress through all the most dissonant chords of B minor- a dimished ii7, a diminished vii9 and then- sequence. B min to V of A to A min to V of G to G to a C major 7 chord (?!) back to - e minor.

That last paragraph of mine makes for very bad reading because it attempts - and this never works - to explain what was, for Rameau, just an episode of chromaticism. This passage of harmony is all altered tones and subverted resolutions, dazzling and shifting, full of prepared and unprepared dissonances and implied suspensions. Some tricks - like the abrupt step from B major to B minor, seem especially radical, and I think the overall effect was intended to be an Englightment keyboard version of one of those story-themed Disney rollercoaster rides- it starts at a steady speed (to go slowly past the robot forest animals or whatever) but suddenly embarks on a course full of abrupt turns and sick-making drops. And, eventually, it disgorges you - mildly surprised - back at the platform from which you started.

Next post: Domenico Scarlatti, who would snicker at all the harmony books listed at the top of this post.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Spooky Names

Entry No. 8 in "Mostly Short Pieces" is a little keyboard work of the sort that made its author - François Couperin - famous. Couperin's method seemed to go something like this: 1) write an elegant little keyboard piece, 2) give it a spooky name calculated to raise artistocrats' eyebrows 3) publish about a dozen spooky-titled pieces as an 'order,' 4) let the accolades and profits roll in. The titles of these pieces seem to have little or nothing to do with their musical content. The titles are, however, extremely evocative, so much so that just reading down the table of contents is a pleasure: The Enchantress, the Young Nuns, the March of the Gray-Clad Regiment, the Refreshing One, Virginity in the Invisible-Colored Domino, and our present work

FRANÇOIS COUPERIN, Pièces de clavecin, Book II, Sixth Order "Les baricades mystérieuses"

Or, in other words, The Mysterious Barricades. This piece is extremely famous and popular, showing up on baroque concert programs in arrangements for strings or guitars and any number of other combinations. It's resiliant that way- it even survives the somewhat perverse transcription by Thomas Ades into a quartet for double-basses and bass clarinets (in which he deliberately dismantles and spreads around most of the voice-leading- Mr. Ades badly wants his piece to be mentioned in the same breath as those Schönberg and Webern orchestrations of Brahms and Bach, presumably.)

The best portrait I found of Couperin reminds me of the picture of Purcell I mentioned a few posts ago- Turkish-type robes were all the rage. François reclines in a huge mass of yellow silk with navy blue lapels, lacey cuffs and collar spilling out at the sleeves and neck. He wears his own hair - rendered here as a goldy-brown with a few touches of gray, styled a bit like that of Margaret Thatcher - and a tiny moustache of the sort later popularized by Errol Flynn and movies about British pilots in the first World War. His skin is very pink and the painter has posed his hands in very sculpted attitudes- the left primly holds a piece of music manuscript, and the right gestures towards it with a vague motion that suggests, to modern eyes: "Why did you give this to me?"

It seems a little strange to me that Les Barricades is so famous. It is, of course, very charming and mellow, and the burbling doodle-doodle-doodle-doodle quality of the inner voices is like bouncing gently along on a drive through the countryside. So- where are the Mysterious Barricades in question? Nothing seems particularly mysterious or barricaded about a gentle Sunday drive through B-flat major. The only possible explanation I can figure is that the form is that of a Rondeau (i.e. rondo), so the piece keeps modulating back to the home key of B-flat major rather than exploring farther afield. So, in that sense, I guess you could say it was barricaded. Still, that analogy is so stretched that you can almost hear it creaking. I don't know what I'd do if I had to interpret the invisible domino of virginity.

The piece is, incidentally, very hard to sight-read, especially if you're not a skilled pianist. All the lines are overlapping suspensions, and it's a little bit of a headache at first to keep track of which fingers are being held down and which are on-the-move. Soon, though, you realize that the harmonic scheme on a measure-by-measure basis is very simple. It goes something like this: a measure starts one a strong chord, and then the arrival of snycopated voices changes it gradually into a passing chord, and then back again in the same manner. So, you get long passages of stuff like this: I V I V vi I6 IV V (repeats), all made charming by the suspensions and constant eighth-note motion.

