Archive for September, 2011


Schumann’s “Mondnacht”

Here are two renditions of this impossibly sublime creation:




Of course, pretty much anything Goerne does is magical.  The man not only has a voice with an incredibly beautiful timbre, but also has the vocal technique and musical sensibilities with which to ensure that the raw timbre is not wasted.  The pianist is also first-rate.

The second performance is, imo, artistically a little inferior.  The pianist (Nicholas McGegan – who is primarily known as a conductor and early music specialist) plays rather mechanically, and because of this the beat gets lost here and there.  Rubato and other such devices are necessary for highlighting strong beats and/or special harmonies. Nevertheless, this performance is noteworthy for the fact that the piano is a historical instrument (Conrad Graf), very much like the pianos Schumann himself would have known and played.  Also, the vocal part is sung by countertenor Paul Esswood.  He is quite good.  I especially like his quick and agile execution of the ornaments.  Goerne performs these turns slowly.

The extraordinary sense of quiet expectation, of subtle and serene suspense, which Schumann manufactures in the first half of the piece can be explained by the fact that it dwells on the dominant.  The appearance of other harmonies (including the tonic) are superficial, and not structural.  The dominant finally gives way to the subdominant via a process of tonicization that begins as the singer declares “I spread wide my wings”.  A more subtle and artistic example of tone-painting I cannot imagine.

Also extraordinary is the appearance in the vocal line of the chromatically raised tonic pitch, against the unaltered, natural, tonic pitch in the piano part.  Of course, we shouldn’t think of these simultaneities as real intervals, that is, as relating to each other.  They exist primarily in the horizontal dimension.  The raised tonic functions as a tendency-tone to the fifth of the dominant harmony, and the unaltered tonic functions as a tendency-tone to the third of the dominant harmony.  The raised tonic can also be explained as belonging to the V/ii which precedes the motion to the dominant.

When I hear music like this, it makes me wonder what it is that so many people find compelling in today’s pop/rock.  Most of it is ham-fisted and profoundly uninteresting by comparison.  Why on earth would you eat primarily dog-food when you have access to an endless supply of free filet mignon?


I got rhythm

Sigh. I was just thinking back to my undergrad music history, even music theory, courses. Most of my professors perpetuated the misapprehension that a primary difference between baroque/early classical music and late classical/romantic music is that the former generally employs faster harmonic rhythm, and the latter is more expansive, harmonies changing much less frequently.

It’s not really accurate to say that.

The true, background harmonic rhythm we observe in music from either era is all over the map. There is no “usual.” Musicians who assert the above distinction reveal their ignorance of how skillful composers achieve unity and organicism by elaborating, often with great complexity and at great lengths, one harmony (or scale-step, as Schenker would have said). Then again, sometimes the scale-step is not adorned so richly – there’s a time and place for this, too. The problem is that too many musicians perceive elaboration as essential content – they’ve mistaken the plaster for the lath.

Perhaps a reason for this misapprehension is that Romantic era decoration is often more obvious – it will often contain great amounts of chromaticism. Earlier composers were more frugal with their use of chromaticism, but the elaborations are still there. Just because a sequence of chords comprises only diatonic pitches does not mean that the sequence isn’t a passing construct. Indeed, the idea of “passing constructs” itself seems to be a foreign one to many musicians. Too many musicians think of decoration only at the level of individual pitches: passing tones, non-chord tones, appogiaturas, anticipations, etc. Skillful composers have been fleshing out the idea of decorative pitches for centuries by unfolding them.