Friday, April 01, 2005

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 clich├ęd 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.

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