Thursday, July 3, 2014

Phrases in the Wild

I often say that the "typical" phrase is 8 measures long. But in actual practice, there are a lot of different phrase lengths roaming around out there in the wild. I think I have run across a thirteen measure phrase in a Haydn symphony and seven measure phrases are not so uncommon. Both these kinds of examples come from taking a sixteen measure or eight measure phrase and compressing part of it. Perhaps more common is expanding some of the note values. An example would be the fourteen measure phrase that makes up the first section of the minuet from the Symphony no. 40 by Mozart:

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I hope that you can read the notes. The first example is a short score of the phrase as Mozart wrote it; the smaller example that follows shows what the unexpanded version would have looked like. Quarter notes became half notes and sixteenths became eighths. These examples come from Bill Caplin's excellent book Classical Form.

Here is what that sounds like. The phrase occupies the first fourteen seconds of the clip:

But there are other kinds of examples as well. The first movement of Haydn's String Quartet, op. 20 no. 4 begins with six separate phrases, each one six measures long. Here is the first page showing the first four phrases and the beginning of the fifth:

And the next page showing the rest of the fifth phrase and all of the sixth phrase:

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And here is how that sounds:

It sounds very much as if a four measure phrase has been expanded to six measures by extending the note values of the the second and third measures. Another oddity is the harmony: the first three phrases are really a tonic prolongation and we don't get a solid dominant until the fourth phrase so you might want to see these phrases as making up a larger theme.

Here is another example from Haydn's op. 20. This is the beginning of no. 3 in G minor:

The first phrase ends on the first beat of the second measure of the second staff, making seven measures. The second phrase is eight measures long and ends on the first beat of the fourth measure of the third staff. How Haydn squeezes the first phrase into seven measures is by eliminating what would have been the fifth measure by making it the fourth measure, if you see what I mean. Eliding a measure by overlapping it with another measure is probably the most common way of compressing a phrase.

Here is how that opening sounds:

Let's look at one more example from Haydn: this is op. 20 no. 5, the first movement:

From the beginning to the downbeat of the first measure in the last staff, this appears to be one big thirteen measure phrase. He expands a twelve measure phrase by extending and ornamenting the final half cadence to V. Here is how that sounds:

Just looking at pretty well any music by Haydn should cure anyone of the absurd idea that wig-wearing dead guys always followed the "rules" and consequently wrote dull, stiff music. At the time Haydn was writing these quartets there were no rules, or at least the rules that did exist applied to music in the Baroque style. Classical style did not yet exist, was actually coming to be as a result of these quartets and the op. 33 quartets.


Elvio Cipollone said...

Hi Bryan,
It's funny, I have the same "what if" attitude :-)
I made an exercise reconstructing the "missing" first measure of Le Nozze di Figaro's ouverture; and another one eliminating the "extra" measure in Haydn's Symphony n. 101, IV.
I gave a look at Caplin's book, it looks very promising.
I'll read more this summer.

Bryan Townsend said...

HI Elvio,

I've been really fascinated with how Haydn constructs his phrases as it seems to involve musical concepts that we have drifted away from!

Yes, Bill Caplin is an excellent theorist and I was lucky to work with him.

i'm sorry, I have been quite busy this week, but I promise to have a close look at your website tomorrow and send you some comments.