Posts Tagged ‘Sounds’

Here’s a partial playlist for vol. III, chapter 9, “Lost—Or Rejected—Illusions.” Click through below for scenes from Prokofieff’s Love for Three Oranges.

Prokofieff, “Classical Symphony,” (III Gavotte)

Satie, Embryons desséchées (No. 3, “De podophthalma” begins at 3:43; end of this movement is a caricature of the extended coda in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony)


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In the first half of his chapter on Bartók (Vol. IV, Ch. 7), Taruskin shines a focused spotlight on several of Bartók’s pieces, including Kossuth, Four Dirges, the set of bagatelles (Op. 6) for solo piano, his string quartet No. 4, and Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Here is a partial listening list based on what I could find in the broad but inconsistent wells of youtube. Listen as you read:
[In order to save space on our front page, I’ve only included the first two pieces here. Click through to listen to the rest.]


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David Rowland, in his essay, “The Nocturne: Development of a New Style,” (The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, 1992) argues that Chopin took an established “nocturne style” and developed it in new ways. Much of Rowland’s essay focuses on establishing the particular nocturne style, developed by John Field and others, that Chopin inherited. This style was characterized by a relatively simple form (ABA or ABAB), with the left hand playing broken chords, and the right hand utilizing simple ornamentation. (Rowland, 43)

But Rowland, at the conclusion of his essay, also mentions some new developments that Chopin made to the genre. Rather than the typically straightforward ABA or ABAB forms of the earlier nocturnes, in the later ones “there is a sense of development, or progression through the work…. Op. 48 No. 1 is a good example. The return of the opening melodic idea towards the end of the piece is accompanied by much richer figuration and is marked agitato. As a result, there is a drama in this final section which is entirely lacking at the beginning of the piece.” (Ibid., 48)

The following analysis will examine some of the particular musical characteristics Chopin used to effect this heightened drama. To understand how this later nocturne departed from Chopin’s earlier formal approaches, I will first compare it with a nocturne that was composed ten years earlier, Op. 15 No. 1 in F major. (Download the C minor score here, the F major score here.)

The nocturnes are both cast in the typical ABA form, with a clearly projected homophonic texture in the A section, and a contrasting texture in the B section. In the F major nocturne, the A section features the nocturne texture that Chopin used so well: a vocal-like melody in the right hand with the standard nocturne accompaniment of broken chords in the left (Example 1). The C minor nocturne features the same vocal-like melody but with a slow “oom-pah” accompaniment in the left (Example 2). Both nocturnes also have a B section that adds drama to the piece. It explodes right from the start in the F major nocturne, clearly marking for the listener that new territory has been reached. In the C minor nocturne, the boundaries are more fluid, and the dramatic intensity gathers gradually.

The F minor nocturne had begun delicately and simply in the A section, with semplice e tranquillo, dolcissimo, and delicatissimo markings. Out of this peaceful mood breaks the furious  con fuoco section (m. 25), which holds forth in all its turbulent glory unceasingly for the next 24 measures until it finally peters out and leads, calando, back to the A section material. It is a true return, with the left-hand accompaniment lifted directly from the beginning section. The right-hand melody is also the same, with added ornamentation.

The phrase structure also returns almost whole, the only difference being that what was an open phrase in m. 24—the one which led into the B section—now receives a proper closure in the final four measures of the piece. In other words, the story of this piece is that it begins in one place, moves to another, and then returns right back to the place where it started—your basic there and back again. If this piece were a drama, it might be described in the following way:

  • Act 1—Set the stage; introduce the main characters
  • Act 2—Pure action
  • Act 3—Repeat Act 1

In other words, it is no drama at all, but rather more akin to a da capo aria form. An aria provides a momentary tableau within a larger story, and is not expected to contain a complete dramatic span. Neither is this nocturne.

