Monday, October 17, 2016

Listening to Les Tendres Plaintes

I labeled this "reception history" even though it isn't quite that. Think of it as the first draft of a reception history. That term, by the way, refers to a way of doing musicology where you examine the history of how a piece or a style or a composer was received by audiences over time. It can be quite interesting. But it does raise the problem of understanding how people listen.

I've listened to a piece by Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes, a few times recently for different reasons: it is on a recent CD of Grigory Sokolov, there are a couple of clips of it on YouTube and I was sharing them with a couple of friends and I just transcribed it for violin and guitar to see what that would sound like. So I noticed a couple of things about how I listen to it. By that I basically mean my moment to moment reactions which vary from occasion to occasion, of course.

Here is the clip I have watched the most:


Now I will try to do a kind of stream-of-consciousness account of my reactions:

...those trills! and then how silvery the ring of the melody...
...the trills in the melody and the accompaniment are offset, intentionally kept unaligned.
(there are actually several different kinds of ornaments I am calling "trills" here: Rameau has a table in the front of his book naming and describing them: the cadence is a trill from the note above and the pincé is to the note below. We tend to call them a trill and a mordent respectively. There is also a cadence apuyée, where the first note is held longer and the double cadence which is a cadence that ends with a turn.)
...he does just a hint of notes inégales in the bass line that connects the first two phrases...
...when he gets to the descending sequence that begins the 1re Reprise, it is so lovely that I just start swaying my head from side to side...
..that A major chord that ends the 1re Reprise is always a surprise... the piece is in D minor, but the 1re Reprise is in A minor...
...he handles the refrain so differently the second time: a crisper inégale in the bass with an added cadence...
...the 2de Reprise (in F major) is almost whimsical, but at the same time wistful...
...the last refrain is even more beautiful... the high A in the second phrase is I think the most delicate note I have ever heard from a piano--it is like a guitar harmonic or an orchestral bell hit with a feather...

Let me show you the score I have been looking at. These two pages are from Rameau's Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode by which he means that he has an explanatory preface about how to play them. The table of ornaments is from there:


And here is the score to Les Tendres Plaintes:

Click to enlarge
This is a very simple piece, of course. Just that theme in D minor which has two eight-measure phrases, the first ending on the dominant and the second on the tonic. Then another two phrases in A minor, then the theme again followed by the second reprise (or episode) in F major but this time both phrases end on the tonic, and finally the theme again. You just should bear in mind that Jean-Philippe Rameau literally wrote the book on harmony--it was his Traité de L'Harmonie of 1722 that formalized the theory of tonal harmony and the basic principles are still followed today.

Here is a portrait of Rameau done in 1760:


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