Friday, April 6, 2007

Pedal Tone Junkie

So I'm talking in class about my favorite moment of my favorite part of my favorite act of my favorite opera - I'm trying to show how effectively Mozart varies the pace in the Act II finale of The Marriage of Figaro. In the midst of all the frenetic quarrelling and the more hesitant exchanges of gamesmanship (among the characters, not between me and my students!), there are two teasingly brief instances where the music is simple, honest, and disarmingly beautiful. The Countess and Susanna first try to convince Figaro to stop pretending he didn't write the letter and, in an even more impassioned and heartfelt recap of this music, the three of them plead for the Count to let Figaro and Susanna go through with their wedding.

As I was demonstrating from the piano, I suddenly saw yet again that the trusty old pedal tone technique was hard at work in a beloved spot. I wrote awhile back about how often I've unkowingly fallen for this device. In that post, I discussed some more typical uses of the pedal point trick in which the sustained bass note creates tension that resolves with a big arrival. (Examples from Mendelssohn's Octet here and here; from Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto here.) In the Figaro quartet, the pedal tones function more to provide repose in the midst of all the madcap goings-on.

Again, it's worth noting that there's nothing fancy or complicated about this technique, especially as used here. The melodic phrase that Figaro introduces over the pedal is about as simple as can be, and then it's repeated in harmony with the ladies. Pedal points generally create tension because they're dissonant with what passes above, but there's not much of that here. The effect has as much to do with the contrast it provides in context. These are basically silly characters and ridiculous situations, but for a brief time Mozart makes us see them as genuine and non-conniving - at least the Countess, Susanna, and Figaro. Basically, the pedal persists through three short versions of this phrase; its conjunct, sustained qualities make the pedal seem more static than suspenseful.

The Count, who won't really sing an honest note until the equally stunning conclusion of the Act IV finale, doesn't participate the first time we hear this tune. He follows up by barking at Figaro a bit more and we get a more typically intensifying pedal tone situation as the women implore Figaro to stop pretending. Figaro's reply leads into the climax of the quartet as all four participate in the innocent tune shown above, again with a time-stops-for-beauty pedal holding things together. Of course, the Count is fretting about when Marcellina will arrive to put her claim in on Figaro, but the effect is still an all-too-short bit of sublimity in the middle of the ridiculous; the crazed entrance of the gardener sends things hurtling back into confusion.

You can hear this brief excerpt and watch the score go by, with pedal tones highlighted, here.

As is so often the case with works of genius, we find it's often less the sophistication of the materials than how they're assembled. I thought of that this week both in teaching Beethoven's 5th symphony and listening (via CD) to Maurizio Pollini scorch his way through Stravinsky's Trois mouvements de Petrouchka. For all the biting rhythms, polytonality, and complicated textures, the primitive Russian folk-tunes are what hold that music together. A lesson for the kids out there.

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