The later nocturne in C minor, on the other hand, follows a more linear progression, creating a drama that begins, develops, and ends somewhere new. Instead of having alternating sections with no formal, stylistic or rhythmic bleed, as in the F major nocturne, the musical forces introduced in the B section (mm. 25-48) affect the restatement of the A section at the end of the piece (mm. 49-77). On a structural level, this is most keenly felt in the development of rhythmic pulse throughout the piece. In the A section, the rhythmic streams break down into groups of two and four, with the two highest levels of subdivision being eighth notes and sixteenth notes (all in duple groupings). The B section maintains this stream throughout the entire first statement of the chorale (mm. 25-36). The restatement of the chorale melody soon meets with a cross-cutting force (m. 39), a rising chromatic figure that obliterates melodic and rhythmic flow by introducing a new rhythmic stream: sixteenth notes grouped as triplets. The chorale tries several times to go on to completion, each time only to be interrupted yet again, until the rambunctious triplet stream eventually takes over completely by m. 46.

All hope of a “there and back again” form is not yet lost. Like the F minor nocturne, this tempestuous contrasting section may still peter out into a restatement of the A section just as it was in the beginning of the piece. But it is not to be. Instead, the new triplet stream introduced in the B section carries over into the restatement of the A section, beginning in m. 49. Like a locomotive, the momentum of the chromatic triplet motive has gathered to such a point that it would take a major opposing force to counteract it. Chopin provided no such force, and following section gives in to the inertia. This results in two opposing streams occurring side by side—one dividing the beat into four sixteenth notes, one dividing it into eighth-note triplets. It is a typical hemiola effect, with the undergirding of an extraordinary formal rationale.

The transformation of the A section material is the result of the developmental nature of the B section. Recall the B section of Op. 15 No. 1. The fiery nature of that section was consistent from beginning to end, bookended by two relatively calm sections. The B section of Op. 48 No. 1, on the other hand, builds gradually, constantly adding both in dynamic level and rhythmic intensity. The difference between these two story-lines can be graphically represented—though roughly—by a series of bars, where an increase in the height of the bar reflects an increase in inertia (increase in inertia in this case results from an increase of various musical elements such as dynamic level, rhythmic interest, and range).

In other words, if the C minor nocturne were a drama, it might be described in the following way:

  • Act 1—Set the stage; introduce the main characters
  • Act 2—Gradual and building action, leading to a climax
  • Act 3—Concluding act that continues climax, resolves conflict, shows character development

This story-line fits much better into the mold of a drama than the F major nocturne. As a result, David Rowland’s observation about drama in Op. 48 No. 1, stated above, can be expanded. This piece not only has drama, it seems appropriate to talk about the piece as a drama.

The fusion of these two contrasting rhythmic streams in the A’ section has many ramifications, including grandiose figuration, rhythmic tension, and an increasingly dense texture. Grandiose figuration occurs in both the left and right hands, where the eighth-note triplet has become the basic pulse for the accompaniment. This underlying pulse creates rhythmic tension with the melody, because the latter retains the subdivision into groups of four sixteenth notes from its initial statement. The result is a recurring four against three rhythm (see mm. 54, 55, 58, 59, 66, 68, and 69-70). Also, the texture of this final section, although consistent on a wallpaper level, changes subtly by adding density. In mm. 49-62, the left hand has only two notes in a chord at a time (with a lone exception in m. 51). But in m. 65, at the beginning of a new phrase, a third note is added to the successive chordal inversions in the left hand, making an already dense texture even more so. This continues until m. 71, the start of the final cadence of the piece. From this point on, there is a denouement, gradually reducing the density of the texture to the end of the piece.

What a difference the accumulation of one new element can make. It is representative of a subtle shift in Chopin’s approach to the nocturne, one in which formal sections are not hermetically sealed but have the ability to influence one another. And although this nocturne may have been the first to reflect linear progression on such a scale, it was not the last. The A’ section of the other nocturne in Op. 48 (No. 2 in F# minor) also undergoes a transformation, though not primarily through rhythmic developments. In No. 2 it is the melodic, harmonic, and phrase structure that differs from the first A to the last—the very elements that are retained in the second statement of the opening C minor theme. But by either compositional technique, Op. 48 represents a departure from the prevailing da capo form in Chopin’s nocturne style, towards nocturnes that were through composed.

