Archive for March, 2012


Missing the boat

I can hardly bear listening to interviews with performers. The vast majority reveal that despite possessing impressive technical facility, they have exceedingly odd, misinformed, or simply ignorant conceptions about the music itself. They have missed the boat.

But they dive on into the water anyway, trying to make do with whatever piece of driftwood they manage to latch onto.

Today I heard mandolin-player Chris Thile, on Fred Child’s Performance Today, assert that he loves Bach because he discovered that Bach anticipated the fiddle-tune and banjo-picking style you hear in traditional bluegrass. Now, this is not totally incorrect. One can observe a similarity between certain of Bach’s pieces and the bluegrass style in question. But this is a simple observation, and Thile was content to leave it there, implying that this observation was something profound all by itself.

Nope. Thile hasn’t really thought about why this similarity is observable. Thile is referring to the way a banjo or fiddle-player would arpeggiate members of a chord. This practice is known as multilinearity, and one can find it all over the place in Bach. It is a way of “horizontalizing” vertical harmonies (or, to wax Schenkerian, a way of “re-horizontalizing” vertical harmonies that are a result of horizontal contrapuntal motion in the first place). It is a result of writing idiomatically for an instrument that doesn’t handle simultaneous multiple voices very well. Of course you’re going to see this kind of writing in music for string instruments – but by lots of composers, in many different genres, and across the ages!

In fact, you can even find this kind of writing in music written for instruments that can handle chords easily, i.e., the Alberti-bass style, or the style brise in keyboard literature. These are all simply ways of spreading out vertical sonorities over a span of time. There is nothing especially notable or bluegrass-like about the way Bach spread out harmonies in the Praeludio from his E-major Partita, which was the specific work cited by Thile.

Yet even many professional musicians would listen to Thile make the assertion from the third paragraph and proceed to nod knowingly, stroke their chin, and say something like: “By gum, you’re right! What a fantastic insight! You obviously know a thing or two!”



Curious harmonies in “Ein Deutches Requiem”

Brahms was at once innovative and conservative.  It seems a strange thing to say.  What I mean is that he knew how to tease fresh sounds, fresh harmonic events, out of established contrapuntal “best practices.”  Rather than simply throwing something weird at the page, completely out of left-field, his method was to achieve the surprising or unusual phenomenon organically, so that it could be justified from a contrapuntal (and/or harmonic) perspective.

The fiery portion of the 6th movement from his Requiem contains a curious move from C-minor to E minor.  You can hear the shift to E-minor at 4:13 in this performance:

How shall we explain this?

One could say that Brahms was simply exploiting a third-relation.  Well, C-minor and E-minor certainly do stand in a chromatic third relationship to each other.  But this doesn’t necessarily justify the move.  Why should he have exploited that relationship?

One could also say that E-minor is not foreign to C-major (that is, it occurs diatonically), and so it represents a kind of borrowed harmony.  Usually, however, one borrows from the minor mode while writing in the major mode, not the other way around.  But again, while E- and A-natural do indeed come from the major mode, this says nothing in the way of justification.

I think the final answer is that the “visit” to E-minor represents an unfolding of an auxiliary note, namely the leading-tone with respect to the subdominant: E-natural.  Indeed, much of the movement is spent gravitating toward the subdominant.  There are many appearances of the Phrygian II in C-minor, which is also the diatonic VI with respect to the subdominant F-minor.  There is even a portion that unfolds G-flat minor (spelled enharmonically as F-sharp minor) – this would be the (minor) Phrygian ii with respect to the subdominant.  These harmonies create the sense of gravitation toward the subdominant I mentioned because they require accidentals in the key of C-minor.  They do not “belong” to C-minor, they “belong” to F-minor.


Two beautiful things

Here is some excruciating beauty:


There are some pieces I cannot ignore, that demand my complete attention for their duration, no matter what else is going on.  As Socrates put it: “Beauty is a short-lived tyranny.”




Bach’s 327th

For Bach’s birthday (March 21st), I think I’ll let some other, more respected musicians than I share their thoughts about the master:

Mozart, upon hearing a motet performed at the Thomaskirche: “Now there is music from which a man can learn something.” He then proceeded to spend the day studying Bach’s scores which were kept in St. Thomas’ library.

Beethoven, who built his reputation as a pianist on performances of the Well-Tempered Clavier: “Bach is the orignal father of harmony,” and “He should not be called Bach (stream), but Meer (ocean).”

Schumann, who helped found the Bach Gesellschaft: “Playing and studying Bach convinces us we are all numbskulls.”

Brahms, writing to Clara Schumann about the Ciaccona from the D-minor violin sonata: “To me, the Ciaccona is one of the most beautiful, incredible compositions. On one stave, and for a small instrument, the man pours out a world full of the most profound thoughts and most powerful emotions.”

Schenker, writing in 1906, 156 years after Bach’s death: “The paragon of composition…it seems to me, is still the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. What planning, what perspicuity, and what endurance!”

And Debussy (!): “And if we look at the works of JS Bach – a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday…”