Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Composer's Composers

Sorry I didn't get a post up yesterday. I was occupied putting the finishing touches on my String Quartet No. 1 and with social events. Plus, I just didn't think of anything!

I was musing over the problem of form and how much and how little the "form" of a piece tells us about it. Take the binary dance forms popular during the Baroque, for example. These include allemandes, courantes, sarabands, minuets, gigues and other less-known dances. From a theoretical formal point of view they all have EXACTLY the same form! Which is both astounding and remarkably useless! Yes, they all begin with the tonic and over the course of a couple of standard-length (usually eight measure) phrases, move to the dominant (or, in the case of minor keys, to the relative major). Then in the second half, which is usually about 50% longer, the movement is back to the tonic. And that's it, from a theoretical viewpoint. So the problem is, if that's all our standard approach to form tells us, then our standard approach to form is sterile because we literally cannot tell one allemande from another.

The truth about form is that, as it is usually taught, it is little more than a container in which you can put almost any content. If I were to pick a metaphor it might be the wine bottle. Traditionally, French wine from different regions has a distinctive bottle shape. The Burgundies come in bottles with gently sloping shoulders like this:

While wines from Bordeaux come in bottles with straight sides and high shoulders like this:

And bottles from the Rhône are a bit like the Burgundy bottles but a bit slimmer and with a coat of arms on the neck:

The point is that all the wines from Burgundy come in the same shape bottle, just as all allemandes have the same formal layout and basic tempo, but the contents are different! Every wine comes from a different vineyard, is vinified differently and has a different taste. Just as every allemande is different. But it is not the formal layout, the harmonic structure or the tempo that makes the difference; it is, rather, the content.

There are some treatments that are a bit more detailed and subtle such as William Caplin's discussions of classical theme types that I have talked about before. But even with him, the fundamental impulse is to look for the standard, the typical and to take it as a paradigm. But what we listen to and enjoy and remember is precisely that which is individual, not standard, not typical, just as what we enjoy in wine is the not the shape of the bottle, but the taste of the wine.

And this, finally, brings me to my topic of composer's composers. Which composers do other composers like and why? Of course, there are composers that on general principle do not like other composers, but they are just grumpy so we will ignore them. Bach doesn't seem to have had a huge amount of regard for other composers of his time, but really, he had no peers, so that's not surprising. Beethoven, judging by who he emulated, especially in his earlier works, had a great deal of admiration for Mozart, as do we all. Haydn and Mozart were a mutual-admiration society, which speaks highly of both of them.

But as we look around, there are a couple of composers who stand out as being particularly admired by other composers. These two are Domenico Scarlatti and Joseph Haydn and I think the reasons for both are quite similar. Both of them wrote many, many pieces within the same genre. Scarlatti is particularly famous for having written nothing but binary-form sonatas for keyboard (harpsichord), five hundred and fifty-five of them! Haydn was much more prolific with one hundred and six symphonies, sixty-eight string quartets and forty-five piano trios, not to mention nearly-innumerable other pieces.

I think composers in particular are fascinated by someone who can keep going back to the same challenge and creating something new every time and do it over and over again. Scarlatti is an extreme example: over and over and over he made keyboard sonatas and each one was new and different. Composers really admire that because it is confronting the challenge of creation head-on. Similarly with Haydn: every symphony has a minuet and trio in moderate tempo in ¾ meter and every time he writes one he manages to make it different from all the other ones. This is what is so amazing about it.

Theorists like to think of themselves as practicing "composition in retrograde" or "reverse-engineering" the piece of music, but what they really end up doing is describing what is going on in light of certain standard features, such as the harmonic layout. But the true achievement of the composer is what he does differently in each piece. Very often, especially in the case of dance forms, this difference has a lot to do with how the rhythms are handled. But theorists never seem to have gotten completely comfortable with studying the rhythmic structure of music: they really prefer to stick to the pitches.

I said a while back that I was going to do some comparative studies of Haydn slow movements, and I still plan to, but right now, I would like to take a look at a couple of Haydn minuets to see if I can flesh out some of the points I made above.

Since there are over a hundred Haydn symphonies (and I am not quite done listening to all of them yet, but I am up in the 80s) I am literally just going to pick two minuets at random and see what we can learn from them. I'm going to pick the Symphony No. 50 in C major and the Symphony No. 60, also in C major, just because they are even numbers and back in my Haydn survey in October I didn't talk about either of them. No. 50 is pretty conventional layout with the usual four movements. Here is the minuet and trio:

And now for No. 60. This is a very unusual symphony in that the music is largely derived from incidental music written in 1774/75 for the play Le Distrait by Jean-François Regnard. There are six movements in all. The minuet and trio are the third movement, starting at the 11:40 mark in this clip:

Now for the scores: for my purposes I just need to look at the first page, I think. Here is the Symphony No. 50:

Click to enlarge

And here is the first page of No. 60:

Click to enlarge

What we know even before looking is that they will both be in the tonic key of C major and that the cadence at the end of the first section will be in G major. The tempos will be very similar as well and so will the instrumentation: two oboes, two horns, two natural trumpets ("clarini"), bassoon, tympani and strings. So what is different? Or, rather, what can you do to make two pieces with so much in common, including the need to be in a clearly-accented ¾ meter, different? Hmm, well, No. 50 starts with a strong upbeat and then has a five-measure phrase that merely outlines the C major triad in quarter notes, ending with a bare half-cadence. This is followed by a seven-measure phrase that stresses over and over G major. I would call it modulatory, except it just starts and continues in G major. Then the first section ends with a softer, more lyrical eight measure phrase in G major, ending with a full cadence. Total: 20 measures. Well, that is certainly odd enough!

What about No. 60? The rhythmic activity is quite different starting on the downbeat with an inverted sixteenth-note turn creating energy on the third beat. This is repeated, leading to a dotted-note figure and triplets outlining a weak cadence on G major. There is an F# and a seventh, but in first inversion: V6/5 of G. This is a pretty standard eight-measure sentence.  And that's it for the first section. The second section has some interesting imitation between the second violins, first violins, then cellos before the opening basic idea comes back.

About the only thing in common, apart from the formal aspects I mentioned above, is the turn figure on the third beat. It also appears in No. 50, but not inverted.

Haydn has managed, within the constraints of the same key, same instrumentation, same meter and same general harmonic layout, to write two very-different sounding minuets. The really amazing thing is that he managed to do it over one hundred times. I'm not sure I can even think of an equivalent, except, of course, for the very similar feat of Scarlatti.

It is one thing to come up with a good musical idea. It is quite another to keep coming up with them over and over decade after decade.

I guess this is why people like Scarlatti and Haydn are particularly admired by other composers. You might call them "composer's composers".

UPDATED to fix a spell-check altering of "clarini" to "clarion". I really want to figure out how to disable this "feature" as it is constantly "correcting" words surreptitiously!


Nathan Shirley said...

Excellent point on how music theorists typically miss the point of what makes a masterpiece tick. Deconstructing art never explains how something was actually constructed. It might uncover something interesting here or there, but that's it.

I think it is similar to how the pseudosciences typically look at the "norm" or "average" and completely overlook the unusual and exceptional.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan! I think that theorists like to think that they take a scientific approach, or at least a logically analytical one, but the problem is that all the important questions when it comes to music (and art generally), are aesthetic ones, which need a different approach.

Have a very happy New Year!

(I even think I found how to disable the spell correct: it is not a feature in Blogger, but in the Mac operating system.)