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Once Schubert took ahold of the Lied (German song with keyboard accompaniment), it was never the same. He vested what was mainly a domestic genre with the power to express a Romantic aesthetic, one that fused ideals of Romantic poets with a growing analogous trend in music: a drive toward Innigkeit (“innerness”) as a new and more complete way of experiencing reality. The harmonic language that Schubert developed to express Innigkeit was the extensive topic of Taruskin’s second chapter of vol. III, where he explicates all the harmonic inner workings in some detail (cf. Zach’s recent post). In short, Schubert accomplished a dislodging of time—and thus entrance into what Taruskin calls the “music trance”—through particular use of the flat submediant and modal mixture.

In his Lied, “Am Meer” (“By the Sea”), Schubert also utilized modal mixture. In particular, the opening piano chords oscillate between major and minor triads in direct juxtaposition, to express the pathetic (that is, infused with pathos) and, more to the point of this post, the sublime. It is musical foreshadowing of love once tasted, becoming fatally poisonous, a fate that, when finally proclaimed by the poet at the end of the Lied, we realize has loomed all along. Having asked the question of how harmony expresses the sublime, Taruskin pushes the question one step further: does the harmonic expressivity and evocation transfer into his instrumental works? The answer is yes, and the evidence is Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C Major. Taruskin connects the dots, so to speak, between “Am Meer” and the quintet, noting that both open with modal mixture. Is it mere coincidence? Not likely:

Without the eccentric context provided by the poem, one thinks, such a progression could have no meaning at all. But then one hears the very opening of the Quintet in C Major, composed the same year as “Am Meer,” and one has to think again. The same kind of uncanny juxtaposition materializes […]. Yet it materializes in an imaginatively open-ended context, all the more arcane for its being wordless. (III, 138-139)

Taruskin, immediately connects another dot that is surely pressing on the musicologist’s mind as she follows the argument:

In which context did such arcane eloquence originate? Impossible—tantalizingly, blessedly impossible—to say. The combination of an extreme subjective expressive immediacy and an unspecified or “objectless” context is what gave rise to the sublime romantic notion of “absolute music”—one of the most potent, but also one of the most widely misunderstood, of all romantic concepts.

Naturally, the misunderstood concept that Taruskin refers to is “absolute music,” hotly debated to this very day among musicologists. But there is another term in Taruskin’s last sentence that could be “widely misunderstood”—if not by specialists, then at least by the general reader. That is the notion of the sublime, an equal or perhaps more important concept than absolute music, when talking about Schubert and his Romantic comrades. And that will be the subject of my next post, the second in this two-part series.

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In chapter 1 of volume three, Taruskin goes a few rounds with the most popular form of musical entertainment of the early nineteenth century: opera. Right from the starting bell, Taruskin uses contrast as a way to cast his examples, pitting Beethoven’s lone opera against Rossini’s plethora of operas. I have organized the rest of the chapter in similar head to head battles below, with accompanying audio/visual examples. The point? Rossini can hold his own in the ring against pretty much anybody.

Rossini vs. Beethoven—Though Beethoven’s legend long overshadowed Rossini’s talent in the history books, Taruskin follows the recent trend of righting the imbalance. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio. He tinkered with it for a decade and wrote no fewer than four overtures for it. Rossini, on the other hand, could write an opera almost in the time it took Beethoven to strap on his boots. He wrote his famous Barber of Seville in about three weeks, and its overture is reused wholesale from an earlier opera. These two arias capture well the widely contrasting roles that these two composers played for history. Rossini was Beethoven’s “great counterweight.”

Beethoven, Fidelio, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!”

