Sunday, April 15, 2012

Music in the 19th Century: The Romantic Trance

One of the greatest innovations in 19th century music was a kind of musical trance that took the listener inside themselves. The means to achieve this were various and included instrumental color and orchestration, rhythmic techniques, melodic techniques, but most of all, harmony. Perhaps the earliest extensive use of 'romantic' harmony was by Franz Schubert, whose song, the Elfking, we looked at a few days ago. The basic principle of harmonic organization in music up to this point was to start on the tonic chord, go to the dominant and then, in the second half of the piece, return from the dominant to the tonic, often visiting a remote harmony en route. There are thousands of Baroque and Classical period pieces that use this format. What the early romantics did was to intensify the 'feeling' aspect of music so that it gave the listener the experience of inwardness, of plunging beneath the surface into inner depths. One of their methods was by intensifying the harmony. The vehicle for this kind of experience was the salon concert in which both Chopin and Schubert were the masters. Listeners to this kind of performance experienced a kind of shared solitude and this was captured rather well in a famous painting by Josef Danhauser called Liszt at the Piano:

Liszt is, of course, seated at the piano and the two figures immediately behind him, leaning towards one another, are the composers Berlioz and Rossini. The bust sitting on the piano that Liszt is gazing at is Beethoven who still looms over music. One of the most important precedents for the romantic trance in music is found in the Cavatina movement from Beethoven's String Quartet, op 130. Here is that movement:

The crucial moment comes 3:57 into the movement when a new texture begins with triplet E flats in the three lower instruments. When the first violin enters a moment later with a new melody it is not in triplets so it is at odds rhythmically with the others. Beethoven marks this "Beklemmt", meaning "suppressed" or "agonized". But the most interesting thing for our purposes is that while the movement is in E flat, this passage is in the flat submediant, C flat. Those E flats in the accompaniment are the third of a C flat harmony. The flat submediant, or in less technical language, a triad built on the flattened sixth note of the scale, will be the romantic harmony par excellence, the harmony that signals the trance-state, the descending beneath the surface of feeling.

Schubert extended this technique with his Impromptu in E flat, op 90, no 2:

Like the Beethoven example, this is also in E flat major. But Schubert goes Beethoven one better: instead of just going to the flat submediant (C flat major), Schubert goes instead to the minor flat submediant, C flat minor. But to avoid writing an immense number of flats, he notates it instead as B minor, the enharmonic equivalent. (Two notes or harmonies are said to be "enharmonically equivalent" when the notations result in the same sound. For example, C flat and B have the same sound even though they are written differently. It is the same thing as writing the word 'fish' with 'ph' instead of 'f': 'phish'.) In the Impromptu the move to B minor, prepared with a G flat harmony, equivalent to F sharp, occurs at the 1:16 mark. Another characteristic romantic harmony that Schubert uses is at the 0:23 mark when he moves from E flat major to E flat minor.

This piece, like most heard during Schubert's short lifetime, was performed at Viennese salon concerts called, in honor of Schubert, "Schubertiads".

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