Monday, January 25, 2021

Humming Along

Last week, I wrote about my solo piano recording of an a cappella choral work - an a cappella work about a blue bird. That call-back to my "Songs Without Singers" series from the early years of MMmusing gave me the idea of re-visiting and updating all these recordings for our new multimedia world. Once again a bird is the subject of today's song, though once again, all the singing will come from the hammered strings of a piano. And like Stanford's The Blue Bird, this song also makes notable use of the minor seventh chord.

Back in 2008, when I recorded six songs without anyone singing along, YouTube was in its infancy, and so I just posted mp3 audio recordings in the clunky way Blogger allowed. As my YouTube channel has grown, I find satisfaction in archiving such recordings on video with my favorite kind of visual to accompany: THE SCORE. I've written countless times about how much I love watching music notation float by and how much I love creating notation for that and other purposes, so my goal is to get these old recordings scrolling onto YouTube and perhaps out to more listeners.

Ernest Chausson is a bit better-known than Charles Stanford, and it wouldn't be fair to call either a one-hit-wonder. But with both composers, it's a small-scale song inspired by humble poetry about a bird which has stolen my heart. I described Stanford's The Blue Bird, which clocked in at exactly four minutes on video, as "perfect," and the same word applies perfectly to Chausson's Le colibri, which curiously enough times out at exactly three minutes. (Both videos include some silent seconds devoted to title, but it was a happy accident that each ended up with the second hand pointing straight up.)

Chausson's song is about a hummingbird; but it's really about something else, which perhaps explains why Chausson's writing is not at all quick or neurotic, but rather leisurely, lush, and sensuous. You can read a translation of Leconte de Lisle's sonnet here. My French is much too bad for me to judge the poetry on its own merits, and I'll admit that I loved this song for years (it's often assigned to voice students) without worrying what any of the words even meant, other than thinking the music doesn't sound very hummingbird-like.

My singer-free recording dates from an early morning impromptu session in my office thirteen years ago, but I've spent hours this past weekend making an elegant scrolling score and thinking about why this music is so magical. First, I'll admit that I was going for a kind of 19th century French look here and thus chose some fonts that are a little more stylized than I'd usually consider ideal. I even kept the unbeamed 8th notes in the vocal line, though I generally much prefer the more modern convention to beam to the meter rather than the syllable. This results in a lot of looping flagged notes, but the rhythms and textures are simple enough, and this helps to emphasize how syllabic the setting is. (Even the slightly out-of-tune and fairly humble piano sounds right here for this intimate music.) It's hard to express how much I love watching these notes moves across the screen.

Something I'd forgotten about this song is that it's in 5/4 time, a pretty unusual choice for 1882, if not quite as unusual as the 5/8 of the much earlier Reicha fugue I wrote about last year.  In this case, the quintuple meter functions less to create obvious asymmetry than to give the phrases breathing room. Notice how the wide-ranging arpeggios in the richly scored introduction further distort the sense of a strong pulse; that quarter rest in m.2 could be heard as nothing more than an indulgent lift.  Even the five repeated A-flats that lead to the singer's entrance are just lonely reverberating quarter notes with no other elements to define the metrical context. Back when I was playing this accompaniment regularly, I can remember counting those notes carefully, and also being prepared for the singer to come in AT ANY TIME.

Chausson ushers us right away into a dreamy soundscape with an A-flat major chord that rolls all the way up to an F, a pitch which doesn't belong in the chord. Although one could analyze it as an inverted minor seventh chord (and we'll get to the minor seventh soon), the steady A-flat in the bass through these four bars makes it more logical and meaningful to hear that F as an expressive over-reach - a non-harmonic tone a step above the chord tone E-flat. And now I'm going to avoid describing every single beautifully chosen note in this introduction, but there's a remarkable range of color and shape as falling melodic gestures are suspended over exotic harmonies.

We'll return (as Chausson does) to that introductory material, but it's notable how subtly and surprisingly Chausson transitions into the vocal line. Whereas the opening suggests A-flat Major, albeit with aching chromaticisms, when the vocal line picks up on the same A-flat being repeated in the piano, the lower piano register disappears and we're left with the simplest D-flat Major triad. So, in retrospect, the introductory material in A-flat can be heard as a Dominant to the D-flat tonic, but it doesn't really sound that way. It's more like waking from a dream. The textural shift is like zooming in from a wide shot (of a lush garden?) to a tight focus (on a hummingbird?). It also feels like a shift from BIG feelings to simple narration, with the connection between the two yet to be revealed.

What follows is disarmingly simple, with modest chords in the piano, a vocal line that rises and falls easily from F to F as the movements of the small bird are described, and elegant countermelodies in the piano right hand. (Someone close to the composer's time has arranged this with an obbligato violin or cello part to take those countermelodies - an awful idea from the perspective of this pianist who wants ALL the notes for himself.) There are some lovely chromatic inflections, but the music shifts gears with the arrival on a beautiful minor seventh chord at m.15. 

