Monday, December 26, 2005

Haydn at the Piano, Again

Okay, very sorry about my last post. It floated out into the sort of petal-plucking moon-eyed self-satisfied jerk prose that ruins a lot of writing about music. Therefore, I have resolved to tether the zeppelin of my prosody firmly to the iron ring of...not sounding like too much of an ass.

It's kinda funny how DeVoto arranged "Mostly Short Pieces", because on the heels of my last post's hulking symphony movement comes this extremely short, casual set of piano variations. If it weren't for the sheer number of little ink notes scratched onto the paper, I'd imagine that this piece was the sort of thing Haydn knocked out in an afternoon. The piece in question is:

HAYDN "Six Easy Variations in C Major (Hob. XVII/5; 1790)

I learned these variations at the piano since they're not too difficult. Once again, I'd wager that this music was intended for 'domestic use'- it feels nice under the fingers and has many fun little surprises for the musician to bump his head on. I wonder whether, in Haydn's day, a set of variations like this was approached the way we might pick up a crossword puzzle today. I know, this isn't a great analogy - you never 'solve' music - but I'm trying to say that it's the little surprises you linger over while learning the piece that provide most of the pleasure. This is particularly the case with theme-and-variations: your muscle memory learns to play a particular passage and then, when it encounters the passage 'again' in a variation, gets tripped up by the changes. This usually results in a faint smile, chagrin, and perhaps a glance back at the first passage. This is the musical version of scratching out the first three letters of MASS to write ONUS.

So what fascinating things are there to say about this set of variations? Well, the theme is a tiny rounded binary- an A section that's six bars and then a B section of 10. The lesson for Aspiring Composers to take away would be how simple he keeps the theme: I and V make up %99 of the harmony (there's a IV in the closing cadence to give it a little more weight) and the melody is a patchwork of little motivic figures. These figures are varied in their content- some are halting, some move with great motor rhythm, some have rests, many have ornaments. This sort of smorgasbord makes for a musical line which is highly memorable and almost stylized, like a row of iconic shapes (DIAMOND, TREE, MOUNTAIN, PLUS, CIRCLE) that can be easily elaborated with detail. The simple harmony reinforces this- when you hear the DIAMOND again later with a ii chord instead of a V, it will sound surprising and new.

VARIATION I: Haydn does an interesting thing where he takes the grace note ornaments from the theme and turns them into 'real' 32nd notes. This has the interesting effect of taking a little flourish and incorporating it into the 'hard' structure of the piece (he makes it into this busy little arpeggio). This variation doesn't depart much from the theme at all though, really, aside from this little bit of 'noodling' to dress up the themes. Presumably, the first variation should be taken as a warmup. It would be gauche to go too far out too soon. There's one bar of Alberti bass, though, at 13, which recalls the opening 32nd notes and hints at accompaniments to come.

VARIATION II: Okay, now were getting somewhere. Those little 32nd note arpeggios are now big and full-fledged, turning the main theme into a busy, swooping thing over a bassline that remains basically unchanged from the theme. There is, however, a hint of bassline compications that come later in bar 10, where the bass temporarily goes on its own little short-lived 32nd note thrillride.

VARIATION III: This one varies in atmosphere rather than simply elaborating existing features. The theme is turned into a bouncy little martial thing, (dotted eight-sixteenth-dotted eighth-sixteenth DUMMM-dee-DUMMM-dee) with 32nd note triplets introducing the figures- the effect is like flams on a snare drum. The bassline also comes into its own now as an independent melodic voice, trading motives with the soprano in bars 4 and 5. Then, for the second half- the Alberti bass is back! Yep, in contrast to the halting martial harrumphing of the A section we get a busy left hand for a couple bars under a melody that combines the martial stiffness with the swooping of the second variation. And, as another point of interest, we get a really weird, subtle harmonic moment when Haydn puts a fermata over an unexpected vi chord, letting us linger for a moment uncertainly on a dark moment in a variation that's otherwise given over to jauntiness.

VARIATION IV: This is a return to the mood of the theme and first couple of variations, a step back from the faux-military stuff of III. There's much less motor activity, but a little chromatic fall in bar 13 is sweet and unexpected. Also, the bassline is more flexible than in the earliest variations, and there's a little reprise of the playful I-go-you-go from variation III.

VARIATION V: (Minore) The minore variation is arguably the heart of the piece- its uncertain harmonic shifts and mixture of major and minor provide a sharp contrast to the good-humored joviality of the rest of the piece. Haydn starts in the parallel minor (i.e. C Minor) but soon moves in E-flat Major for a while (which isn't too close to C Major, in terms of modulation). Lots of diminished vii of (insert chord name) make the progressions in this variation a little dark and uncertain (diminished chords can take you anywhere, natch). Also, whereas every previous variation limited itself to a simple A (repeat) B (repeat) structure, V has a first and second ending for the B section, the second of which - through the magic of augmented 6th chords - gets us back into C major very subtly. (it's hard to say exactly how the subtlety works- it's some really deft mixture of harmonic rhythm and using the sharpened 6th and 7th scale degrees as the bassline- common to either major or melodic minor. I know- this is unsatisfyingly vague on my part.) And then-

VARIATION VI: The big finish. There's not much to say about this one. The motor activity is turned up to its maximum, with lots of Alberti bass in the left hand and the sort of 32nd note elaborations of the melody that got explored in I, II, and IV. The excitement is doubled now, in a sense, since both bass and treble are now going fast. Harmonically, Haydn uses a I6/4 to V 5/3 a lot as a way of letting us know that we're almost to the end. Things close up with a neat IV I6/4 V7 I- as tidy a suture as one could ask to close a movement.

Is there anything else to say about this set of variations? I can't really thing of anything. They're good- very well-crafted. You know there's someone with good taste holding the quill, so to speak, since it never gets boring or overwraught and fits perfectly the little area it stakes out. Not much 'notational music being written today is content to have small ambitions and satisfy them in such an elegant and satisfying manner.