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.


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