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.


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8:51 AM  

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