Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Case of Sibelius

Continuing on from my previous post, let's have a closer look at Sibelius' 4th Symphony. A lengthy analysis would be tiresome and, uh, lengthy, not to mention unbloggy! But we can look at just the opening of the 4th Symphony. Alex Ross, in his excellent book The Rest Is Noise writes as follows:
Sibelius finished his first two symphonies in 1899 and 1902 respectively. On the surface, these were typical orchestral dramas of the heroic soul, although Sibelius' habit of breaking down themes into murmuring textures sounded strange to many listeners... In [ ] the Fourth, Sibelius presented his listeners with music as forbidding as anything from the European continent at the time ... The first few bars of the symphony extrapolate a new dimension in musical time. The opening notes, scored darkly for cellos, basses and bassoons, are C, D, F-sharp and E--a harmonically ambiguous whole-tone collection.
"A new dimension in musical time"... wait, doesn't that sound familiar? Haven't some other composers been doing that more recently? Here are those opening bars in my reduction:
(click to enlarge) 
Hmm, what do we have here? A pedal that decelerates, moving between the dominant and the raised sixth degrees; rhythmically displaced outlining of the tonic and then dominant minor chords; strong modal feel. You know, these techniques of modified modal harmonies combined with repetitive rhythmic structures sound a lot like what the minimalist composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams evolved into after a while. They got tired of the excessively simple harmonies of the early pieces and started writing music that isn't so terribly different from this. Here is the Sibelius 4th Symphony again:
And here is some music by Philip Glass:
I think the main difference between the two is that the Sibelius is more interesting. Here is the opening of Shaker Loops by John Adams:
What do you think? Did composers steer a wide berth around this kind of harmonic writing only to return to it in the 1970s? Was Sibelius doing interesting things rhythmically that would be echoed in music several decades later?


Hucbald said...

The c, d, f-sharp, e is kind of a head fake, because not knowing they are functioning as me, fa, la, sol the listener is apt to get an impression of the c lydian mode, or do, re, fi, mi. Then, when the g-sharp appears to set things right resolving to a, the bass continues its cycling, resulting in a so-called deceptive motion, exposing the seldom-isolated #VI(d5m7) harmony.

Personally, I sense the lack of an ability to commit. lol.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! There is a similar effect at the beginning of the Fifteenth Quartet by Shostakovich. The melody begins on a repeated note, but then wanders up a tone and down a tone, meaning that the repeated note must be the dominant or submediant (if in major) but you can't tell which.