The rondo part works like this- you've got your theme in B-flat, which repeats twice at the start, and then a series of 'couplets' which are interludes where the theme modulates and visits a neighboring tonality for a bit before wandering back. Over the whole work, you get these keys- B-flat major, F major, B-flat major, c minor, B-flat major, E-flat major (subdominant, natch) and then a very, very long stretch of B-flat major with lots of pedal tones suspensions (okay, maybe not quite long enough to be called pedal tones) to let you know Couperin's really ending it now. It's a kind of an extended coda before the ending, if that makes sense.

The modulations are usually accomplished through conventional methods. In measures 17-19, Couperin deploys a diminished vii / IV to move back to the IV of B-flat, essentially a little bit of dissonant chromaticism (i.e. an A-flat) to make it colorful. The suspensions make this technique pretty easy and unalarming since the chords are constantly mutating. After measure 49, you get a long series of standard progressions in B-flat major enlivened by a descending scale of pedal tones in the soprano- again, not jarring, because at this point we're almost craving a little dissonance and complexity since we've figured out how the harmonic pattern works.

Dissonances in this historical period seem to have been considered theoretically (literal use of that workd) to be a result of piled-up triads on dominant chords, and this is I think the rationale for the chord in measure 51- I'm calling it a IV9 of B-flat major missing its fundamental (so- a IV2? I am still getting the hang of this part). The other point of harmonic interest is the liberal use of ii chords (in various inversions) in measures 58 through 64- these act as passing chords between otherwise vanilla progressions of I IV vi V kinda stuff, adding interest and usually highlighting the descending pedal tones in the soprano.

So- these barricades ain't that mysterious. Next post: bird calls with the man who literally wrote the book about baroque harmony.

Monday, April 04, 2005

A Night at the Semi-Opera

No. 7 Henry Purcell "Air in D Minor" from "The Indian Queen"

DeVoto's last bit of Purcell in this anthology is a tune from "The Indian Queen," a work that he calls in his preface paragraph a "semi-opera" (he uses quotes, too). Lamentably, this does not mean an opera about enormous cargo trucks (in the vein of 'Starlight Express') but rather a stage work that looks an awful lot like opera - and was probably indistinguishable from opera to its contemporaries - but which we frown at now for having too little singing, too much talking, and more dancing than seems appropriate. After all, if you're going to hire opera singers, you may as well program a work in which they're singing all the time.

(Reader- I will try not to do anymore pun-type jokes like the 'semi' thing. It is insulting to you and degrading to me.)

It's strange how baroque opera seems so intensely stylized and inorganic after 300 years. Opera is, of course, by its very nature a big glob of artifice, but the simplistic (by our ultra-chromatic post-Debussian standards) harmony and forms of baroque opera have come to seem especially terse and abstract. These operas are still very enjoyable, but you can't escape the feeling that the emotions intended by the composer have petrified into cliches. There are exceptions (mostly laments- Dido's, Theseus's) but most baroque opera music has calcified with time to become not opera but what we would call 'absolute music.'

This "Air in D minor" is, like almost all the pieces we've looked at so far, in a simple binary form. There's an A section (repeat) and then a B section (repeat optional, I suppose, according to whether they've wheeled in the new stage scenery yet). It is, for the most part, in two voices (although the soprano is occasionally filled out with a fully voiced triad or a series of notes moving in parallel thirds). An eighth-note pulse keeps the piece moving perpetually, and the bass moves in counterpoint to the melody at all times rather than sitting on half notes or something. The bass alternates between contrary motion to the melody and (if the melody is resting on a cadential note) arpeggios to fill out a chord.

Harmonically, this air is an example of what DeVoto calls 'bifocal tonality,' which is to say a situation where 'relative minor and major alternate regularly and serve with approximately equal importance.' Somebody felt that situation needed a particular name, even though I would argue that the condition of major/minor mixture is more or less implicit to the minor mode. I suppose they felt it necessary to differentiate this situation from music that stays glumly minor for bar after bar without touching on III or VI chords to confuse the matter.

