Sunday, September 24, 2023

A stranger's just a friend you haven't met

This is really just an update to the previous post. Having "translated" the music of Schubert's Erlkönig from G Minor to G Major, I was bothered that the text displayed was still Goethe's dark and tragic German. Although I'm not capable of re-writing the German, I decided I would translate the original into English. 

As it happens, the connections between transcription and translation have been of interest to me since I started the blog, as can be seen here among many other posts. (A search of the name "Hofstadter" on the blog will turn up lots more!) But most importantly, this will work better when you inevitably feel led to sing along.

So, here we have an updated version of the story. No more "stranger danger" or creepy dancing daughters. (See Goethe's original here.) Because I'm insane, I did try to adhere pretty closely to the stanza structure of Goethe's poem, but with, for example, appropriate switches from a late night ride in the cold wind to an early ride at dawn in the breeze. Notice that, just as my "transcription" of the original Schubert song into a major key is a distortion which is nevertheless defined by the original musical structure, this new "translation" also aims to be a distortion which is nevertheless defined by the original text. 

I think I've said enough:

But wait! There's more!

Friday, September 22, 2023

Changes both major and minor

 Recently, the following image made its way around on social media:

Schubert's Erlkönig is one of the most iconic works in the classical canon, helped a good bit by the fact that it shows up in many anthologies for music history/appreciation classes. Although Schubert is rightly celebrated for his hundreds of songs, it's a little unusual that this is often the standard-bearer since he didn't really write anything else quite like it, but it packs an incredible dramatic punch. The mercilessly cruel piano part might seem to be a disadvantage for getting the song performed, but the notoriety it adds has only helped to amplify the legend. (I once expressed this in J. Peterman form.) 

As it happens, I spent extra time with this song while leading a piano seminar at a chamber music camp this past summer. I wanted to expose the pianists - some of whom were playing pretty advanced stuff by Liszt, Chopin, etc. - to the crazy technical challenge this "accompaniment" represents. My idea was that, because its relentless repetition is what makes it so difficult, I'd have pianists trade off playing the repeating octaves/chords bar by bar, so it was also meant to be a sightreading challenge. In my "arrangement" for four pianists and two pianos, two students traded triplets while one played the left hand part and another played the vocal melody up an octave or two. This allowed for different levels of skill among those sightreading as well. I won't say we ever made great music out of it, but it was fun and right in my wheelhouse.

Speaking of my wheelhouse, I knew almost as soon as I read the posting above that I'd need to create a version of this song in G Major. To be clear, though Erlkönig is published in a variety of keys, they are all obviously minor keys, so the request for a major key is worth a chuckle, especially considering how that might alter its tragic ending. My best guess is that the requester wanted a version in E Minor, and asked for G Major because that has the same key signature, but what if someone really wants this music in a major key?

Well, it turns out to be less straightforward than one might imagine. There's a kind of casual way in which many think of major and minor as opposites. They are indeed used in opposition to each other often, but without going into detail, it's just not a pure binary distinction - especially if the music modulates, which Schubert's does often in this case. It's one thing to turn a simple melody like that of "Happy Birthday" into a satisfying minor key version which can seem like a kind of opposite, but once there are modulations, lots of things get murky. 

There is actually an entire cottage industry of well-known pop tunes in which major/minor has been reversed, such as here and here (more here), but modulation is generally not a big issue in such contexts. Once I started tweaking Schubert, I knew I was going to have to make some tricky decisions, but what fun! Schubert is particularly known for loving to switch back and forth between major and minor, sometimes turning on a dime, so he is an interesting subject for this experiment. My basic concept was to switch the primary minor sections to major while also converting the contrasting major-key sections (when the evil Elf King is sweet-talking his prey) into minor keys. There are some odd gear shifts that Schubert would certainly have never used, and a few chords (especially m.47 and m.49) that he simply would never have imagined, but part of the fun is to be surprised by these funhouse reflections.

I've long been intrigued by the idea of creating something out of the negative space defined by an existing work, and I hope to return to the idea if I find time this fall. In the meantime, enjoy the upbeat, frolicsome soundworld that exists somewhere on the periphery of Schubert's haunted house.

Just remembered this song also come up in this blog post.

UPDATE: New version with English lyrics now available!

Friday, September 1, 2023

A Canon for Kim

I don't post personal stuff too much here on the blog. Early on, I posted about the birth of my third child, a son who's now mowing down the Elgar Cello Concerto, so that was some time ago. But today happens to be the birthday of a very special person, my sister-in-law Kim. When she married my older brother almost forty years ago, she became part of my own large, tight-knit family - my fifth sister, as it were - and she's been a role model in countless ways.

