Monday, June 2, 2014

Small Ternary Form

On Saturday, one day late, I put up my weekly miscellanea and one item was Leonard Bernstein "conducting" the last movement of a Haydn symphony by doing virtually nothing except making facial expressions. The movement, one of Haydn's marvelously exuberant finales, caught my attention and I'd like to take a closer look at it. After all, I can't be complaining about others not looking at the music all the time and not be looking at it myself.

The theme of this movement is the very important formal type known as the "small ternary". It is like a miniature version of sonata form with an exposition, a contrasting middle (not quite a development as it would be in a full-fledged sonata movement) and a recapitulation of the first part with whatever changes are needed to reach closure. The best discussion of this kind of form or "theme type" is in an excellent book by William Caplin called Classical Form published by the Oxford University Press. Available from Amazon. I had the pleasure of taking a doctoral seminar with Bill at McGill a number of years ago and he is an outstanding theorist. His book revives the formenlehre tradition that was how composers such as Shostakovich were taught even into the 20th century, but one that has fallen by the wayside in most places.

Bill introduces the small ternary like this:
The small ternary is one of the most important forms in all of classical instrumental music. As a theme-type in its own right, the small ternary can constitute the main theme of any full-movement form (sonata, rondo, concerto, etc.).
The small ternary consists of three main sections, which express the formal functions of exposition (A), contrasting middle (B), and recapitulation (A'). The exposition is constructed as a tight-knit theme, most often a period... The contrasting middle section achieves its sense of contrast primarily by harmonic and phrase-structural means and only secondarily by melodic-motivic means. Whereas the exposition emphasizes tonic harmony ... the contrasting middle emphasizes dominant harmony. The harmonic goal of the section is, with rare exceptions, the dominant of the home key ... The phrase structure of the B section is looser and usually less conventional in its thematic design than the preceding A section is.
The recapitulation represents a return, either complete or partial, of the exposition. The section must begin with the basic idea from the exposition and close in the home key with a perfect authentic cadence.
Does it seem odd or unlikely to you that such a widespread amount of music--he is referring to all small ternary forms in the whole classical era-can be described so definitively? After all, don't composers just sit down and write what they feel, inspired by whatever is happening to them that week emotionally? Tribulations with their girlfriend, dog ran away, had feelings of anxiety and abandonment? Well, no, that sounds more like country music, but even though I'm not an expert, I suspect that country music is even more tied to a specific set of forms and practices than are the Viennese classicists!

Let's have a listen to that movement before we dig into it:

Ah, Lennie, no-one but you... Anyway, let's have a look at the score. As I said, the main theme of the movement is a small ternary form. Here is the A section:

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This is a fairly typical 8-measure period, just as predicted. The solo bassoon, doubled by the first violins, has a foursquare theme outlining the tonic triad. Measure three is dominant and then the tonic returns. Now, of course, this being Haydn, there is always some departure from the conventional and it comes with the cadence. Usually the cadence is in the home key, but sometimes, as here, it is in a related key. The key is G major, but the cadence is in B minor. Notice the period phrase structure: two measures of basic idea, two measures of a contrasting idea, two measures of basic idea and then the contrasting idea shaped to end with the cadence. That B minor cadence sets up the B section nicely as it begins in E minor and modulates to G minor by way of D major. Here is the first part of the B section:

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And the rest, ending with a half cadence in G minor:

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And here is the A' section. It begins with two upbeat D eighth notes on the previous line that I have left out;

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As you can see, apart from some minor differences in orchestration (the flute doubling the bassoon solo along with the first violins) and changing the last part to end with a perfect authentic cadence in the home key of G major, this is a repeat of the first section. As is very typical the A section is repeated as are the B and A' sections together. Because of this, this kind of theme is sometimes called a "rounded binary". Binary because we see two repeated sections: AA then BA'BA'. "Rounded" because the second section contains a repeat of the A section. But from a form functional point of view, it is best to see it as ternary. The A section is 8 measures, the B section 16 measures and the A' another 8 measures.

Through the use of sixteenth-note passage work in the violins and fragmenting the theme into small units, Haydn manages to build the whole movement just from this modest material. This is not unusual for, in contrast to Mozart, whose music tends to overflow with themes, Haydn most often uses a minimum of material. He built an entire first string quartet movement from little more than falling fifths in half notes.

Shall we listen to the movement again? Here is a different performance with the Chelsea Symphony conducted by Mark Seto. The small ternary theme that we have been talking about, with the repeats, occupies the first 55 seconds of this performance.

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