Rossini, Barber of Seville, “Largo al Factotum”


Rossini vs. Paisiello—When Rossini wrote The Barber, he was not seizing on an open market. The play by Beaumarchais had already been set, and very successfully so, by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782.

Paisiello, Barber of Seville, Overture

Rossini, Barber of Seville, Overture


Rossini vs. Rossini—Composers take on their own brand identity to history. Or should I say historians and critics often apply brand-like characteristics to composers. For instance, Mozart is the precocious melodist, Beethoven is the isolated genius, and Stravinsky is the couture modernist. Rossini’s brand is typically informed by his comedies, for which he is best known today, and the excerpt below from L’Italiana in Algeri is representative (can you count how many times they sing “bum bum”?). But in his own day, Rossini was equally known as a composer of serious opera. “Di tanti palpiti,” from his 1913 opera Tancredi, was the most famous aria he ever wrote. These serious operas were a continuation of 18th century seria conventions, not a part of the “innovative” buffa scene, and that is perhaps why they have not been as well remembered.

Rossini, L’Italiana in Algieri, Act I Finale

Rossini, Tancredi, “Di Tanti Palpiti” (The cabaletta of the title starts at 4:28)


Rossini vs. Bellini and Donizetti—Even though Rossini retired at a young age (and then ate his way through the rest of his life), there were plenty of whippersnappers ready to pick up where he left off. He lived long enough to witness the furor and popularity of both Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti’s careers. Below are two of their most famous scenes: “Casta Diva” is the quintessential example of the bel canto style, and Donizetti’s Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor became an example that every mad scene that followed—and there were many—tried to live up to.

Bellini,  Norma, “Casta Diva”

Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Mad Scene

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Our new header is a detail from a portrait of Ludwig Van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler (1820). His penetrating eyes, steely scowl, and tempest of a hairdo all contribute to the larger than life, struggling Romantic hero persona that became so legendary and influential. The dark colored suit on dark wilderness background (Beethoven often took long walks in the woods) make his face (framed by the bright white collar), hands, and manuscript more prominent, while the red scarf forms a direct link from head to music, by way of the heart. Solemnis indeed.

And here is the “Kyrie” from the piece of music that Beethoven holds in his hands:

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Way back in September, before we started vol. 1, chapter 1 (it seems so long ago now!), I pondered whether musical meaning could ever go beyond social correlation. The question came up as a result of Prof. Taruskin’s stated intention in his introduction to address the full spectrum of musical meanings as he progressed through his historical narrative. Since the discussion of that post has recently started up again, I thought I would return to this issue, since it came up again in last week’s reading.

J.S. Bach’s Toccata in F (BWV 540) for organ is a gem of an example to demonstrate the way tonally conceived music manipulates desires in the listener. Bach creates and prolongs that desire by writing a pedal point that is an astounding 54 measures long. He then provides a medial resolution by returning to the tonic, before launching right back into creating, prolonging, and frustrating the listener’s desires, whipping them into such a frenzy that the final resolution to the tonic is tantamount to salvation.

And this reaction to the music is not completely subjective, says Taruskin. It takes our encoded understanding of tonally organized music (something assumed to be shared by a quorum of listeners) and creates a sequence of events to play off of those shared understandings, much like a dramatist creates a narrative arc moving from conflict to resolution.

Bach’s Toccata is one of the earliest pieces to so dramatize the working out of its form-building tonal functions, adding an element of emotional tension that is inextricably enmeshed in its formal structure. The listener’s active engagement in the formal process is likewise dramatized. The listener’s subjective reaction to the ongoing tonal drama is programmed into the composition. Subjectivity, one may say, has been given an objective correlate. It even makes a certain kind of figurative sense to ascribe the desire for resolution to the notes themselves, objectifying and (as it were) acting out the listener’s involvement. (II, 213)

In a way, then, the music is indeed acting on the listener, through a set of socially encoded signs.

