Monday, August 22, 2005

The Rich Smell of Charles Rosen

Once, when I was an undergraduate, I barged into a practice room in order to set up for a chamber music rehearsal (I like to show up early, if I can, to get reeds soaking and my horn warmed up). Anyway, I’d heard piano music as I approached the door, but assumed it was some student preparing for a lesson so imagine my surprise when I opened the door to see-

Charles Rosen! Charles Rosen at the piano!

He was bundled up in a knee-length overcoat and had a snap-brim cap pulled down on his head, making him look very old-fashioned and European (his clothing wouldn’t have looked out of place in a photograph from 1944 or so). I blurted an apology and turned to leave but then – I should mention that this isn’t a great anecdote – Mr. Rosen apologized to me and said that he hadn’t realized the room was reserved. What happened then is a little hazy. I think he must have left, but I can’t imagine I’d have stood around and shooed out Charles Rosen. At any rate, I found myself alone in the room and was struck by the peculiarly rich old-man smell that remained. This was not a bad smell, mind you, just very strong and memorable. As a result, when I read the works of Mr. Rosen, there’s a reverse-Proustian madeleine effect- I read his very limpid, interesting musicology and immediately recall his scent.

I mention Mr. Rosen because I am a great admirer of his writing on the subject of the sonata, and had it constantly in mind as I approached DeVoto’s next entry in “Mostly Short Pieces” –

J. HAYDN Piano Sonata in A-flat Major (Hob. XVI/46), Movement I: Allegro Moderato [probably c. 1767]

I have included a line drawing of Haydn, executed especially for this journal in order to make it a little more interesting for the eyes. I’ll talk about Haydn’s life and history (that was my favorite part of earlier entries) in the next post.

Anyway, like I said, this week is the first real sonata movement of Harmonic Analysis Diary, which makes me feel a surprising amount of trepidation. Sonata form, after all, is what made people start doing harmonic analysis in the first place, and music students learn the outline of the form as almost a religious ceremony- Introit/exposition, Agnus Dei/move to the dominant, Credo/development, Offertory/new themes, Gloria/false recapitulation, Sanctus/real recapitulation, Coda/“Ite missa est.” (And, moreover, like the musical mass, most of these things are going to be there, but not necessarily all of them.)

So, what’s this particular sonata movement like? How does it compare with the non-sonata music we’ve encountered so far? Well, if this piece has a kinship with any we’ve encountered so far, it would be the fantasia by C. P. E. Bach. Like that piece, this sonata movement isn’t particularly interested in tunes themselves, but approaches them instead as materials to be altered and enlarged upon. This, of course, a very brainy way to approach music as an art- it isn’t about the ‘culinary’ pleasure of hearing a gorgeous hummable tune and letting it play itself out but rather about carefully manipulating the listener’s experience of that tune- making it modulate, fragmenting it, recapitulating it, cutting it off midway through, going off in strange musical directions, enlarging fragments and obsessing over them. And it is through activities like this, really, that ‘classical’ music gains its deserved reputation as the art that is closest to pure thought or form. Even the most convoluted “Lost in the Funhouse” short story has to be about something in particular, but Haydn’s sonata is about- itself. Statements like these, of course, are ambiguous and might be challenged by comparisons to, for instance, abstract painting or dance, but – c’mon – we all know that nothing tops classical music for pure, evolving abstraction. Of course, now that modulating tonality’s been on the ropes for a century, that might not by true anymore.

But enough mooning- let’s get this piece analyzed. Haydn begins in A-flat Major, with a very simple tune that we, with un-academic rigor, are calling Theme Charm. Theme Charm, as you can see from the score, is based on the open upward perfect fifth (gracefully ornamented) followed by a set of descending suspensions. Part of what makes it Charm rather than, say, Solidity, is the use of first-inversion triads, which keeps the tune up-in-the-air, floating gracefully. The left-hand, you’ll note, is confined to the motif of repeated eighth-note diads, which makes the opening feel a bit like a reserved string quartet to me. A second theme – we’re going to call it Theme Swoop – appears in bar 9, characterized by fast ornamental runs and a charming turn in bar 11. It is during the course of Theme Swoop that Haydn complicates the harmony by moving first to F Minor (the relative minor) and then E-flat Major, the dominant. (Making this, so far, a Betty Crocker Mix-and-Pour sonata, according to later formulas). Bar 13 sees the introduction of a quasi-theme which I’m going to call Quasi-Theme Revving and then another quasi-theme at bar 15 which I’m going to call Quasi-Theme Stormy. For these, Haydn remains in the dominant.