Section A is, overall, in D minor. You get Is and dominant V(sharp)s and iv and v (ish) sections, but also a prominant III to let you know that we're by no means estranged from cousin F major. And, sure enough, the B section is almost completely in F major- Purcell doesn't feel a need to modulate into it, he just launches on F and gives it a pretty thorough fleshing out- I V vi ii I IV V I and so forth. The last four bars move back into D abruptly, although there is a certain interesting ambiguity about whether we're in F major or D minor (largely because the textures are contrapuntal rather than block chords)- we're left with implied V of Fs and VI (IV of F) chords, along with a couple minor vs in alternation with i's leading to the final V(sharp) I candence.

So, how does this harmony feel when you hear it? I would have to say - and it's hard to put my finger on why - modal. The tune (hummable, with a weighty swing) is what comes out above all- there's no question that the melody is the most important aspect of this piece, and the harmony exists only to support it. The alternation of major and minor gives it an antique sensibility- the mixture makes the music seem less goal-oriented than later tonal music. This is because, I would say, we're so used to stepwise melodies moving firmly towards or away from a particular lodestone- it feels a little odd when harmony behind one shifts to the major mid-phrase. Also, I should point out that this type mixture of major and minor sounds, by nature, very dramatic and adventurous when thumped out in these martial rhythms. It sounds like: '(minor chord) Peril! (major chord) And chance of fortune! (minor chord) But so perilous!'

And, with that, we wave our handkerchiefs at Purcell for the time being. Next post: Couperin, another gentleman who saw fit to have his portrait painted in a big shiny robe.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Selections from an English Baroque Donut Box

Entry no. 6: "No. 3 Corant" and "No. 4 Saraband" from Suite No. 5 (keyboard music) by Henry Purcell

There's no real analog, among contemporary entertainment forms, for baroque keyboard dance suites. Movies are unities (they'r also too long for their sequels to be considered part of a 'set' in the same sense, I think), as are television shows (shorter, but still self-contained- although very short British series are closer) and plays. A set of Hogarth engravings was very much like a baroque dance suite- but not our contemporary comic books or cartoon collections. I would say that, in general, we are no longer as enamored of little sets of things. If we like sets, we like them to be big- long TV series, lots of Pokemon, etc. The closest thing we have today is maybe the rock EP, especially if it's a 'concept' EP like "The Tain" by the Decemberists- but even that is more like a descendent of the 19th century song cycle than a baroque suite.

(But- a suitable equivalent has just occured to me: the recent Jarmusch movie "Cigarettes and Coffee." That movie is, in its episodic format and variety of moods and tempi, similar in lots of ways to a baroque dance suite.)

DeVoto, for his sixth entry in "Mostly Short Pieces," offers two dances from Purcell's Suite No. 5 (written for keyboard). In culinary terms (this post is all about strained analogies) a baroque suite is most like a pink box of donuts- there is some variation among the contents, but a well-assembled box will always contain certain standard forms - glazed, maple bar - with a few slightly rarer (but still common) varieties - apple fritter, French. The two donut types DeVoto selects are a 'corant' (the renaissance englishe-spell'd version of a 'courante') and a saraband.

Both dances are in 3- one moderately fast (presumably), one slow. The corant's bass moves at a quarter note pulse- the melody gambols around this tempo, running ahead slightly or lagging, catching up sometimes to bounce along with dotted-eigth sixteenth figures dummm-d'dummm-d'dummm-d'dummmm. The melody is fairly simple in order to encourage ornamentation (once again, the part has lots of marks that I can't puzzle out). Harmonically, the corant is pretty simple- the basic pattern is to have a strong chord for the first two-of-three beats of a measure, and then some passing chord on the third beat. I V I V etc. There is a brief F major 'glaze of IV' (to use my own stupid term) in bar 5, which is to say a IV chord, then a IV of IV, but that get nipped in the bud by an E-natural in the bass that returns things to C. The A section (these pieces are binary) ends on a V preceded by a V of V. The second part doesn't really explore G at all (the whole piece is only 20 bars long, after all) but does have a nice moment with a diminished vii chord (bar 17). If anything is notable harmonically about this little corant, in fact, it's the graceful way that the chords are presented- all the voices are constantly in motion at different speeds, and you seldom feel clubbed over the head with a block chord. This truly feels like harmony arising from voice interaction.