We miss something, however, by discussing only the tonal organization of a piece (and watching it on youtube). What we miss is the physical experience of hearing the music live, in a church, with massive ranks of organ pipes. There is a big difference between listening to this piece through headphones, where the distance between the speaker and your eardrums is minimal, and hearing it in a church. In the acoustic environment of a church, sound waves pound against the entire body, creating physical reactions that can sometimes be unsettling, as anyone who has felt his chest rattle against an organ’s rumbling low note can attest. In this way, the music can be not only metaphorically, but literally moving.

How could a physical/sound-wave analysis of this toccata enlighten us to the effectiveness of the piece? At what points do the sound waves support our tonal readings of the piece? Where do they crosscut our expectations?

These kinds of contextual/experiential insights seem critical to me when discussing a piece like Bach’s Toccata in F, especially since a live experience of the music was the only possible way to hear it in Bach’s time. Leaving it out is like tasting a fine cheese while plugging your nose—you can comment on shape and color and texture, but will have a severely dulled experience of taste. And isn’t the taste of the cheese the most important part?

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Handel’s Games

In his Concerto grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6 no. 7 (1739) Handel’s second movement (at 1:06 in the example below) is the traditional fugal canzona with a twist. It’s joke-like subject (a systematic diminution of a single note) is so striking, lucid, and memorable that it allows him, as Taruskin points out, to play with the listener’s expectations. The entrances of the subject are irregular, creating a game of “hide-and-seek”—where will it pop up next?

The example is one of several Taruskin gives to indicate a shift in compositional technique and listener experience: instead of music evoking an emotion, the composition requires an intellectual consideration. It sets up a listener’s expectation, then fulfills or delays the expectation. In Taruskin’s estimation, this was “a virtual revolution in listening, in which the listener’s conscious mind was much more actively engaged than previously in these processes of forecast and delayed fulfillment, and in which the form may even be said to arise out of the play of these cognitive processes.” (II, 208)

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The organ masses of Girolamo Frescobaldi (Taruskin might jokingly refer to him as “the guy with the freshly shaved head”) were meant to both accompany and replace items in the the mass ordinary. The music, therefore, consists of a hodge-podge of different functional items, from chant settings to canzonas to ricercars. His three most famous organ masses, collected for Fiori Musicali (“Musical flowers”), all end with “elevation toccatas,” which are both the musical and theological heart of the ritual. This is music to accompany the Eucharist, the most mystical moment of mass, and Frescobaldi captures the rapturous act through music of the utmost sublimity and grace. There is an elastic quality to time in this elevation toccata: the genre, after all, had its roots in improvisation, and the performer in much of Frescobaldi’s music is encouraged to interpret freely. Listen for all of the sumptuous suspensions, delicious chromaticism, and that raw, uncanny (some would say “out of tune”) quality of the organ temperament. (This would sound very different, and perhaps much less disorienting, on a modern instrument.) I can think of nothing so expressive of spiritual ecstasy as these elevation toccatas until we get to Olivier Messiaen.

This below recording of Frescobaldi’s Toccata nona is about as good as it gets, folks. Pierre Hantai (harpsichord) absolutely nails it. His performance is flexible, free, and improvisatory, some might even say “wild.” There’s been an unfortunate trend in recorded performances of this repertory (and “early music” in general) to make it sound smooth and “pretty”; perhaps contemporary audiences would like to transport themselves to an imaginary age of musical calm and purity. (There are a number of books on early music performance practice, including one by RT, on the must-reads list.) Hantai eschews this approach in favor of getting at the fiery essence of the music. There is nothing museum-y about this recording. Furthermore, working off of evidence from musicologists, the harpsichord used here was tuned down a 4th from A=440. This dark, wolfy quality puts us into a different sonic realm than we might be used to with harpsichord music. (And one that is, by most accounts, more historically accurate, for whatever that’s worth.) This is slobber material, and I’d highly recommend the full recording (although it’s showing up for a dreadfully high price on amazon. Most U libraries will have this one.).

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