Monday, November 29, 2010

Bach Doubled

So, in our last episode, I wondered about the ways in which we all take for granted that most major instrumental pieces are broken up into distinct (often self-sufficient) movements - distinct movements which, nevertheless, are generally expected to be performed in the context of the whole. In other words, the serious classical artist doesn't generally record or perform in recital just a single movement of a Beethoven sonata or Mozart symphony. I mentioned a few exceptions to that rule, but for better or for worse, the bias against excerpting movements is pretty strong. (It's always one of the chief complaints about the less high-minded classical radio stations that they dare to play unattached movements - I should know, having made this complaint many times!)

So, if pulling movements out on their own is frowned upon, I'd guess it would be even more controversial to re-order movements within a tidily assembled work or - horror! - to patch various movements into a new whole. But, quietly geeky radical that I am, I do find myself having such thoughts, three of which I'll share here - all of them, curiously, having to do with violin repertoire. (I can't really explain why that is, other than that I love the violin repertoire.) The first two "thought experiments" are pretty straightforward, and mainly noteworthy because I think they'd 1) work really well and 2) would probably never be seriously considered by anyone. The third one has spawned both the title of this post and something altogether more interesting.

Switcheroo #1: Back in September, I twittered about my idea that Brahms' amazingly wonderful third violin sonata might be just a tad more amazingly wonderful if the 2rd and 3rd of its four movements were swapped. Honestly, my reasoning is more intuitive than anything else (and, I know, who am I to put my intuition up against Brahms'?), but the song-like 2nd movement has such a radiantly tender, calm-before-storm quality that it feels right to me for it to precede the violently stormy finale. Meanwhile, the nervous hesitations of the scherzo seem to fit nicely after the weary ending of the passionate first movement. I'm perfectly content for others to disagree with me about this, and it's always hard to argue against the rightness of familiarity, but I think it would be a lovely idea to try this 1324 order out in performance - and yet, innocent and simple though the change would be, it feels like it would be some sort of violation. Here's a helpful playlist in which you can try out my version...if you dare!

Switcheroo #2: This is maybe even more radical, though no less innocently simple in concept, but the truth is I've never been completely in love with any of the Mozart violin concerti. Not that they need my love or anything, and sure, he was a young composer when he wrote them, etc., etc. I do think the 5th and final concerto is mostly ideal except it just doesn't have a great second movement. Or, let me put it more bluntly: it's second movement is not as perfect as the slow movement of the 3rd concerto. That slow movement is as divinely inspired as anything Mozart ever wrote. For whatever reason, the slow movement of Concerto #5 always sounds to me like a melody in search of...well, in search of that tune from the Concerto #3.

So, if I were somehow transformed into an internationally-acclaimed violin virtuoso asked to play a Mozart concerto for an upcoming gig, I would seriously want to propose my own little hybrid concerto. The key relationships work out just fine: A Major, D Major, A Major. (The "original" 2nd mvt of Concerto #5 is in E Major; up a 5th, down a 5th. Same difference.) You can try it out with this little playlist. It's not like I'm proposing first movement from Sibelius, second from Bruch, and third from Brahms. Just three Mozart movements which would complement each other beautifully. One of his piano sonatas (K. 533/494) is basically a hybrid as well, its third movement having been composed first and then added to two other movements at the request of a publisher. Maybe I'm not supposed to say this, but a lot of Mozart and Haydn movements are somewhat interchangeable - but we never get to play around with them. Pianists get to make their own multi-movement composite Scarlatti sets all the time (since his so-called sonatas are all single-movement works), but convention denies us that creative option with most other composers.

My last example is a bit different, as here it's more a problem of a work that has proportional issues. (By the way, if you think it's impudent of me to be challenging the final shape given to works by Brahms and Mozart, then imagine my trepidation at finding fault with Bach - and not just any Bach, but one of his revered works for unaccompanied violin.) Well, a few months ago, my violinist daughter was assigned her first-ever solo Bach - a deeply meaningful milestone to me. Curiously, her marvelously old-school Russian teacher decided to start with what to me is the most musically severe and uncompromising of these works, the Partita No. 1 in B Minor. It consists of eight binary-form dance movements, but it's really four dances, each of which is each then followed by a variation called a Double. Curious things, these Doubles. Each has the exact same formal and harmonic shape as the dance that precedes it, but the Doubles generally feature faster and more evenly flowing note values, meaning the dance character is sublimated a bit. All of the dances are in B minor (an austere key for Bach), and all are rather severe in shape and gesture - dances, yes, but not quite like listening to the Nutracker Suite.

