Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sondheim Slanted Evening

Hopefully the post title is reason enough to be wary of where we're headed here. Just two years and one day ago, I was writing a tribute to the remarkable creative force behind Company, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods, and here I am presenting a couple of silly distortions of his exquisite musical/lyrical ideas. But it certainly comes from a place of affection.

First up, a couple of months ago, I mentioned seeing just a two-bar cadential figure shown in a question on a Facebook group and I knew at once I'd played this flourish.

It took me a bit of time to realize it's the closing gesture (hear at 2:29 here) from On the Steps of the Palace, Cinderella's big number from Into the Woods. When I mentioned this to some friends online, one repeated a suggestion she'd made before about combining Sondheim's Steps with Borodin's lovely orchestral tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. Ultimately, I failed to resist this temptation.

As it happens, I was making this around the same time as I was converting Schubert's Erlk├Ânig to a major key, and we were discussing major/minor modes in a couple of theory classes, so I found it interesting that the "key" to getting Borodin and Sondheim to play nice together was to set the former's plaintive minor key melody against the latter's major key ostinato accompaniment. (If you don't know the originals, you may follow the links in the previous paragraph.) 

This turns out to be a nice way to look at the concept of relative major and minor keys, keys which are "related" because they basically use the same set of pitches but with a different starting/ending note. One simple way to say this is that if one starts on the sixth note of a major scale (down two from the original home pitch which can be called 1 or 8) and follow the scale trail up to the same note, one ends up with the major key's relative minor. Thus, Borodin's minor key melody, which begins on scale degree 5 can actually be harmonized in major simply by treating each scale degree as if it is two lower. The same pitch is now treated as scale degree 3.

I'm sure that sounds quite pedantic, so here's a quick demo. 



First you hear Borodin's melody more or less against his original minor key harmonies, starting on scale degree 5. (This version is already transposed to the key [B Minor/D Major] I used in my mashup below, and the meter has also been switched from Borodin's 2/4 to Sondheim's 6/8, with a few other melodic adjustments.)

Then you hear the exact same melody against the repeating accompaniment vamp Sondheim uses in his song, except the vamp is downshifted from D Major into the same B Minor as the melody.

Finally, you hear the exact same melody against Sondheim's original accompaniment, this time shifted back up to its original D Major. Though not all minor-key melodies transfer so easily (I think it helps that the original minor key melody does not use scale degrees 1 or 2), this one actually works fine against the new harmonies - but it certainly sounds different! It's worth noting that one reason this mashup sort of works is that both Borodin's melody and Sondheim's melody (which you don't get to hear here) spend a lot of time over pedal bass notes (basically meaning the lowest note in the accompaniment doesn't change).

To complete my silly little arrangement, we open with the major-key melody which opens Borodin's tone poem, then transition into Borodin's main tune (now contextualized as major) and, of course, we end with the flourish that got me into this mess in the first place.



Now as if that wasn't silly enough...today, I ran across a discussion in a Sondheim Facebook forum which resulted in someone jokingly proposing a mashup of The Ladies Who Lunch from Company with the technopop classic I'm a Barbie Girl. Someone else suggested the title, The Barbies Who Brunch, and my mind started racing again.

Although this might seem particularly absurd, the aging alcoholic bitterly singing about the "ladies who lunch" might be thought of as a cautionary tale about where a plastic Barbie lifestyle leads. Joanne sings derisively about Barbie-esque women who live glossy, empty lives. And speaking of "major vs. minor," the "Barbie Girl" song, though relentlessly upbeat, is in a minor key which gives it a bit of a dark undertone, while Sondheim's depressing anthem is a great example of a sad song in a major key.

In this case, most of the music is Sondheim's, with lyrics inspired by "Barbie Girl" and some melodic quotations from the pop tune mixed in, most notably in the accompaniment. 

By the way, a case could be made that Sondheim would be most offended by my frequent use of slant rhyme here (brunch/such ~ world/girl ~ Ken/him). He's generally not a fan of rhyming only halfway, as well described here. "Using near rhyme is like juggling clumsily." Oof. However, I feel like the slant rhymes help pay homage to the pop idiom - and, they were the best I could do in the middle of an otherwise busy day.

