Wednesday, May 25, 2005


For DeVoto's 19th entry in "Mostly Short Pieces" we get, for a welcome change, a bit of monophony. It's strange, when you think about it, that there are so few pieces written for solo non-keyboard instruments. There is, after all, an endless need for unaccompanied pieces for portable instruments. So where are they? Do people just not like them very much? I can think of a handful of pieces for solo instruments, and these usually form a tiny fraction of any composer's output. Bach's solo cello and violin pieces form the core of the genre, but after him we get- a stray viola sonata by Ligeti? The "Goat Dance" of Honegger for flute? The Stravinsky "3 Pieces" for clarinet? Varese's memorable ode to a ludicrously expensive piece of metal? In short, not much, and usually only one piece per composer.

Today's special:

J. S. BACH "Suite No. 1 in G Major for Solo Cello", MOVEMENT III: "Courante"

In DeVoto's notes for this piece he calls it a good example of "polyphonic melody," which I take to be a way of saying that the melody jumps around among the registers a lot, thereby implying simultaneous voices moving at different levels. I'm not sure I agree with this idea- the use of different registers breaks the piece up into different archtectural sections, but only in a few places does it 'feel' like two voices, notably places like measure 15 where an ostinato lets one pitch creep up step by step with each repetition while the rest of the figure remains locked in its groove. It feels instead, I think, radically monophonic. As such, it relies on techniques unique to single-voice music for its structure and interest.

I think this piece works as a set of melodic cells, each a measure or two long. The cells are offered in different orders and keys, sometimes melting into each other. This sounds, granted, like a pretty generic description of how melody was treated during any part of the last four centuries. The lack of accompaniment, though, makes this aspect of the music stand out so sharply that it attains a level of abstraction missing from most baroque music. This is naked melody, cut into thematic blocks that are laid out one by one, like cards in a curious game of solitaire.

One interesting aspect of this cellular approach is that the segments are of uneven lengths. As a result, phrases made of these cells almost immediately phase into rhythms that feel off-kilter- not at all like carefully-balanced classical phrasing. Cadences and strong beats fall on odd places, meaning that this would be quite a hard bit of music to actually use for dancing a courante. The weird push and pull of their accents sound a bit, in fact, like successions of 5/8 and 2/4 measures. In this sense, it rather resembles Danse Sacrale-type Stravinsky motivic thinking. Now, this comparison with Stravinsky is admittedly a bit of a stretch, but only a small one (I mean, it may be tricky rhythmically, but it still sounds, you know, baroque).

The measure-to-measure harmonic structure is a little ambiguous (for that kind of clarity in a monophonic texture, Bach would have to limit himself to arpeggios as in the first prelude of the WTC). Instead, we get fragments of scales and figures that are halfway between arpeggios and ornamental figures. Still, some things are obvious: the piece is in G major, divided into sections- the fist half starts in G and then moves to D, then repeats. This is, of course, about as basic as it gets, the cadences made unambiguous through the use of terminal double-stops. The second half of the pieces moves from G to E (the relative minor), then to C (the subdominant) before returning to G and concluding.

The monophonic single-voice texture makes modulation especially easy and slick- one accidental is all it takes, really. In terms of unusual landmarks, we get a Neapolitan chord in measure 25 (making this a slightly more interesting visit to the relative minor than usual) and a myterious bit of passage work in measure 33 which accomplishes the transition from C back to G without resorting to anything obvious. This is interesting because we get: a V7 of C (i.e. a dominant chord built on G) then mysterious figuration stuff which includes elements of that dominant, and then a vii of G which slips us back into G. That dominant, in other words, never resolves but rather mutates into a major chord, which is certainly a little strange.

And I think that covers most of my thoughts about this courante. Next post: the last of Bach! A nice bit, about sheep.


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