Thursday, June 16, 2005

For the Connoisseur and Lover

For entry No. 20 in "Mostly Short Pieces", DeVoto serves up a staple of harmonic analysis anthologies- a C. P. E. Bach (or K. P. E., if you're Teutonically inclined) keyboard fantasia. Let us take a moment, Reader, to enjoy a lungful of the fresh post-J. S. air before going on. Ahhhhh.

Karl was leviathan J. S.'s second surviving son, and was, unfortunately, a little boring to read about. The other Bach sons seem to have been more colorful guys- getting around Europe, living as rakes, forging compositions and attributing them to their father - but Karl kept his head down and learned law and got a good, solid music job at the court of Frederick the Great. Frederick's scene was a busy pageant of German fine art- dramatists, poets, musicians, painters all interacting to produce... stuff. These were hard-working Enlightenment figures, doing their best in their gilded salons and tri-cornered hats, but I think it would be hard to find many people today who really love C. P. E. and Telemann and writers like Klopstock and Lessing (and even, to an extent, Goethe). It's an era remembered as a chrysalis for classical music and romantic literature, more interesting for what it portended than what it produced.

Karl was, judging from the portrait I found, not a handsome man. It might have been a poor likeness, but he looked somewhat frail and wrinkled, but with mischievious, bulging eyes and a faint smirk- a kind face, overall (like a character actor, not a leading man). He's eqipped with a small, tight white wig (big Händel wigs were out of style by this time) and fussy jacket.

C P. E. produced a lot of... stuff. In a way, his music makes for interesting listening because it feels so inchoate by the standards of later classical works- it often feels risky and strange because it is free from the tasteful conventions (cliches) of balance and methodical development that informed later classical-period music. This also, however, makes his music feel ungainly at times- wild modulations, lumpy proportions, ham-fisted cadences. I wonder if, in the next century or so, history will decide he was a great composer, gradually revive all his works and begin to celebrate this weird lumpiness as a virtue. As it stands now, he's treated as an 'important' figure that nobody wants to listen to- a cow fertilizing the field from which Mozart would spring.

"Fantasia II in C Major- für Kenner und Liebhaber" (1787)

The 'fantasia', like a 'rhapsody', is hard to pin down as a form. Around C. P. E.'s era, it's a music form defined, negatively, by its lack of certain features and a certain schizophrenic approach to form and organization. And, generally, there's an unmeasured cadenza bit toward the end.

This particular fantasia is subtitled "für Kenner und Liebhaber" - for the Connoisseur and Lover (of keyboard fantasias, presumably). It is - by the standards of all the previous works in this anthology - really, really, really strange.

It is so strange, unfortunately, that it defies most conventional harmonic analysis, which will probably make for some nebulous writing in this entry. This is because the piece is largely monophonic, occasionally punctuated by highly improvisiational bursts of block chord accompaniment at pivotal points and... well, no, actually, that's not a particularly good description because this fantasia is all-over-the-map in terms of what happens. I'll just have to go through it from beginning to end, trying not to get too boring or painstaking.

We start, Presto di molto, with a very simple monophonic phrase in C Major - diddy Dum dum dum dum Duuh-di-dum dum DUM. DUM-diddy-Dum-dum. - it basically outlines a C major triad before coming to a quasi cadence with the skeleton of a vii I cadence. It then repeats this phrase but turns the cadence into a descending scale in thirds, crashing down to a weird, spikey cadence of (loosely) vii/V, V/V, V. (Remember this half-cadence, as it turns into something interesting at the end.) And then, we're in G, repeating the opening phrase in the new key but sort of casually throwing away the ending by having it leap up in an arpeggiated triad.