In my last post, I made much of how the minor seventh harmony is the virtual thing that Stanford's Blue Bird is made of, and though it's not as omnipresent in Chausson, its ambiguous floating quality is just as essential to the sound world. That downshift to a B-flat Minor Seventh chord, ushered in by an expansive melodic descent in the piano that begins on the highest note yet played (see m.14 above, and doesn't it look beautiful?!?), begins a six-bar ascent in which voice and piano trade phrases urgently, with the pace slightly accelerated. 

In the waveform image above, you can easily see that build-up leading to the climactic mid-point of the song at m. 21 where Chausson brings back the piano's expansive introductory material - except now the vocal line joins in, having reached back up to the high F and holding it out for longer than any previous note. This return functions as an ecstatic arrival, with the poetic text turning from simple garden geography to this scene:
Down to the flower he flies, alights from above,
and from the rosy cup drinks so much love
What was once a suggestive four-bar introduction is now expanded to an 8-bar descent from m.21-28, with passionate chromatic harmonies sliding down above the sustained A-flat pedal tone. In addition to the soaring vocals, the arpeggiated idea from the introduction is expanded now with constant 8th-note motion rolling down  ("down to the flower") through each new harmony, ending on a soft dominant seventh chord which could easily signal a cadential return to the opening vocal melody. 

"From the rosy cup," we are told, the hummingbird "drinks so much love." So much love that...? Well, if you check out the waveform above, you can see the music dips down to silence. And this is the most inspired moment. After the expectant V7 chord and the silence, the vocalist sings a simple V-I motion of A-flat to D-flat; except, instead of D-flat in the left hand, we end up with...a heartrending minor seventh chord on E-flat. 

In fact, it's even more special than that because at first we only hear a single low E-flat against the vocal D-flat, with the rich harmony filling in a beat later. Chausson must've loved this moment as much as I do because the piano just keeps gently pulsing that chord pianissimo for what seems like forever. Just as Stanford demonstrates throughout The Blue Bird, the minor seventh chord is perfect for stopping time. And what is the text here? That vocal A-flat to D-flat is sung to the words "Qu'il meurt," which means: "that he dies." The entire tercet translates as:

Down to the flower he flies, alights from above,
and from the rosy cup drinks so much love
that he dies, not knowing if he could drink it dry.

Now, at m.33, the vocal part returns to its opening melody in D-flat for the final tercet. Having reached the high F seven times previously, the voice finally ascends a half-step higher to begin the closing line of the poem, singing "du premier baiser" ("from that first kiss") just as that high G-flat is touched at last. (The harmony under that first kiss? A minor seventh chord.)

Notice that the subject has shifted from the hummingbird to something more personal, and we can imagine other meanings for the death caused by drinking so much love from the flower. 

Even so, my darling, on your pure lips
my soul and senses would have wished to die
from that first kiss that perfumed it.

Having begun the song with arpeggiated chords, the piano concludes with three rolls, all the way up to a beautiful kiss-like ping as the final sound.

So, yeah, that's a lot of words about three minutes of music, but it's such exquisite music. There's also something very satisfying about the tactile experience of playing this piano part, right from that opening sweep, and looping in the melody. And, oh yeah, some people do prefer this with someone actually singing the vocal part, so here's a lovely version if you MUST.

One little postscript. The waveform image above is from when I first posted about this audio recording in 2008. I like both that it shows the overall shape of the song as well as that it has a hummingbird-like energy. I know very little about birds, but I know hummingbirds have the ability to hover almost as if still while their wings are moving very quickly. This is oddly analogous to how it is that musical pitches can sound static while they are actually animated by extremely fast vibrations. Of course, that's true of all musical sounds, not just Chausson's, but all the wonderfully suspended repeated chords in this piano part, which seem static, are in fact vibrations which convert tremendous energy into apparent stability. I still don't think this music is meant to imitate hummingbirds, but perhaps it's that vibrant stillness that it captures best.

Also, regarding the scrolling score, I thought to include regular bar numbers this time after forgetting to include them for The Blue Bird. But though I really like the look of infinite scrolling, the one problem I haven't really solved is that this means the key signature disappears. I've experimented with keeping a static one in the left margin, but that ends up looking awful. As these songs of Stanford and Chausson each have lots of flats, it's an awkward thing to miss. What's odd is that, when reading music in real time, I find it very disturbing not to be able to see a key signature (if obscured by a book holding the music open, for example), but somehow it doesn't bother me aesthetically here. Might be in part because I know the music so well, but I'm not really providing the notation for performers here anyway. It's more about the way notation abstractly represents the sounds....

NOTE: The translations used in this post are closely based on this English version by Peter Low.

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