Monday, May 09, 2005

Un Apres-Midi Sur Le Cheap Umbrella

On DeVoto's "Mostly Short Pieces" menu today:

J. S. BACH, two MINUETS from the "Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach" (1725-1730)
MINUET in G MAJOR, BWV Anh. 114 and MINUET in G MINOR, BWV Anh. 115

Like "Für Elise" or "A Small Night-Music" or the "Mona Lisa" or "David," these little minuets by Bach have long since passed out of the realm of subjective art into the gray world of famous-because-it's-famous. This is a bad fate for art- it gets robbed of its content and turned into a token of middle class self-congratulation. "Starry Night" gets emblazoned on the million tote-bags of the "I mostly watch public television" crowd and Beethoven's cranky, vaguely insane pronouncements are sequenced as ringtones.

That last paragraph is a cliche of music writing, and you'd think that we'd all be so weary of it that nobody would bother serving it up anymore. And yet- there it is, over and over, in almost every media in which music gets serious written consideration. I think this is because we're constantly hearing some piece we love blooping out of an idiot's cellphone- we wince, and the sense of insult is fresh.* Part of that, I think, is the self-important thought that you, alone, in that subway car or doctor's waiting room, knows something about that piece and its proper context. It's like returning to restaurant you liked years ago, only to discover that it's been turned into a Bare Escentuals or something. The architectural outlines are all there, but it's been transformed into something tawdry.

Most people know the story theorized for these minuets, which is that they're part of a 'notebook' of little pieces presented to Anna Magdalena, Bach's new wife, as a wedding present. They are very simple, making them popular pieces for beginning piano students. I'm not sure how Bach and family would have approached them in their daily lives- were these bare little contrapuntal dances meant for embellishment and elaboration, or were they intended as masterpieces of simplicity, to be played straight? I read somewhere that Bach acquired a hammered dulcimer, and pieces this simple might lend themselves well to an instrument capable of only two tones at a time.

The first of these minuets is in G Major, and doesn't offer anything particularly exotic for analysis. It is, rather, just a well-done, simple piece. The two voices engage in solid counterpoint that outlines strong, functional harmony. It is about as basic as tonal music can come: the only chords in the opening section are I, IV, and V aside from a couple passing harmonies that imply ii and diminished vii (since there are only two voices at once, there's some ambiguity). The B section is similarly harmonically simple, but not without some little charms. Namely, Bach has saved the high notes for this half of the pieces and also uses a vi chord as a touch of bittersweet. The B section modulates from G to D for a few bars and then comes back (and, for once, a sentence that banal really does convey something about what it's like to listen to the piece). That's pretty much all there is to say, except perhaps for Bach's consistent use of a mordent over 'C' tones throughout the opening of the minuet, which has a unifying effect. This little ornament disappears in the second half, only to return on a 'B' right before the final bar. Presumably, Bach and family would have been improvising other ornaments.

The second of the minuets is in G minor, so the two could be played as a set - Major, Minor, Major again. This minuet is, paradoxically, more complicated harmonically due to its simplicity. Bach plays with the two-voice texture in an interesting way, omitting the thirds from some chords which often serve as important structural features (i.e. V). This creates a curiously diaphonous texture, very airy and passive. In the overall scheme, it moves from G Minor to the relative major, B-flat Major. The first modulation is accomplished by means of the sudden intrusion of accidentals to create a diminshed vii/iv which leads to the a iv, the ii of the relative major. This pivot chord leads to a dominant V of B-flat, and the relative major clicks neatly into place. The modulation in the other direction is similar: an accidental creates a V/iv of G (the same iv we used to pivot the first time) which leads into a progression of i6 diminished vii i V, putting us pretty solidly back in the tonic (but not too solidly, a job which falls to the final cadential progression a few bars later).

And that wraps it up for these nice little minuets, touchstones of the growing cellphone repetoire.

Next post: the penultimate Bach entry! A movement from a cello suite.

*I sort of wonder who the 'we' in this sentence are.


Post a Comment

<< Home