Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dovetailed Themes

One of the most brilliant discussions of the Classical Style that I know of is in the book of the same name by Charles Rosen. He manages to discern and describe just how the Classical Style works. Another outstanding theorist whose specialty is the Classical Style, and specifically the formal structures and functions of the style is Bill Caplin, with whom I studied at McGill. Neither of them talks much about the stylistic element I want to look at, though Rosen's discussion of the rhythmic flexibility of the style comes closest.

The Classical Style took the relatively static instrumental music of the Baroque and through melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices managed to transform it into a dynamic style capable of narrative-like movements in instrumental music. The melodic and harmonic methods are often talked about, the rhythmic ones, less so. What I want to look at today is a technique used in themes that gives them a real impetus. I can't find a direct reference to this in the literature so I will just call it "dovetailed" themes. What I mean by this is a theme in which the music is given forward motion through a little dialogue between two or more voices. This is counterpoint, of course, but it is a kind of counterpoint that was unused in this way before the late 18th century. It resembles the Baroque fugal device of stretto where the subject is layered with itself in a kind of stack. The Fugue in C major from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a masterpiece of stretto and I talked about it in this post.

But the dovetailing of themes in the Classical period is quite different and the function is not to make a piled-up structure to add intensity in that moment, but to give velocity to every appearance of the theme. Here is an early example from Haydn, who is as responsible as anyone for the discovery of this technique. This is the beginning of the finale to the Quartet op. 20 no. 3 in G minor:

There are three different voices that go together to make up this theme: the Violin II launches the movement with a simple upbeat leaping up a minor 6th, then falling to the leading tone. The cello takes the next segment, coming off the downbeat and delivering a staccato scale segment to the C, the bass of a V4/2 harmony. Then, coming off the third beat, the first violin plays an ascending 4th going into a trill-figure on the next downbeat. This same texture recurs every time this particular theme is stated. Here, for example, the Violin I begins, the cello continues and the Violin II finishes:

(The trill figure comes on the next line.) In this statement the cello begins the theme, the Violin II continues and again, the Violin I finishes:

Let's listen so you can hear what I am talking about. The finale begins at the 21:21 mark:

This is one way in which the Classical Style reimagines the relationship between melody and accompaniment. Here is an example of a simple texture from the finale to Haydn's Symphony 92:

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This is not dovetailed in the same way as the previous example, but the effect is similar. The staccato octaves in the cello keep punching the music forward because of the contrast with the melody, especially when it has tied notes. One important element of the style is the integrating of melody and accompaniment to the point that accompaniment can become melody as in this example from the Adagio from the Symphony No. 68 by Haydn. Here the staccato accompaniment is transformed into main melody through dynamics.

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Let's have a listen to that. The Adagio begins at the 10:15 mark:

Even more interesting is if you can dovetail the function of melody and accompaniment to the point that the listener is unsure which is which. A particularly striking example is the beginning of the Allegro section of the first movement of the Symphony No. 38 "Prague" by Mozart:

This might seem a simple texture, but it is one of the most complex thematic structures Mozart devised. This is the very beginning of the section and the first time we hear this theme. That opening syncopated repeated note idea in the first violins is obviously the accompaniment with the lower strings providing the melody. Or at least you think so until the end of the fifth and the sixth measure, when you realize that the first violins had the melody all along. But later on the balance shifts again and it is that theme in the whole, half and quarter notes that comes to prominence. What Mozart has managed here is to dove-tail two quite different ideas together so that either one can be heard as melody or accompaniment. A rather remarkable accomplishment! Let's listen to this movement. The whole Allegro is as fine a symphonic movement as has ever been written. The Allegro begins at the 2:54 mark:

My final example is again from the Prague Symphony of Mozart. The last movement Presto again has a theme that is dovetailed in order to give push to the movement. Here is how that begins:

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This is a bit similar to the first example by Haydn. The Violin II and Viola begin with a downbeat which is answered by the Violin I filling in the eighth notes. Then they hold the half, tied to the downbeat of the next measure and then execute a descending scale, syncopated. In the meantime, the Violin II and Viola pick up that eighth note figure and fill in under the Violin I. Finally, the dialogue is compressed from measure 4 when the lower strings play eighths on the beat while the Violin I fills in.  This bouncing the eighths between the strings creates tension and velocity and gives the movement a real impetus. Let's listen. Here is just the Presto:

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