At bar 18, Haydn shows a little of the motivic unity that makes the ‘classical’ style so interesting and subtle- we get Quasi-Theme Revving 2, based on the shapes of that theme but different in character- still nothing you would hum while walking down the street, mind you. Then, at bar 21, we get Quasi-Theme Stormy 2, which takes its 16th note triplet feeling but turns it into a charming cadence figure. At bar 28 we get the unexpected return to F Minor and then, in bar 29, a heavily-ornamented monophonic upward gesture that could almost go anywhere (in terms of modulation). Haydn, though, takes us back to E-flat Major for a bar and then – this is pretty amusing – to E-flat minor for a bar, from which he extricates himself with the major VI of E-flat Minor, before using a diminished chord to land squarely back in E-flat Major for what we’ll call Quasi-Theme Wind Up- a series of boilerplate cadential figures under arpeggiated right-hand runs that leads to a very solid perfect cadence.

So, the score so far: the Exposition ends in the dominant (E-flat Major) having spent time in F Minor and a brief, memorable visit to the dominant’s parallel minor (E-flat Minor). There’s a repeat sign, so the whole thing gets played again so the audience can enjoy it the second time instead of being surprised by everything.

The development begins at bar 39 with Theme Charm played in the dominant- a fifth higher (and very pretty in that register). Then, abruptly, Haydn steals a transition bar from the middle of Theme Charm, puts it in minor mode, and uses it to segue to F Minor for a melancholy presentation of Theme Minor Charm. This is like the regular theme, only filled out with some dramatic ornamental runs. Also, Haydn doesn’t let the theme play itself out to a conclusion- the cadential runs are unexpectedly complicated by imitative counterpoint in the left hand, and they repeat themselves to become a sequential passage in which this counterpoint visits the tonic (A-flat Major) before thundering into the most dramatic part of the development- the working out of Quasi-Theme Storm. Starting in F Minor, Haydn takes the motives of Quasi-Theme Storm and rumbles through various related keys (B-flat Minor, E-flat Minor, A-flat Minor), using diminished or augmented 6th chords to move between modulate and regularly exchanging the materials of soprano and bass. It all sounds like a churn, very melodramatic and harmonically exciting. Somehow, though, we end on a dominant of F Minor- the piece could go anywhere from here.

So, what happens? Well, we hear Theme Swoop again, but in F Minor now, and very melancholy after all that roar and bustle of the middle development. Theme Swoop Minor is given its own fancy concluding runs, which lead into a very still, doubtful passage that passes into D-flat Major. Heavily ornamented and uncertain in the melody, the left hand begins its pattern of three repeated eighth-note diads, which serve as a hint of the coming recapitulation. And, sure enough, we move from D-flat Major (the subdominant) to the recapitulation in A-flat major at bar 78.

But, oh wait- you got clowned, audience! Yes, it’s a false recapitulation. Do you remember that brief touch upon the parallel minor at the end of the exposition, well, now we get a four bar visit to A-flat Minor at bar 83, very alien and strange, gracefully altered with trills and other new ornamentation, making it one of the most charming things in the piece. After that, though, we get a proper recapitulation- we meet all our old friends, Quasi-Theme Wind Up and Quasi-Theme Stormy and Quasi-Theme Revving, all in A-flat Major now. It all moves to a hard, perfect cadence. And then there’s a repeat sign, so we can all hear and enjoy the stormy bits of the development again.

And I think that does it for our first big sonata movement. Next post- a whole symphony movement.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Domestic Use

The twenty-second entry in Mark DeVoto's "Mostly Short Pieces" (published, once again, by Norton, although out of print right now) is:

J. HAYDN; Adagio in F Major (Hob. XVII/9) (published in 1786) CLICK ON THE SCORE IMAGE, IT POPS!

Now, as I've mentioned before in this diary, the piano is not my primary instrument. It is a testament to Mr. Haydn's great skill as a composer, then, that even a even a flipper-fisted sea cow of a pianist like myself can execute a credible performance of this Adagio.

