Brahms, Beethoven and…Bernstein?

I suppose, this being the inaugural post, that I should offer something particularly beefy in order to consecrate the house.  You can’t get much more substantial than Brahms and Beethoven (calm down, Johann – I said “much”). 

Let’s take a look at Brahms’ motet Op. 29, No. 2, “Schaffe in mir, Gott”.  The first thing that should be at least “visually imparingly,” if not blindingly, obvious about the first movement is that the soprano and bass are involved in a canon at the octave, per augmentationem.  It is a little strange, as far as canons go, in that the “leader” and “follower” begin simultaneously.  The fact that the bass’ note values double the soprano’s means that the soprano is able to repeat the canonic material in the time it takes the bass to complete it just once.  In this respect the composition resembles a fractal – the two soprano iterations being self-similar to the “original content” of the bass.

Harmonically, the first section defies cadential classification: does it conclude via plagal cadence?  Authentic cadence?  There are certainly plenty of lowered sevenths in the second half which might induce one to conclude plagal motion.  But is it?  One could argue that the plagal cadence is really an illusion – a re-confirmation of the tonic (from a fifth below) after the definitive authentic cadence has already taken place.  I’d suggest that the dominant is achieved in measure seven, followed by the tonic in first inversion!  But that’s OK!  The first scale-degree in the bass is forthcoming in measure nine – it was merely delayed by the necessity of maintaining the canon.  Of course, by the time the first scale degree is achieved, the upper parts are already in the process of assembling a new harmony – that is, heading toward the sub-dominant.  Again, this is OK!  This phenomenon happens all the time in well-written music: a resolution in one voice is prolonged by any of various contrapuntal mechanisms, while the other voices proceed as though the resolution had occurred. The remainder of the movement can be viewed as a supplementum in the baroque sense.  Bach often visits the sub-dominant after having achieved the definitive authentic cadence (I guess I can concede that Rameau got his ideas about the IV right).

This kind of “beef” seems to elude a lot of folks, even those who presume to tell us all about what’s going on in a piece of music.  This writer completely misses the canon in the first movement, and incorrectly identifies the fugues in the subsequent two movements as canons.

The above represents the kind of thing I want to hear or read when people talk or write about music.  My patience for content-free “peripheralia” is just about non-existent.  Take this, for example:

How does Bernstein know where Beethoven planned to use those sketches?!  Perhaps Beethoven discarded them, not because he didn’t like them specifically, but because his plan for the symphony changed, and he no longer needed those sketches (which means they wouldn’t have gone anywhere in the symphony as we know it).  On top of which, I don’t agree at all that the first is static.  Indeed, how can we proclaim a 4-second chunk of music to be static all on its own?  Wouldn’t it rather depend on the context?  And on top of THAT, the first sketch represents a common practice in music of the classical era: standing on the dominant.  Expressing, and hammering home one harmony is the point of those kinds of passages – they can be useful, and not at all static, given the appropriate context.  Regarding the second sketch, it’s not enough simply to say “this has logic and drive”; you have to demonstrate what that logic is, and how the drive is achieved.

I came across this video over at Alex Ross’ blog.  Really?  Perhaps the preeminent tastemaker thinks Bernstein imparted any actual information in that clip?


1 Response to “Brahms, Beethoven and…Bernstein?”

  1. 1 angelwng72
    March 28, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    True dat (as the kids say). It’s ludicrous how often I stumble upon *well-respected* “musicologists” and “theorists” who are easily confused by surface elements and who lack a true understanding of the undercarriage of a piece. It’s like hearing the “roar” of an engine and concluding it’s a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, without so much as glancing in the direction from which the sound emanates. What if it’s a dirty old jalopy with a broken muffler?! These “experts” don’t seem to care. To them, a “roar” is a “roar.” Well-said.

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