Thursday, July 12, 2007

Licentious Tune Theft

It's been awhile since I tackled the fascinating subject of melodic identity theft, but Jeremy Denk's latest column provides a wonderfully subtle example. He's discovered that the inversion of the fugue subject in Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata - marked in the score as "fugue in three voices, with some license" - is an anticipation of the theme song from none other than Three's Company. Obviously, this connection provides a comic gold mine of material for such as Mr. Denk, but I was skeptical about the link at first. To me, the tunes seemed pretty different, but I hadn't really tried to think about the fugue subject in an unprejudiced fashion before reading about his discovery. However, as it happens, I have a little piano keyboard attached to my computer keyboard, and I was sort of absent-mindedly playing through the Beethoven example on Denk's blog when my wife, who was sitting across the room, started singing, "Come and knock on our door; We've been waiting for you . . ." My first thought was, "Oh my, she knows the Three's Company theme song!"; but that was quickly followed by the realization that she heard the connection without pride or prejudice. (You see, if she had any pride, she wouldn't have admitted to knowing the song. (Well, yes, I know the song as well.)) Here's a look at the tunes. You can click on each to hear it played.

(Yes, I've again enlisted the Melody Assistants to sing for you. Here they are trying to sing those 70's lyrics to the fugue. And they're not done yet.)

I don't think I would have believed the shared identity was convincing had I not witnessed its cross-century power in action. So what did Mr. Denk and my wife hear? The only real connection, other than that the opening phrases go up, is that each gesture ends by countering the ascent with a descending 4th. At first that doesn't seem a particularly distinctive fingerprint, but the most important thing is that the leap is from a non-chord tone - what those theory folks call an "escape tone" or "incomplete neighbor." (In each case, the E from which the melody leaps is not part of the G Major harmony.) I'm going to resist the temptation to make Three's Company-style double entendres out of those terms, but perhaps the naughtiness of that melodic leap is what makes the horrendously bad Three's Company song so perfect for that show. (As for Beethoven, he shows himself to be more Buxtehude than Bach when it comes to fugal elegance.)

If you want to hear what those tunes might sound like with leaps from chord tones, here's one of our Melody Assistants again to demonstrate. In the demonstrations, the tunes are first heard ascending only to the chord tone D before dropping. Yes, that makes for a smaller leap, but the more distinctive difference is the blind leap from the non-harmonic E's in the actual tunes. At least, that's the best I can do to make sense of it.

Naturally, all this digital manipulation also made me wonder what the fugue would sound like in an Amphetepollini version. After all, it's a pretty long fugue, but this chops more than 3 minutes off what Maurizio usually requires. It's exciting!

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