Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Harmony and Phrase Structure

In his wonderful book The Classical Style Charles Rosen writes: "The clearest of these elements [of the classical style] in the formation of the early classical style ... is the short, periodic, articulated phrase. When it first appears, it is a disruptive element in the Baroque style, which relied generally on an encompassing and sweeping continuity."

This is the kind of brilliant observation that shines a kind of light over the landscape of music history. Yes, the basic characteristic of Baroque music is its sweeping continuity. Here is an example from Bach:

That is all about spinning out the basic idea through a kaleidoscope of harmonies and sequences while avoiding big cadences except at major structural divisions because, for the Baroque, a full cadence tends to bring the music to a halt.

The transition to Classical style was all about developing, as Rosen says, the short, articulated phrase and the articulation was primarily through cadence. In other words, while the phrase was given shape and structure through melodic and rhythmic devices, the most important structural foundation was the harmony, meaning, the cadence.

Looking at the two basic kinds of Classical phrase, the period and the sentence, we can see how this works. The sentence has two parts: the presentation and the continuation. In the presentation, which is typically 4 measures, there is a 2 measure basic idea (statement) which is repeated (response). The continuation has another 2 measures in which the basic idea is fragmented with harmonic acceleration and ends with another 2 measures of cadential material where the basic idea is liquidated. This ends with either a half cadence or a perfect authentic cadence. In the period, also typically 8 measures, the antecedent part has a two measure basic idea followed by a two measure contrasting idea and ends with a half cadence. The consequent part repeats the 2 measure basic idea and then the 2 measure contrasting idea, but ends with a perfect authentic cadence.

The beginning of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F minor, op 2 no 1, is the perfect example of the sentence:

That first phrase, a sentence, takes up the first 15 seconds of the clip. The second movement of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik gives us a good example of the period:

The first phrase, a period, takes the first 23 seconds of that clip.

The relevance of this to the composer now is that in our long journey away from the classical style through romanticism, modernism and post-modernism, we have somehow, quite inadvertently, managed to work ourselves back into that "encompassing and sweeping continuity" without those crisp articulations of the Classical style. Just look how popular drones and minimalism have been.

Now I know that composers have all sorts of amazingly complex ways of structuring their music. I have come up with a couple myself. But from the listener's point of view the effect of a lot of 20th century music is that of continuity and by that I mean that, despite an often spiky and jagged surface, the listener does not hear crisp phrases articulated clearly. So, in a sense, we have returned to a pre-classical kind of texture. Let me find an example or two. Here is Dérive 2 by Pierre Boulez. However the music is structured internally, what we hear, I think, is a kind of continuity without articulated phrases:

And even when we look at the post-modernist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, even though there is the return to tonality, there are no cadences to articulate phrases, so the music again has a kind of continuity:

That was the opening of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich and here is the first part of the Symphony No. 9 by Philip Glass:

The problem is how to direct the music, how to build excitement, how to hasten to a conclusion or close off a section. The continuity we can do, but the rest is difficult. I think composers direct the phrase (if there is one) and build excitement and close sections with a variety of means involving timbre, dynamics and rhythm. But we cannot use cadence for structure because we have lost the use of the cadence available to the Classical style and have developed nothing that quite replaces it.

Interesting problem...

Let's hear a little Haydn, one of the great masters of the Classical style and listen to how he articulates his phrases and builds his structure. Here is the Symphony No. 39 in G minor:


Unknown said...

Hi Bryan,
Great post!
I personally live the dichotomy continuity/articulation as a living tension. It is this tension that I love in the music by Ennio Morricone, or in that of the great jazz improvisers: they seem to build their phrases against the cadenzas. They reverse, in a way, the relationship between phrases and cadenzas: it's no more the cadenzas that delimit the phrases, but the phrases that encompass cadenzas.
As for our non-tonal music, it's true that we do not have the cadenzas in our tools any more, but we have other "weapons" to articulate music.
Repetition is one of these: when you repeat you delimit an element by itself (Debussy was a master of this: in a weak tonal syntax, he repeated everything twice, to make things clear even without cadenzas).
In this respect, I disagree with you about minimalism: this music is not continuous to my ears, it is extremely discrete. I perceive continuity where I cannot find "borders", which is far from true for Steve Reich's music.

And there is another strategy to create discontinuity (which I personally prefer in my own music): silence. Nothing new under the sun: the opening of Haydn's Symphony n. 39 that you proposed does exactly that - it uses silence to divide. But as powerful as cadenzas, if not more, in my opinion.

Rickard said...

Fascinating. I never really thought much about this dichotomy. Indeed, Bach is the master of this sort of sweeping continuity, it's quite amazing when you think about it. Now I understand the point Taruskin was making about the spinning method in Bach's music (or rather what makes it different from the other ways he described various styles of developing the music, something I'm still a bit confused about, i.e. how Brahms' development of the music is different compared to Betehoven's for instance). It's very true that the classical style is much more based on phrases rather than sweeping continuity.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Elvio and welcome to the Music Salon. I'm delighted to have your thoughtful comments. Yes, there are many tools available now to articulate phrases, but somehow they never have the crisp definitiveness that the Classical style achieved with their use of cadence. Sometimes I am listening to Haydn and I am amazed at the mobility and expressiveness of his harmony. As Philip Glass says in the liner notes to one of his symphonies, now when we write tonal music, it is always ambiguous.

I am not sure of your point about continuity and Steve Reich. In most of his music he is building up long chains of structure and slowly modifying them. I don't hear the short-term articulations you suggest?

Phrase structure is a fascinating topic, but one about which there is not a lot of theorizing. The best book on it that I know is by William Caplin with whom I took an excellent graduate seminar.

Brahms vs Beethoven sounds like it might be a fascinating subject for a post--or maybe a doctoral dissertation!