Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Musical Signatures

Via Stephen Hough's wonderful blog (which has the best regular commenting community I've seen on a music site), I came across a nice piano blog that is new to me, Rick Robertson's Under the Piano Stool. The post that caught my attention was Robertson's investigation of a musical motif found in many of Grieg's works, which got me to thinking about the subject of signature gestures associated with various composers. Robertson also mentions Poulenc, who has some very distinctive and oft-used signature ideas; I also think of Mendelssohn, who has a particular way of setting up an evaded cadence at the end of movement that is just SO Mendelssohn. (I hope to get to that in another post some day.)

Anyway, this morning I was driving Daughter of MMmusing to school. I mentioned last post that her violin teacher has had her working on some movements from Bach's Partita No. 1 in B Minor; well, now she's been assigned the final movement of the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, so, cool Dad that I am, I searched my iPod for a recording. (What pre-adolescent doesn't yearn to listen to Bach on the way to school?) Turned out all I had on hand were these curious performances that include Robert Schumann's piano accompaniments. (For the record, I have many complete CD solo versions at home, but my iPod is populated more with downloads than ripped CDs.) I find the Schumann accompaniments tend to be dismissed as well-intentioned but misguided (oh, those poor Romantics didn't understand Bach's genius!), but I've really enjoyed listening to them. They certainly work better in some cases than in others, but I think they provide a nice rhythmic framework for some of the dance movements. Go here and sample Track 11 on CD 1 or Track 15 of CD 2.

Now, for my tastes, the accompaniment wasn't adding so much to the last movement of Sonata #3 (its rhythmic profile is already quite clear and strong in the violin writing), but then, right before the double bar, there was what seemed to be a signature Schumann moment. I should add that, as a rule, these piano parts are very respectfully written and, if anything, are almost too deferential. Schumann was clearly not looking to put his stamp on this music so much as to find it a wider audience, and I don't think this passage is any sort of intentional fingerprinting - but the piano part just suddenly sounded like Schumann, although it's the simplest of gestures. Fortuitously, you can hear the bit I have in mind by going to this mp3 sample; it begins 17 bars in, at about the 24-second mark. It's nothing more than a simple little rising bass line (D-G-Bb-D), set against bouncing off-beat chords in the R.H., but Schumann's piano parts are full of such moments (see #11 of Kinderscenen, #8 of Davidsbündlertänze, #8 of Liederkreis, Op.39). Hearing this Schumanniana oddly placed in the Bach made me very happy.

Coincidentally, I then turned on the radio, landing in the middle of a piano piece that I knew sounded familiar, but which I couldn't quite place. Many of the musical elements kept saying "Schubert" to me, but I also had a voice in the back of my head saying, "No, it's from a Beethoven sonata - and aren't you embarrassed that you can't immediately recognize one of THE 32?" (I don't like that voice.) Anyway, as a half-familiar theme wound its way into a cadence, I suddenly remembered a cool little inner-voice trill that was about to happen - and, just as suddenly, I had a vivid memory of sitting in a master class in Clarksville, Arkansas more than two decades ago and hearing Beethoven's Sonata in F-sharp, Op. 78 for the first time. (I even remember the look of the stage, though I don't think I ever set foot in that space again, and I could tell you the name of the pianist!) The little trill that struck me so memorably back then can be heard just past the 1:00 mark on the video linked above. That's not so much a Beethoven signature, as it was a signature moment for me, hearing a piece for the first time and having it imprinted so clearly.

The point of all this is that musical brains are programmed to find these patterns and signatures intuitively - it's a significant part of what makes listening to music pleasurable. One might weave a nice story out of this idea that an inner-voice trill could suddenly awaken some latent memory in a character.

P.S. Circling back to Grieg, I'll mention again his marvelous "2nd piano accompaniments" to some Mozart piano sonatas, which I wrote about here.Those loving tributes to Mozart are remarkably non-deferential, and definitely worth hearing. More or less the opposite of what Schumann did with Bach.

P.P.S. I mentioned in my last post that I would be posting "duet" recordings of other "dances plus doubles" from Bach's Partita in B minor, but the others just sound too lousy with my synthesized violins. (The Courante + Double works better because the music is so straight-ahead in character; all of the other movements require more thoughtfully conceived breaking of chords, agogic accents, etc.) However, an altogether different sort of mash-up will be appearing here in the not-too-distant future.

1 comment:

Katie said...

Thanks Dr. Monroe! This encourages me to keep listening to music, even if the triggers I hear don't always match up with the popular vote.