The dilettante’s heavy artillery: The Canon

There are a few “tricks” people who fancy themselves composers use constantly in an attempt to create what they suppose is a fresh, contemporary and intellectual sound.  These include triads with added tones (especially the 2nd), faux-modality (lowered 7ths or raised 4ths), and above all else, canon.

Added tones can be nice, but they’re not sufficient for supporting a claim to innovation and “freshness.”  The basic material is often still good old-fashioned tertian harmony.  Which is fine, too.  Artistry in composition is a result of pitch/rhythmic manipulation at a much deeper level than this.  An added tone carries much more artistic currency if it is achieved rather than imposed; that is, if it’s appearance has a far-reaching justification (as opposed to the local [and easy] “I like this sound” justification).  If there is no far-reaching justification, perhaps it’s better left out.  Brahms touched on this issue when he wrote that the difficulty of composition is not coming up with material.  Rather, it is knowing which material to let go of; knowing which material will and will not contribute to an organic whole.  The same can be said for the evocation of modality.  What compelling reasons do you have for employing that raised fourth?  Is more and more weight given to the use of the raised fourth until finally it’s assigned its own harmony or harmonic area?  This would be one possibility for a well-justified use of modal inflection.  Most often one finds simple and un-elaborated suggestions of Aeolian, or, if the dilettante is really daring, Dorian, and even less frequently Lydian.

If, however, there is one device that’s used in the hope that its mere appearance will grant profundity to the piece in question it is the canon.  There seems to be a misconception among many musicians that a canon is cerebral music simply by virtue of the fact that it is a canon, and regardless of (perhaps in spite of) many of the music’s other characteristics.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Any stumblebum can slap together a canon if s/he is unconcerned with the resultant intervals and how they relate to each other.  I’m certain the misconception regarding this procedure stems from its association with works like “Musikalisches Opfer,” the “Canonische Veraenderungen,”  and of course the “Goldberg Variations.”  These canons truly are cerebral achievements, the likes of which we may never again see. 

So why are Bach’s canons such an achievement?  Certainly not just because he had the idea to write a canon.  No, the thing that boggles the mind when looking at a Bach canon is how he was able to construct a piece, so much of which is prescribed by the “leading” voice, which satisfies all voice-leading demands and produces meaningful progressions of harmonies.  His capacity for musical forethought must have been second to none.  Just consider the final canon (@ 2:00) in the “Goldberg Variations.”  The material is crafted so well, with such Olympian planning, that it requires no independent bass to “clarify” harmonic meaning and put the sonorities in their proper inversions.  And he manages to create this coherent music in all forms of canon (inversion, augmentation, cancrizans, etc) at any interval!  Sometimes with two or more pairs of canonic voices!!  Each pair with unique material!!!  To be sure, some tweaking takes place: what was a major second in the leading voice might manifest as a minor second in the following voice.  But in a way, knowing where and how adjustments like this can or should be made adds to the artistry.  Indeed, real answers are rarely advisable.  Leonard Bernstein (again), in one of his lectures at Harvard, said that a “modern” way of treating a cantus firmus imitatively might be to let notes that are correct in the c.f., but sound wrong after treatment, “just stay that way.”  That sounds to me more like “the easy way out” than “modern” artistry.

Without the strictures described above, a canon becomes unremarkable – no special talent is required to produce it.  To wit:

Clearly, the result of this canonic treatment wasn’t given too much thought.  The canonic device itself (at the 3rd and in inversion – ooh!) is somehow supposed to set these bars apart as a moment of utter profundity.  Given that the piece from which this is taken is cast in a more or less traditional harmonic and contrapuntal idiom (lots of added tones, too, I hasten to note), this excerpt is chockablock with redundancy and voice-leading errors.  Not to mention a sudden and unjustified intrusion of chromaticism and dissonance.  “Well, it’s 2011!  We don’t worry about voice-leading anymore” you say?  Ok.  But even if we grant that the excerpt need not comport with its surroundings regarding syntax and grammar, it still fails.  The horizontal minor ninth would, in Bach’s hands, be an exceptional and arresting gesture – because of how Bach would justify and resolve it in both the horizontal and vertical directions.  That ninth would even be something special in one of the other movements of this piece.  Here, however, it has no special horizontal or vertical significance because of the “panchromatic” idiom the composer has momentarily adopted.

Usually what happens when a composer like, say, Steve Reich (no he di-ent!) creates a canon is you end up listening to a sort of unfolded pandiatonic or panchromatic or panwhatever chord for the duration of the canon.  One harmony.  And that’s it.  How is such paucity of content evidence of creative genius?  Imagine if “Das Rheingold” ended after its famous introduction, before any singing began.  Would people proclaim Wagner a genius based only on those hundred-odd measures?

EDIT: Another problem with regard to the canon is that many pieces called canons are not, in fact, canons.  If a melody is strung out over a ground bass, and this melody is given to each upper voice in succession, entering when the ground repeats, the piece is not a canon.  It is a round.  Therefore, Pachelbel’s “Canon” is not a canon.


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