This leads me to think that this piece was intended 'for domestic use,' a musical category which seems increasingly alien as the modern era rolls on. Over the 20th century, our culture's sense of entertainment changed to the point where 'playing' an instrument (for recreation) seems like a misnomer. Performing on an instrument - even without the worry of an audience - requires much greater concentration and physical work than, for instance, reading a book or watching a movie. The idea that someone could write little domestic pieces, get them published, and then that people would then buy them and play them to amuse themselves is almost hilarious today. If a friend confided to you that they'd started a mail-order website to sell their little piano works, you'd probably try not to smirk and predict (accurately) a dismal business failure.

Now, there are still lots and lots of people who learn to read sheet music in school. They diligently practice the flute or flugelhorn, play in their school orchestra or wind band, enter some school-sponsored solo competitions where they memorize a sonata movement and get accompanied by an unfortunate, overworked pianist and then- they stop? With the exception of the nerdy handful who go on to fill out community orchestras, there seems to be about a %99 attrition rate for people who learn classical instruments. It's not their fault- there's just very little to do with a flute in our society after the 12th grade.

The idea of an instrument being something fun that could occupy a place in personal recreation has more or less evaporated. Getting together with friends to ride mountain bikes is seen as good exercise and a social activity, but getting together with friends to play trombones (undoubtedly excellent for the lungs) is almost inconceivable.

(Or am I making too much of the place of sport and activities like that? How many people do ride bikes or hike together instead of watching on television? Has our society lost its taste for activities in general, so that most outings consist of going shopping or to movies or restaurants?)

So, if you want, you can consider this Adagio a musty curio from an era in which people wanted easy, fun pieces to play on the piano- the musical equivalent of a lamp-wick trimmer.

DeVoto notes that it is "a good illustration of rounded binary form, with codetta." In this case, it means that there's an eight bar opening section in F Major, which is repeated, then a brief middle section (seven bars) which moves to C Major (the dominant) before moving back to F to recapitulate the opening phrase with some chromatic melodic embellishments that segue into the coda. (As a side note: what differentiates a coda from a codetta, exactly? Is it like a four-door versus a two-door version of a car model?)

So, what actually happens in the piece, and what does it sound like? The overall impression is that it's very, very neutral- you almost have to call it fluff. There are, for instance, only three appearances by a minor chord (vi) in the entire work, everything else being bland major Is, Vs, and IVs (and not many IVs at that). With such solid, basic harmony, the piece feels level and steady throughout, like a gentle horse accustomed to plodding around with tourists on its back. As a result, those minor chords to stand out as nice surprises (a deceptive cadence after all that bland plodding wakes you up a little), the the piece still feels quite gentle and reserved.

Melodically, the right hand gets all the activity, playing a charming soprano melody embellished with tasteful little ornaments and 16th note runs (these runs and ornaments make the melody a little too busy for humming or whistling) while the left hand plays either block chords or simple 8th-note transition bits- the overall feeling is like a simple violin concerto movement (modelled on an opera aria?) that has been transformed into a keyboard piece. The right hand is the violin, while the left hand chugs along like orchestral strings beneath to provide a suitable underpinning for the quasi-bel canto top line. (Why, yes, I do realize that this combination of opera aria analogy and violin concerto analogy is like a martini containing both gin and vodka). The embellishments, when they come, are a charming descending chromatic scale in bar 21 and a melodic G Minor scale in measure 29 (the penultimate measure), which fills out the vi chord (merely arpeggiated two bars earlier) to the fullest extent. The only other harmonic feature of interest might be the occasional sharpened first scale degree (i.e. the presence of F-sharp in F major) used to highlight the 5th of V (i.e. the C-major chord, dominant in F Major)- little filagree touches like that feel very 'classical'.

Another nice feature is the way Haydn works out his (surprising, remember?) deceptive cadence in bar 22- he follows it with three increasingly bombastic V-I cadences, each separated by rests, but all strangely unsatisfying, which is to say that they don't feel 'final' in this context- they need the rest of the codetta to dissipate their energy for the piece to seem like it has come to an end. It's little details like that which elevate the piece above schlock- it may be major key fluff, but it's very, very nicely-proportioned and -executed major key fluff.

Next post: a whole frickin' sonata movement from Haydn.