She was perhaps the first piano major I really knew, some years ahead of my college days, and she also preceded me as a pianist-turned-organist (although she took real lessons!), a church choir director (again, she had legit training), and piano teacher. She also has done all sorts of things I could never imagine, including designing her own house and significantly re-designing another, running a school, homeschooling two daughters who have both grown into brilliant musicians and remarkable young women, and being an incredibly gifted cook who can graciously host small gatherings and large-scale events unbelievably well. She's done all this after surviving a terrifying encounter with cancer as a young mother.

The ongoing effects of radiation from way back have caused new problems which made us fear Kim would not make it to this birthday, but she's still fighting and inspiring many, many people. She is not the type to look for praise or lots of attention and I won't go into too much detail, though prayers for her are certainly appreciated! She is facing uphill battles, but with courage and hope - and surrounded by a lot of love.

We were able to visit her a few weekends ago, and with a few lazy summer days left afterwards, I decided to write a canon for her. To canon-ize her as a saint among us, one might say. I've actually never written a canon before, though I've written a lot of fugues and I've visualized Bach canons. This summer I learned that Greg Hayes, the longtime singing director at the chamber music camp my kids have attended for more than ten years, has often encouraged students to write canons. Upon his retirement from the camp this summer, we got to hear a few canons written and sung in his honor, and this idea stuck with me. So upon our return from that weekend visit, I spent a Sunday afternoon pushing notes around and then did a bit more finagling in the days that followed. 

The fascinating thing about a canon is that everything for an entire composition is encoded in just a small part of it. A little like a fractal, perhaps, although different in significant ways. This of course means that every little decision made about a note change here or there has implications elsewhere. I gave myself some leeway in not being obsessed with perfect voice-leading or rigorous harmonic definition, and I was happy with the result. (In fact, it was a goal from the outset to avoid having too clear a sense of a recurring progression.)

What interested me the most was creating a melodic fragment which contained all the information needed to produce a satisfying musical structure - not just parts that sound OK together, but the sense of beginning, building, and ending. Of course, the most famous and perhaps greatest of all canons* is really a set of variations on a ground bass which is satisfying not because the melody is only a small kernel, but because the variations develop slowly in complexity and richness. I genuinely love Pachelbel's ingenious creation, but, repetitive ground bass aside, its canonic melody is actually quite long. (Nevertheless, I find it brilliant how a single violin part can be used to produce such engaging counterpoint with itself.)

My choice was to write a sixteen-bar, four-phrase melody, which could simply be sung as a four-part round (Kim and her family of four love to sing). While rounding it into shape, I came up with the idea of adding two simpler phrases as a sort of interlude leading to the return of the first four. So there's a resulting ternary structure like so (with EF representing the two interlude phrases): ABCD EF ABCD. Because the interlude component is half as long as the primary melody, this means almost every section from beginning to end is a unique combination of segments. We get the following, with voice parts listed left to right:

  • A _ _ _
  • B A _ _
  • C B A _
  • D C B A
  • D C B
  • F E D C
  • F E D
  • B A F E
  • C B A F
  • D C B A
  • _ D C B
  • _ _ D C
  • _ _ _ D

If you look closely, you'll see that only the DCBA combination occurs twice, with its second occurrence at an appropriately climactic moment. I also used two other little cheats in working with the tune.  1) The last two bars of the canon begin with an upward leap of a 7th, reaching to the highest note in the whole thing, an admittedly unusual way to end a melody. When setting for SATB chorus, I worried this leap would be awkwardly high for altos and basses, but the melody also works with those final two bars down an octave. Dramatic Upward 7th becomes Perfectly Logical Stepwise Descent. So that end of the tune can function both climactically and as tension-release resolution. 2) The other cheat was to let each finished part sustain parts of a final chord to create a pedal effect at the conclusion. 

Here is the primary four-phrase tune:

The text comes from the final two verses of Proverbs 31, the end of a section beginning with the well-known verse: "A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels." Kim is a truly good wife and certainly more precious than jewels.

I haven't had a chance to record this properly, but I do have two recordings to offer. The first is simply played on piano, the second uses synthy orchestra sounds that make me wince a bit at first but eventually settle into a nice kind of grandeur. (When dealing with fake instruments, it's hard to resist the lure of reverb.) These notes won't end the suffering Kim is enduring, but they do pay meager tribute to the wonderful person she is. Happy Birthday, Kim!

* The recording of Pachelbel's Canon linked above, with all parts played by friend Albano Berberi, is far and away the best recording of this piece I've ever heard. And I would add that Pachelbel's strongest competition for "best canon ever" is the finale of Franck's violin sonata, although Franck is able to provide lots of variety by adding harmonies around the two-part canon, and he uses multiple non-canonic interludes with the canon returning in rondo style each time.