Now, I don't think you want to continue reading in this vein, reader. The upshot of it is this- the opening section all sounds like somebody messing around at a keyboard, improvising playfully on a single phrase, often incorporating certain very recognizeable features (downward scales in thirds, spikey cadence figures) as reference points. C. P. E. moves between keys so casually and so playfully that it almost seems foolish to mention them- it starts in C, moves to G, then moves to F, then moves to C, then moves back to F (sort of). These aren't modulations deployed in the service of some over-arching architectural genius, they just sound good. Getting tired of G? Move to F. That sort of thing.

All this cuts off abruptly after 48 measures, leaving the listener hanging in what is either F major or a crazily strong affirmation of a IV in C major. And then we're- Andante? Apparently, it was actually a V of B-flat Major, because that's where we land, in a lugubrious quasi-aria (in three voices) in B-flat major. This second section is mainly an excuse to delight in 4-3 suspensions and generally let things get chromatically hazy. In this manner, we ooze through B-flat, to E-flat, to G Minor, to F, to G Minor, to F, to E-flat, to F, To G, to A Minor to - V of A Major? If there were more 7th chords, it would be an almost Wagnerian sensation.

You know that V of A Major, that the quasi-aria ended on? Well, it's actually apparently a I of E-Major, and we're off and running at the Presto di molto again. It's more of the same playful exploration of the opening theme, this time with some visits to minor mode for color but still relying on the spikey cadences, downward scales in thirds, etc. to create a sense of unity. We move through- E Major, A Minor, C Major (yeah, a premature return to the tonic of the whole piece), F Major, B-flat Major, D, F, E-flat and-

Boom. Another slow section- Larghetto sostenuto. This one feels a little like a Chopin prelude almost. It starts, a slow steady pulsation of chords, in G Major and actually stays there for quite a long time (by the standards of this fantasia), moving through some very unusual permutations of chords- vi, vii/vi, iii6, ii6, I6, IV/V. He really milks the key for all the sonorities, in other words, before moving, via Chopinesque chord mutation, to E major and then - through a bunch of fancy dissonances and fully diminished chords - to F-sharp Major. It concludes with a big windup of a strange fully diminished chord built on D-sharp. This, by the harmonic standards of the time, is straight-up weirdness.

And then we're back in Presto di molto-

The key to this piece occurs to me, actually- this fantasia must have been a little like an 18th century Victor Borge routine. These completely trite themes with silly endings, these forte/piano dynamic contrasts, these overblown ultra-chromatic slow sections, these whiplash returns to presto- these have got to be jokes. Presumably, the Connoisseur and Lover would be having a good laugh at this piece if the performer went after it with the appropriate exaggeration.

But, back to the final Presto- we're in B-flat major, then C Major, then a little D Minor, then, finally, C Major- playing a section identical to the opening of the whole fantasia actually. But, are we home? No! The expected spikey cadence from the beginning vii/V V/V V leads not to that V but to- IV? (That was the bit to remember from the beginning.) After the vii/V V/V, it comes as a real jolt, a punchline. It leads into an extended section in three voices (still in C Major) in which various motives are combined and played against each other before culminating in a weird monophonic sequence in which a motif climbs the scale, ratcheting up the tension with chromatic tones that act as interior leading-tones.

At the conclusion we get- a little cautious iteration of the opening them on the vi of C Major (it sounds doubtful) and then - and nobody could see this coming - an abrupt modulation to huge booming chord in- A-flat Major?! We get a big, bombastic unmeasured cadenza in A-flat Major that moves from I to IV/V to- a V of D-flat Major?! And then - undoubtedly with a wry smile, we get a similar unmeasured block of solid C Major, moving through standard cadence patterns to land safely at home.

It occurs to me now, at the end of my analysis, that I was too quick to downplay the importance of C. P. E.'s use of modulations. There really is an important architectural feature involved in the sense that, as the fantasia progresses, he visits increasingly distant keys through increasingly - irreverent? abrupt? - transitions. He ups the ante with every stunt until finally, at the end, we get that jarring visit to A-flat Major only moments from the C-Major conclusion.

And that does it for C. P. E., at least in this anthology. Next entry- Haydn.


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