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.


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