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.


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