The saraband is similar - also in 3, also in C major. It's all about the off-beats and little syncopations. On every measure you get a new chord, but the parts of the triad only gradually arrive, like little letters lighting up one by one to form a word: "--C-" "-IC-" "NIC-" "NICE". Sometimes, most interestingly, the letters start to change during the lighting-up process, so to speak, which is how you get interesting harmonic moves like the V4/2 of V to V in measure 8 to 9. Or, of course, you could be a stick-in-the-mud at just call that a bit of standard contrapuntal voice leading. Harmonically, it's pretty standard I V vi ii V I vi V of V etc sort of progressions, although there is a brief 'glaze of vi' in the B section (this is interesting because the arrival at the vi chord comes in form of three octaves of naked As stacked on top of each other, which is certainly a little stark within this texture).

So, two delicious little donuts from Purcell's fifth pink box. Next post: an air from "The Indian Queen" that, DeVoto claims, is in two tonalities at once.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Harpsichord Music for People Missing Fingers

No. 5 Henry Purcell, "Trumpet Tune" for harpsichord

The best portrait of Purcell I found is quite large and detailed- he's wearing a casual brown robe made of some shiny material and an open-collared shirt with an untied ribbon at the throat. A big, glossy wig tops his head, but his forehead is shiny and disappears up so high into the wig's curls that it seems clear that he's shaved-pate bald beneath. His face is a bit like that of Stephen Fry- great big eagle-beak nose, kind eyes, sensuous lips, and a bit of general comfortable pudginess, including a slight double chin. His mien radiates...competence. As though he were listening to a theater manager's request for a change to Act II and was about to say: "Yes, I can do that."

DeVoto includes three different bits of Purcell's music in "Mostly Short Music," which is an unobjectionable bias, I guess. I wonder if he considered Byrd or some of those earlier English composers first. After all, John Bull did get a 'shout out' in a sense during the Praetorius dance.

The first piece is taken from Purcell's pieces for harpsichord and is the fairly-famous "Trumpet Tune." Now, I consulted my orchestration books and - sure enough - it actually could have been played on a D trumpet in the late 17th century. Purcell asks for a high B (13th partial of a D trumpet) in measure 11, but presumably that was possible for good trumpeters of the era. Otherwise, it's actually pretty clever how he uses the pitch ambiguities of the 11th partials of the natural trumpet as a way of organizing the harmonic scheme. In short, the 11th partial (G-sharp-ish) of the D trumpet is always going to require a pitch correction from the lips of the player up or down, and, accordingly, that's the only accidental Purcell uses. Convenient, of course, that this is perfectly suited for creating a V of V, but I'm not going to try to disentangle whether trumpet construction effected harmonic development or (would this even by possible with a natural trumpet?) vice-versa. And, of course, the piece was actually for harpsichord- isn't this a bit odd? I'm no Purcell scholar, but it seems strange to, for instance, write a sonata for solo cello for the piano (limiting yourself in terms of possible double-stops and bowing and such) without ever actually considering giving it to a cello to try out.

The piece itself is so spare that it gives a sensation like what you feel when looking at the skeleton of a flying dinosaur- it is beautiful and elegant, but curiously spectral. There's no tissues or muscle in this piece, just the bare frame. This was probably, I think, to give the soloist room to breathe while filling in the bare spots with dazzling (why 'dazzling'? why never 'charmant'?) ornaments. The piece is abundantly ornamented, too, but DeVoto doesn't say what these notations mean and I can't find some of them in any of my music books. Some are clearly little trills and mordents, but others (two little slantly lines like an = above a note?) I can only guess at.

