Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Note on Music Theory

I have put up posts on music theory a couple of times, mostly because I find it interesting. When most people think about music theory they are probably thinking of what I would call the "rudiments of music" or "basic materials of music". I used to coordinate three sections of a course called "Basic Materials of Music" that was a course in music theory for non-music majors. There were a lot of smart pre-med students in the course and it was fun to teach, but as there could be up to sixty people in a section of the course, I soon learned not to give too many written assignments! Believe me, marking a huge stack of theory assignments really cuts into your weekend.

But once you get past the rudiments of how music notation works, how to do harmonic analysis and so on, music theory can get quite interesting. It used to be taught mostly by composers, but nowadays by specialist music theorists. Composers can be pretty good teachers of theory as they often think deeply about music structure. But they tend to be ad hoc about it, not developing a comprehensive theory. I tend to approach theory this way as well, probably because I am a composer.

I was lucky enough to take one graduate seminar with a very good music theorist, a specialist in Classical form. His name is Bill Caplin and he has an excellent book out that he was just finishing writing when I was in his seminar. The book is called Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven by William E. Caplin, Oxford University Press, 1998. I didn't realize it at the time, but it turns out that Professor Caplin is probably one of if not the leading scholar on Classical form, which makes his book very apropos to our survey of the Haydn symphonies. Or not! I used to own an earlier version of the book but just picked up the published one to refresh my memory. From the index of works, it appears that he doesn't specifically deal with any of the early Haydn symphonies.

I'm coming to the conclusion that Haydn was a great experimentalist and, especially in his earlier works, we can actually see and hear the Classical style coming into being. To me this is pretty exciting. So as I continue my survey--lots of symphonies to go--I will compare what Haydn is doing with Caplin's theory of Classical form. Just as an introduction, let me review two fundamental kinds of phrases: the sentence and the period.

Both the sentence and the period are typically eight-measure structures, the basic building blocks of Classical period music. Both also fall into two four-measure sections. But they work in different ways. The sentence begins with a two-measure basic idea that is immediately repeated. Caplin calls this a statement and response making up a presentation section. The response is often a dominant form of the statement. The next group is called the continuation and it features two measures of fragmentation and harmonic acceleration followed by two measures of cadential formula that tends to liquidate the motivic material. By this he just means that whatever is characteristic of the motives contained in the basic idea is eliminated. The cadence doesn't have to be a full cadence as it is often a half cadence.

The period is put together differently. The two four-measure sections are called the antecedent and consequent and they are, like the sentence, typically in two-measure sections. The antecedent begins with a basic idea, but this is not repeated. The next two-measure section is a contrasting idea. This section typically ends with a half-cadence. The consequent section begins again with a repeat of the basic idea, followed by a contrasting idea which may or may not be related to the first contrasting idea. This consequent section then ends with a stronger cadence, typically a perfect authentic cadence.

Professor Caplin is an empirical scholar and what he attempts to do in his book is see how formal structures function in Classical period music. As we look at Haydn symphonies, we might notice a few things as well. One is, how did these formal functions develop in his music as it was Haydn that really assembled the elements of Classical style, bit by bit, over several decades.

Just to whet your appetite, here is the first movement from the Symphony No. 65 in A major that we will soon be looking at. This is the Monadnock Festival Orchestra conducted by James Bolle:

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