So my problem has always been that, as a listening experience, the eight movements back-to-back-to-back-etc. can be a bit too much. [...dodging lightning bolt...] What vexes me particularly is hearing each dance played with repeats and then hearing the Doubles traverse the same territory, with the same repeats. In fact, the first time I saw the score, I assumed the Doubles were intended as alternate ways to play the repeats, and I still think this could be an interesting approach. But, it seems the most common approach is to be a good soldier and play everything as written. If the violinist is good enough, the experience can be richly rewarding, as this is some of the most profound and centering music ever written...but still. I can't help but help wonder if Bach would ever have imagined hearing this music presented in recital in such a way. Again, if I could suddenly be a great violinist, I'd be tempted to perform the work either with no repeats or, better yet, with the Doubles acting as the repeats. I have heard of pianists interspersing works by Schoenberg amongst the movements of Bach sets as a way of opening ears to the cross-century connection*; I wish artists would be as open to re-imagining ways of presenting a single composer's works.

But my favorite discovery out all of this came from thinking of another way of dealing with those Doubles. It occurred to me that they could perhaps be played simultaneously with their dances as duets. A quick experiment with the opening Allemanda was somewhat disappointing as there was too much literal doubling between the two parts. However, the Courante and its Double proved to be a revelation. I imagine violinists must have tried this out on occasion - maybe with teacher and student in lessons - but my not-extensive Googling hasn't turned anything up in the way of recordings. So, I went to work with a couple of the virtual violinists residing in my computer and, voilà, a strikingly successful duet.** It's almost as if Bach intended these movements to be "mashed up," as they mostly move in contrary motion to each other, the slashing sixteenth notes of the Double parrying the more angular eighth-notes of the original Courante. My favorite piece of music in the whole world is probably Bach's Double Violin Concerto, known far and wide as "The Bach Double," but it's rather satisfying to have stumbled on this new "Bach Double" (a much bigger success than this bizarre "Bach Double" I created a while back.)



A couple of final points: I'm rather proud of the way the video above traces the two separate scores. In an ideal world, I'd have taken the time to format both movements nicely into duet form, but it's kind of fun trying to follow both scores at once. [Here's another Bach animation of mine that lets you do something similar.] It's a reminder that counterpoint is always a kind of "mash-up." One of the joys of counterpoint is the experience of experiencing multiple distinct strands simultaneously; mash-ups can often be engaging for the same reason. In these multi-tasking times, perhaps Bach's music is more timely than ever.


* Note that Andrew Rangell, the pianist who interspersed Bach with Schoenberg for a conference recital, is quoted as saying he'd never do that in a "real" concert. What a crazy world we live in!

** As it happens, another work my daughter is studying now is a Wieniawski Etude-Caprice, which comes with its own accompanying part for a second violinist. So, I guess I have had violin duets on the brain...

P.S. I'll be posting duet versions of the Sarabande and Bourree in the near future; they don't work as well as the Courantes, but they are worth hearing.

UPDATE: A Twitter colleague, the very knowledgeable JoseSPiano, mentioned hearing violinist Daniel Heifetz perform the Partita No. 2 in D Minor WITHOUT the concluding Chaconne. The 15-minute Chaconne is perhaps Bach's most monumental achievement, but it dwarfs the four much briefer dance movements that precede it. I've no doubt that the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue make a wonderful set on their own, and this practice would allow them to be heard differently, much like what I said about movements by Schubert and Ives in my last post.

UPDATE #2: I mentioned above 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.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Should there be a "Free the Movements" Movement?

Among the many odd conventions classical musicians take for granted is the organization of large works into individual movements. The word movement itself is an odd one if you think about it, and the practice of withholding applause between movements always seems to come up as something that mystifies the uninitiated. There is a sort of an analogy to the way in which plays are divided into acts and novels into chapters, but most plays and novels have a more explicit narrative connection that makes these subsections more obviously interdependent than is generally the case with musical movements. Sure, a composer can connect various movements by means of key, motif, transitions, attacas, etc., but such connections tend to be notable as exceptions to the rule, and they still don't mean the movements in question can't stand alone. 

But, at least within the oh-so-serious classical music culture that has developed in the last hundred years, there's a pretty strong bias against presenting single movements as freestanding. Of course, there are plenty of special contexts (group recitals, examinations, auditions, competitions, Pops concerts, celebratory occasions, elevators, etc.) in which exceptions are made, but they kind of prove the rule. How often does a major orchestra or a Carnegie Hall recitalist feature a disconnected movement in a regular program? (Individual movements from suites or other more loosely connected sets of pieces don't count.) There may be plenty of good reasons for this self-consciously organic way of thinking, but it's certainly not that individual sonata/concerto/symphony movements can't stand on their own.

I thought of this while attending a piano student's senior recital on Sunday afternoon. This was a non-required recital, which meant there was considerably more programming freedom than the typical degree recital would allow. Included were three substantial movements from larger works, and I was surprised at how satisfying it was to hear them this way. Maybe I was surprised because I hear disconnected movements all the time in weekly performance classes, general student recitals, and the like - and such contexts can induce a kind of listening whiplash that accentuates the fragmenting. In this case, each movement was given a chance to make its own complete statement, partly because each fit nicely into a well-planned program, with the Intermission helping to frame the events.