The harmony is very simple- mostly Is and Vs in regular alternation with an occasional diminished-sounding chord that functions as a secondary dominant. Still, I must point out that the music is in only two voices most of the time, so there are many instances where a pair of passing tones on a weak beat arguably function as something as unusual as a IV7 (which is to say, not that unusual, but eyebrow-raising when all you've heard are Is and Vs for most of the piece). The real elegance comes not from the variety of the chords, though, but from the skill with which Purcell regulates their movement. (Okay, Reader- I have to mention that I hate the part of harmonic analysis where the writer starts drooling about the 'skill' of the composer, as though it wouldn't have occured to anyone else to use whatever particular trick is being employed. It's just a lazy way of trying to distract the reader from the fact that this detail could have as easily appeared much earlier in the essay- but, oh ho!, we had to save the best for last! I will try not to do this anymore unless it really merits it.) I speak in particular of measure 12- since the whole piece has had a regular quarter note pulse in the bass (a steady background for the melody) it is arresting when the rhythm suddenly restrains itself to 2 half notes, like a drawing of breath before marching on in quarter notes for the last four bars.

Oh, about the 'missing fingers' thing in the title of this post- yes, this piece is so spare that it could conceivably be played by an unlucky metal shop teacher.

Next post: more Purcell, without the restrictions of the natural trumpet's overtone scale.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Churchy LaFemme

No. 4 Johannes Crüger: "Herzliebster Jesu," a chorale

Entry No. 4 in "Mostly Short Pieces" is the sort of thing you'd presumably see if you opened a Lutheran hymnbook at random in 1645 or so. DeVoto - probably conscious that this might seem a bit dull - has therefore included the piece in facsimile, with rough-looking oversize notes and weird stem-lengths and all the other endearingly archaic bits. Actually, this makes it really easy to read, almost better than contemporary notation proportions (presumably eyeglasses hadn't quite attained their present state of perfection...imagine an aged German in his go-to-meeting doublet, squinting at it in a dim church).

DeVoto spends about a paragraph sketching the chorale's history- the melody derives (was cribbed from?) an earlier publication by Schein, which might derive from 'even earlier sources.' I think this is the genteel way of saying that most Lutheran chorales were based on well-worn secular and religious melodies whose roots extend into prehistory. So - who knows? - maybe this was a good German drinking song in 1500 before they churched it up.

Crüger, incidentally, doesn't make it into all the music books. Apparently he was a cantor at a big Lutheran church for a long, long time and published collections of chorales and some 'theoretical works,' which - let's face it - nobody will ever read again except to earn a doctorate. It's too bad there weren't more Crügers interested in the non-churchy music, since the liturgical side seems abundantly documented.

There's not too much to say about this chorale. It's pretty. It starts off with the soprano and alto pretty low, the sound is dark and velvety before blooming into a (slightly) higher register. (Why is music always 'blooming'? We need to canonize some other cliches.) It never goes too high, really, although it asks for a bottom-scraping bass C half way through. It's in F minor, although much of the time it may as well be in A-flat major (it only explictly tonicizes A-flat major in bars 5 and 6, with a thorough I vi ii7 V7 I). Actually, I'm pretty wary of calling even this a 'tonicization', since the minor mode always - to me, at least - seems very mixed up with its relative major. There are some things that roman numeral analysis just isn't good at pointing out, and that's one of them.

I'm not sure exactly how this chorale was used in services, but there's a nice little quasi-coda at the end in little tiny cue notes, presumably just for the organist or maybe the soloists. It adds a little closing cadence, very pretty and sad. I guess that might be the delicate way of letting the congregation or choristers that it's okay to sit down again.

Next post: Trumpet tunes! Played on harpsichords!

au courant

No. 3 "Courante (No. 133)" from Terpsichore, Michael Praetorius

I mentioned Praetorius' dance music yesterday, and a bit of that is what DeVoto serves up next in the anthology- a leaf out of the extremely fat book of dances which form Terpsichore. I guess the best way to think of Terpsichore is sort of as a fake-book of the 17th century- no instructions for specific instrumentation, just naked notes that can be assigned to any combo of viols and crumhorns or whatever you had handy for the big dance.

