Archive for August, 2011


The Ciaccona

I’ve had the Ciaccona from the second suite for solo violin on a continuous play loop in my head since I mentioned it a few posts back.  But that’s OK.  If something’s going to demand such exclusive attention of my mind’s ear, it might as well be the piece about which Brahms said:

Die Chaconne ist eines der wunderbarsten, unbegreiflichsten Musikstücke. Für ein kleines Instrument schreibt der Mann eine ganze Welt von tiefsten Gedanken und gewaltigsten Empfindungen. Hätte ich das Stück geschrieben oder empfangen können, ich weiß sicher, die übergroße Aufregung und Erschütterung hätten mich verrückt gemacht.

The Chaconne is one of the most wondrous, most incomprehensible pieces of music.  On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
It is one of the longest single movements ever written by Bach.  Even so, the musical content is dense.  There is no filler.  The piece, to borrow Schenker’s comment on a different piece by Handel, “gives musical ears so much to hear.”  Unfortunately, a good deal of what’s been written about the piece is misleading at best, and simply wrong at worst.  The Wikipedia article gives the ground as D, D, C-sharp, D, B-flat, G, A, D.  This is the bass which appears in the surface-structure of  the first statement – the first four bars.  As one listens, however, it becomes clear that the intended, albeit abstract, ground is the traditional one which descends, sometimes diatonically, sometimes chromatically, from tonic to dominant. 
One of the most arresting and truly baroque variations is this one, which occurs about halfway through the first section:
Such strange and complicated harmony!  But well-executed strangeness and complexity.  The multi-linearity and harmonic “hinting” required by the performing medium are deliberate and intelligible.  Schenker shows the bones of the variation on the lower staff.  The essential and aggregate content of each measure is a resolution (triad) followed by what we might call an applied dominant 9th (V9), the roots of which are the notes Schenker indicates.  Schenker prefers (as do I) not to recognize the “9th chord” as a real, discrete harmony.  Here, he identifies it as a combination of a V7 and a diminished ii (in later works, Schenker would do away with even the 7th – describing anything not reducible to a triad as a result of voice-leading, or counterpoint).  In the paragraph above the example, you can read about the psychological effect of combining the V and the ii. 
But there’s more to this variation than that.  The first beat of the first measure represents the tonic, the B-flat and G-sharp notwithstanding.  Those two pitches function as upper and lower neighbors to the fifth of the tonic triad, A.  These neighbor-notes find their resolution in the following measure.  The G-sharp does double-duty, also functioning as the third of an applied dominant (leading tone), tonicizing the actual dominant.  And the B-natural (!) which appears in the third beat of the first measure functions as the fifth of that applied dominant.  The B-flat and the B-natural do not comprise a cross-relation.  Each has and fulfills a separate function.  This procedure is repeated in measures two and three, although in these measures, the apparent cross-relation occurs in a different location.  The first pitch in each of these measures (C-sharp and B-natural) appears at odds with the lowered version which occurs across beats two and three.  There are two explanations for this which function simultaneously.  The first is a change of harmony.  The first beats of measures two and three represent the V and the IV, respectively.  The subsequent beats of each measure represent the V9/iv, and the V9/i, again respectively (I’ll call them 9th-chords for brevity’s sake).  The second explanation for the C-sharp/natural and B-natural/flat is the descending chromatic voice that is thus created, going from tonic to dominant (which is, as Alex Ross would point out, and as I point out above, the traditional lamento ground bass).  Finally, the E-flat in the third measure recalls the neighbor-note procedure employed in the first measure; the E-flat “belongs” to the G-major triad occupying the first beat as an upper neighbor to the fifth of said triad (a minor sixth in “G”).
Well, that was a mouthful.  And only about one variation.  Such a rich nexus of explanations which all work simultaneously to explain the same pitches is a hallmark of great composition.  It is the efficient way to compose; creating only one effect, or expressing only one relationship with a set of pitches is wasteful.  Schenker writes, in Kontrapunkt:
But the greater the number of different effects that accumulate about the tones, the better.  Such multiplicity not only does not hinder the selection of one among them as the principle one, rather, it promotes it.
Anyway, just when you think Bach has taken variation and profundity to their utter limits, the central, celestial parallel major section emerges.  This moment has to be one of music’s most sublime moments.  In fact, both transitions between the three sections are of particular note.  The D-major middle section is prepared for in the immediately prior variation by the use of only major sonorities – not that the variation could, itself, be considered “in major”.  The major thirds taken in this variation are employed as leading-tones in a sequence of applied dominants.  The resolution of each dominant should be minor, but is supplanted by, or transformed into another dominant.  It is easy to hear this procedure at the very beginning of the variation; the 4-3 suspension should resolve to F-natural, but we are given F-sharp.  Our immediate instinct is to understand a shift to major at this point.  But our instinct is soon corrected – it was in fact a V/iv.  Likewise until the real major section begins.  A similar process is employed to ease us back into minor during the transition from the second to third sections.  Bach strongly tonicizes the vi during the final variation in the central, major section.  Additionally, the D which is required by the ground at the beginning of the first variation in the third section is accompanied by F-natural and B-flat.  Not F and A, which would’ve comprised the minor tonic triad.  As it is, D, F, and B-flat comprise a major triad.  But it belongs to the D-minor scale: the VI in first inversion.
Here are two performances I love:
I particularly like Bream’s judicious use of rubato, as well as the different timbres he achieves by plucking the strings in different places.
It’s a shame both performances are divided at the point of transition between the first and second sections.  This transition really needs to be heard uninterrupted to convey its full effect.

