Sunday, March 15, 2009

Brahms 4: Watching the Chaconne Go By

[UPDATE: Sadly, the video below won't work in most web browsers now as Quicktime .mov format is no longer as readily supported. If you have an old version (7) of the Quicktime Player on your computer, you can still download the file here and then open it in that player. For whatever reason, newer versions of the player won't show the captions, which are the raison d'être for this particular file.]

I have a great gift for burying ledes. I wouldn't blame you if you never made it to the end of this recent post that takes the BSO to task for putting out uninspiring podcasts, but that post did end on a positive note by showing a little listening guide I once made for the last movement of Brahms' 4th. It's a great piece to teach because it shows both the Romantic and Baroque classicist sides of the composer, and because a chaconne structure is relatively easy to follow. What I like about how this guide is designed is that the QuickTime architecture makes it possible for each caption to be its own little track, so that the listener can easily jump back and forth from variation to variation by using the arrow keys. (If the embedded file below doesn't work right, you can download it here.)

Music history textbook/anthologies are featuring this sort of captioned listening guide (generally with more graphics) more and more, although they vary greatly in quality; but this strikes me as a perfect way to help a novice listener make sense of a big piece. The biggest problem with creating them on one's own is that they need to be attached to a specific recording, so it's a little dicey for me to be posting the copyrighted work of René Köhler and the NPSOAS (National-Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra Association Society). Still, hopefully this kind of thing will inspire someone to buy an actual recording of the whole symphony. Or to go hear the local orchestra play it!

As designed for a class website, the above was accompanied by the following basic information:

What to Listen For:

This movement is in the old Baroque form of
a passacaglia or chaconne.
Basically, that means it's a set of variations on a
short, chordal theme.
In this case, the theme is 8-bars long and
heard right away.

There are 30 variations, followed by a 59-bar coda. Listen for the way in which Brahms creates a rich variety of musical ideas above and around this simple theme.

Also, listen to how some variations seem to blend together to make larger units. For example:

4-6 become an extended waltz
8-9 are a matched set
12-15 are all twice as slow (like a slow movement within the movement)
Note that #16 (exactly half-way through the 30 variations) acts like a sort of recap, as the theme is again in the original tempo and quite loud.
17-18 are unified by continuous string tremolos
19-20 go together, with 19 adding triplets
26-28 flow together as the last bit of calm

Note that Variation #30 is extended by 4 bars to introduce the big:

In the coda, there's no longer the constant presence of the theme's structure, though the music still often falls into 8-bar phrases. The coda can be divided into 7 sections of the following measure lengths: 8-12-8-8-8-4-11

By the way, you'll note that, in spite of my love for scrolling scores and the like, this guide doesn't show any music at all. That's partly because it was designed for a class of non-music majors, and even more because that would have taken more time, especially because figuring out what to show from a full orchestral score can be complicated. Still, it's tempting to think about adding score images to the above...

1 comment:

dfan said...

This is very nice.

One of my favorite individual notes in all of classical music is the F natural in the bass in measure 7, turning that chord into an agonizingly heart-clenching French sixth instead of the "expected" V643.