The dance part of it really comes through, too. All the tunes I've heard (has anybody actually heard them all? wouldn't they all blend together after a while?) have thumping rhythms (suitably enlivened by quasi-syncopated inner voices) designed to keep your galliard or your volta or whatever moving at a steady clip. In fact, the best recordings I have heard of these pieces are 'live', which is to say you can hear the dancers clumping their feet on the off-beats and generally inhabiting the musical space created by the tunes. This, I think, along with the simplicity of the music, is why Praetorius probably hasn't aged as well as J. Strauss and Piazolla will- it's not character music disguised as dance (just try waltzing through the 4/4 introduction to some Strauss waltzes), but more like house music or square dance fiddling- it exists to create an intoxicating, propulsive thump.

As for this particular courante, No. 133 (catchy title), DeVoto notes that the melody and bass might be by 'the englishman John Bull,' which is interesting to know, since the bass seems a little clunky and old-fashioned when compared with the very streamlined inner voices. The bass tends to poise solidly on the root note of whatever triad is in play, jumping around gamely in a way that doesn't seem quite dignified by later Bach-ian standards, but certainly makes for fun listening.

John Bull, incidentally, in the only picture I found (and the caption says 'portrait presumed to be John Bull') looks like Renaissance Dracula. He has neatly-trimmed dark hair and a slim moustache, and he's decked out with this crazily embroidered collar and fine white shoulder-cover against a dark background. Ominously, there's an hourglass with a skull motif alongside his head, which probably on some level influenced my Dracula idea. Anyway, apparently Bull was good pals with Sweelinck, so if you're playing a european art music version of that Kevin Bacon game, there's a link for you.

Okay, now the harmony part, since this is a harmonic analysis diary. It's hard to write this part without it getting a little boring and technical, but I'm doing my best. Overall, it's a piece in 6/4 rooted in C major. If I were to conduct it, it would be in two- it's the sort of music that practically begs to be conducted with a big staff (a la Lully). The pulse tends to go half-note quarter half-note quarter in each measure, dummm-dee dummm-dee. Generally, you get long stretches of a single chord, but Praetorius enlivens the harmony a lot by suddenly putting a passing chord onto the last weak beat or whatever, or (like in measure 3) giving each strong and weak beat a different chord in a progression, which provides an exciting jolt after the previously static harmony. The chords are about what you'd expect- Is, IVs, V, iis, in the first section.

I should say a little word about the phrase lengths- they're weird, by conventional standards. The A section is 10 bars long, and the sudden ii chords in bar 7 make the whole thing more exciting and strange since they don't fit into a clichéd well-balanced phrase format. The second (B, I guess) section is 19 measures, which is even odder than 10. Harmonically, too, it is more adventurous- although you do get the distinct impression that Praetorius was working to make it lively within Bull's existing framework (or am I reading too much into that?). You get V of Vs and, in measure 22, really strange things (by roman numeral standards) that I'm tentatively calling v of vis- it boils down to e minor and a minor chords alternating, but something about the way the notes move implies a weird quasi tonicization of vi (or maybe a 'glaze of vi'). That implication of a minor v does make the whole thing feel a little more modal and olde-timey, which seems to be a general effect of a succession of minor chords that don't have really strong voice-leading connections. In measure 24, there are- IV of IVs? Essentially, you get F chords and B-flat (major) chords, but it all happens in the space of two measures, which isn't long enough to sort out which one is 'dominant', so I'm thinking it's just a general nod to the subdominant - which, for whatever reason, is like the 'final lap' flag in tonal music. The last phrase grinds through some alternation of V and I to let everybody know that we're really, truly back in C, our home-key, and then goes through a progression of vi IV V IV V I right at the end to lock the door and close the shutters. After which, presumably, the dancers wipe their brows and sip from flagons or rush off to have their face-powder reapplied and big lace ruffs adjusted.

Next post- another chorale.