Beethoven the fuddy-duddy

Name a famous musical revolutionary.  Are you thinking of Beethoven?  Most people would agree that Beethoven represents the ne plus ultra as far as radical, creative geniuses are concerned.  I mean, if Beethoven wasn’t a program-bucker, nobody was.

Those same people might be surprised to learn what sort of musical thinking exerted a profound influence on their rule-breaking hero, and what sort of musical thinking went on in his own mind.

Johann Josef Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum would perhaps be regarded by many as the ne plus ultra as far as stodgy, rule-oriented “non-music” is concerned.  In it he describes how best to lead individual voices so as to create variety and avoid redundancy.  He provides several musical examples, one of which (in 4 voices, some proceeding with different note-values) contains an intentionally crafted mistake: proceeding from one perfect interval to another via similar motion.

Fux says that this is not strictly desirable, but nevertheless permissible “because of the difficulty of th[e] species.”  (Perhaps Fux was aware of this, but the hidden fifth created by the similar motion between the outer voices is not the only problem with the progression; it also represents more overt parallel fifths, when one counts only the first notes of each measure.  The intervening scale in the lowest voice does not obliterate this parallel.)

Beethoven diligently studied Fux’s treatise, and made comments about what he learned.  About the above example specifically, Beethoven says: “The second progression, at B, would never be excusable for my ear.”

It seems Beethoven out-stodgied the stodgmeister.

Beethoven’s innovations were not necessarily ones that dealt explicitly with the musical content itself; rather, with surface phenomena: dynamic contrast, instrumental range, difficulty of performance, length of movements, etc.


Schubert and Brendel

If you’re having a crappy day, listen to this:

It’s agonizingly beautiful.

Particularly poignant are the sequential passages (the first occurence of which is at 00:37) which first tonicize the “ii”, and then the “IV”, the latter via a good example of an organic and fully justified use of the flat “VII”.  This procedure is also often found in Robert Schumann’s music.  In fact, many years ago when I first heard this piece, I thought it was Schumann!

Later on, Schubert ingeniously manipulates the flat “VI” and the “N6”.  At one point the “N6” is approached in the usual cadential way, but veers off toward the flat “VI”, serving at the same time as a “IV6” belonging to the flat “VI” scale-step.  And perhaps the most unusual harmony is the minor “N6” which appears in the coda.  But it’s not simply imposed.  It’s achieved with logical voice-leading.  I hate to keep banging this drum, but it’s the easiest thing in the world just to throw strange, unrelated and unelaborated harmonies at the page and make it look like you’re being innovative.  The true test of compositional skill is whether or not one can achieve, contrapuntally, a succession of harmonies that logically derive from relationships implicit in natural (non-artificial) sources, like the overtone series.