I have to admit I was skeptical about the decision to end the first half of the recital with the "slow" 2nd movement of Schubert's E-flat Piano Trio, but this was the movement that the student and her chamber group had ready to play. I should mention that this trio is one of my all-time favorite pieces; I love the 1st and 4th movements, and I especially love the way the main theme of this 2nd movement returns in the 4th. Thus, I already had a bit of bias against playing just a single movement. Furthermore, "slow" movements are so often defined by the way in which they provide contrast to surrounding fast movements. Taking this out of context and using it to end a recital half (ending with something slow?) seemed like a compromise of necessity more than anything.

So, of course, it turned out that I loved it! It happens to be a very substantial "slow" movement, with a dramatic climax, and although I knew that, I'm not sure I'd ever thought about how "feature-length" it can feel. In the full trio, the weary, even devastating ending of the 2nd movement is quickly followed by a light-hearted country dance scherzo and then a long-ish finale - here, we got to walk quietly out into the Intermission with that heartrending cello theme still floating in the air. Let's face it, Schubert's "heavenly length" has its advantages and disadvantages, but I can genuinely say I found new things to love about this movement hearing it this way, even though I'd just coached the performers in it a few days before!



After intermission, our pianist came back out to play another "slow movement," the 3rd movement ("The Alcotts") of Charles Ives legendary "Concord" Sonata. This is actually the second time I've had a student learn this "work"; it's not easy, by any means, but it's not nearly as ferocious a challenge as the other three movements, especially movements 1 and 2. In fact, I'm not sure I'll ever be up to the task of learning the entire sonata myself, though I like to dream, but "The Alcotts" is such special music and so unique that it would be a great shame to fence it off from pianists not ready to tackle "Emerson" and "Hawthorne." So, I already knew this piece can stand on its own; but hearing in on a late Autumn New England afternoon, with a picture-window view of woods and pond (we have a really lovely recital hall!) behind the pianist was...well, this is why we bother with music in the first place.It worked deeply and beautifully. And, yes, as with the Schubert, there are motives (the Beethoven 5th theme, especially) and ideas that connect "The Alcotts" to its sibling movements, but whereas one usually hears it as a kind of relief after the wildness of "Hawthorne," one could appreciate how wide-ranging, full-hearted, and complete these few pages are. Here's Ives himself playing:



Now I'm not saying that every movement of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. needs to be set free in this way, but I think there's a lesson here about the value of hearing the familiar in a new context. There's also the reminder that musical narratives are, generally speaking, much more flexible than theatrical/literary narratives. Coincidentally, both the Schubert and Ives movements have found lives in some unusual pop culture contexts. Here's a Bruce Hornsby song that begins with a nod to the Ives and I only just encountered this highly unexpected use of the Schubert. Well then. (Oh, I guess the Schubert also made its way into Barry Lyndon.)

There are some notable examples of single movements which have taken on lives of their own. There's the whole elegy subcategory represented by Barber's Adagio (originally a movement from his String Quartet - note that the Adagio  partly was freed by the fact that the composer only orchestrated this movement, giving it a sort of "blessing"), Elgar's Nimrod, and Mahler's Adagietto. There's a scherzo by Litolff which is virtually all the poor composer is known for, although the practice of extracting it from its Concerto Symphonique No. 4 hearkens back to a day when the playing of excerpted movements was more common.

Mozart's Rondo alla turca and the 1st movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata are certainly much better-known than their siblings, but I doubt one would run across them alone on any sort of standard recital. The finale of Beethoven's 9th gets out on its own every now and then as well, and then there's that strange pair of Schubert movements that never got "finished" - of course, they are finished, as evidenced by the fact that they're played all the time, but would anyone have ever thought to perform them that way if they hadn't been orphaned?

My student's recital concluded with the grand first movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto. Here we have a work originally conceived as a single-movement Fantasy, so the fact that one would almost never hear it alone on a standard orchestra program isn't because Schumann wouldn't have imagined it that way - it's because his later decision to add two movements effectively put a "reverse blessing" on the practice. Honestly, as much as I adore this entire concerto, I've never felt the 2nd movement quite measured up, and the finale, while exhilarating, is also not quite as perfect as the 1st. So, another big success on what turned out to be a thoroughly effective and "complete" program. Perhaps some day we'll live in a world where movements can move freely about the earth, less constrained by the curatorial mindset that wants to insist always on complete sets. (Think of the creative programming potential!) Fragments are nice, too.

UPDATE: Just remembered (via overhearing a student conversation) Brahms' fabulous Scherzo from the quirky collaborative F-A-E Sonata. Because Brahms didn't write the other movements of that larger work, performers have generally felt free to play the Brahms as a freestanding piece - something that they would probably never do with a single movement from a Brahms sonata/trio/quartet.