Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Art of Listening: Shorter Pieces

Time to continue this series in which I offer some ways of approaching listening to classical music. There are two previous posts that take a general view, but now I want to focus on some specific repertoire. One of the benefits of studying music is developing the ability to focus closely on something. This is also key to listening. Way back in 2012 I did a couple of posts on what I called "musical exercises" that were a bit similar to what I want to do now. You might have a look.

But this time around, I am going to take a more repertory-based approach. There are dozens of ways you can organize a project like this and perhaps I will try a variety of them. Let's start with an overall look at what different kinds of pieces there are:

  • short, lyrical or melodic pieces with few or no listening challenges
  • short pieces with interesting contrapuntal or harmonic aspects
  • medium length pieces with contrasting sections
  • medium length pieces with various kinds of complexities for the listener
  • long pieces with clear structural sections and easily identifiable themes
  • long pieces with ambiguous structure that pose challenges to the listener
  • pieces of any length that are difficult to approach
I just invented all these categories so we will have to see how they play out--I may want to add or subtract some. They are roughly in order of difficulty for the listener. The first category is what makes up virtually all of the "Classical Music Top Forty" and hence the repertoire found on all those best-selling classical albums claiming to help you relax. Actually, I'm sure that they do. I posted on that here.

Let's have a couple of examples. Typically, these pieces have a very charming melody and mellifluous harmonies such as in this piece the so-called "Air on a G String" by Bach:

What makes this very effective is that the melody, which you normally expect to be moving around, holds a single note while the accompaniment moves through a descending series of harmonies. 

Sometimes there is not a lot of melody and the harmony itself is soothing as in the famous Canon by Pachelbel:

But most often it is the melody, which must be both clear and distinctive, that captures our attention as it soothes and relaxes us:

Second group: short pieces, but with some aspect, usually contrapuntal or harmonic, that presents a bit more challenge to the listener. There are a lot of examples from Bach. A large collection he wrote, partly for the education of his children (three of whom were the leading composers of the next generation) is titled the "Well-Tempered Clavier" meaning the well-tuned keyboard. Most of the pieces are fairly short and they come in two kinds: preludes, which are very tightly written pieces based usually on a single idea and fugues, which I will get to in a minute. Here is the D minor prelude from Book I:

As you can hear, it is a very simple texture. The right hand plays a constant stream of triplets, often descending, while the left hand provides a harmonic foundation. As is the case with most of the preludes, this is a structure where the harmony is the main element. There is no easily hummable melody, but lots of neat harmonic sequences. A sequence, in harmony, is a progression where short segments are repeated on different pitch levels. It is actually a lot easier to hear than describe. You can hear a very clear one from the 5 second to the 10 second mark in this clip. This is a brief descending fifths sequence.

The fugue that goes with this same prelude gives us another excellent example. This, while also very short, around 2 minutes, uses a different texture entirely. Instead of the two voices, one in running triplets and the other in plodding eighths, this piece is in three distinct and equal voices. A fugue is a texture in which each voice states a "subject" or distinctive melodic theme. Then all the voices go on to develop it in various ways. It is what we call a "contrapuntal" texture, meaning one in which each voice has an independent melody. In the case of a fugue, it is an imitative texture, meaning the different voices echo the same theme.

As you can hear, the subject can be broken down into little segments, each of which can be developed. Here is that theme:

Click to enlarge
There is that opening scale segment in eighth notes, then the turn figure in sixteenths and finally the trill. Each of these is distinctive on its own. If you listen you will hear each voice, from top to bottom, state the theme. Then, when all three voices are sounding, an "episode" begins where that little turn figure is developed by being run through different harmonies while the other voices offer contrasting material. In each fugue Bach often chooses one technical device to use. In the first fugue in C major in this same book he uses the device of stretto that I talk about here. But in this fugue he features the technique of inversion. If you take a subject and turn it upside down you get its inversion. Here is how that looks:

Click to enlarge
If you look in the lowest voice you can see the original subject, but if you look at the upper voice in the second measure, you can see that same subject inverted. This inverted version appears in the lower voice in the third measure and in the middle voice in the last measure in this excerpt. Now go back and listen to the fugue again and see if you can hear each time the subject appears and each time its inversion appears. This might seem a rather intellectual way to listen, but I find there is a unique aesthetic thrill to hearing different voices working together that you can experience in hundreds of pieces from Bach fugues to Haydn string quartets to Mozart symphonies and even up to Shostakovich.

So that's the Art of Listening for today. Hope it increases your musical enjoyment!

No comments: