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.


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