This mashup probably won't make much sense if you don't know both songs reasonably well (see links above), but I think it kind of works. Notice I only tease the idea and don't continue with the main body of Sondheim's song, but I am pleased with the Bossa Nova Barbie beat that ends this:

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Concentric Circles: Nardini → Kreisler

Time and again, I return here because of some happenstance by which I make unexpected connections between two works. We've had:

In the last few weeks, I've been doing a lot of accompanying of young string players, and it's provided opportunity for a couple of unexpected new discoveries. The first connection came up two weeks ago when I had back-to-back rehearsals for a concerto competition with a violinist playing the first movement of Prokofiev's first concerto and a violist playing the first movement of the Walton Concerto. I adore the former, but do not know the latter well, having only played it once years ago on short rehearsal - although I did once make this [warning: viola joke] "director's cut" video

Anyway, after some rehearsing of both, I started to notice a strange kinship between the two concerti. Each first movement begins with a quiet, lyrical, flowing melody for soloist in compound meter. Each progresses to increasingly busy passagework with relentless sixteenth notes, and each ends with the opening melody in solo winds while the soloist decorates with graceful, perpetual motion flourishes. [Worth noting it's pretty unusual for a concerto first movement to begin and end softly/slowly.]  I mentioned this to a couple of musician friends, and one (a violist) sent me a link to this remarkable article by the violist Atar Arad who makes a compelling case that Prokofiev's 1923 concerto served as a sort of hidden model for Walton's 1929 work. 

I'll leave it to you to read the article (which has some very detailed analysis) and follow up on these connections, but again, what was most interesting to me is that the dots connected naturally for me simply by playing the two pieces within the same hour. In addition to the openings, you could compare the violin passagework at 3:46 with viola passagework at 4:00 and the ending sections which begin at 8:05 [Prokofiev] and 7:10 [Walton]. If you backtrack from the endings, you'll see that each composer links to the closing section with slow, intense, dissonant double-stops for the soloist. But there are many other likenesses to be found.



Then, Friday night I accompanied a series of student recitals which included a not well-known concerto by the 18th century's Pietro Nardini. This turns out to be one of those works of somewhat dubious origin which was most likely assembled in the 19th century or later and thus has more Romantic stylistic features. There's an interesting and somewhat entertaining discussion of this concerto as a pedagogical work (apparently unpopular with many students?) here.

Honestly, as a student concerto I was not finding it that interesting to play, but there is a striking, heartfelt passage towards the end of the first movement that caught my ear. The violinist plays a soaring sequential idea (same two bars repeated several times with each repetition a step lower) over a "circle progression." Circle progressions (in which chords roots move up by 4th or down by 5th in a way that recalls the "Circle of Fifths") are very common, but there was something about this one that just felt...emotionally right. 

I then realized it was reminding me a similar progression in Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, an all-time favorite "meant to sound old" piece - which I had rehearsed about twenty minutes before! Lo and behold, both works are in E Minor and the progressions basically use the exact same chords except Kreisler indulges in a few more major sevenths, a sonority not super common in Common Practice Period Harmony, but which adds an extra layer of pathos to both sequences.

Here they are played one after the other (by Pinchas Zukerman and Tasmin Little) and then - of course! - played simultaneously. Kreisler's work is one of the original pieces he originally credited to an "ancient" composer (Pugnani), but I would guess Kreisler would have known the already Romanticized Nardini concerto and might very well have borrowed these chords, whether purposefully or accidentally. 


Of course, both works go their own directions after starting these phrases with that identical progression, but each composer leverages the logical structure of a Classical progression (movement by descending fifths has a particularly strong sense of forward motion) to strengthen and stabilize their more Romantic melodic/dramatic components. I don't know if anyone else has noticed this or if I would have noticed if not for fortuitous happenchance.

Just a couple more observations about these works. The Nardini is a good example of a work which I think is partly undone by a not-great primary theme. Nothing wrong with the opening idea, but it's just generic, even though it seems to aim for drama. This is a topic I'd like to return to as there are some great works which I believe overcome subpar themes, and other works with fantastic tunes that don't lead anywhere satisfying. There's no reason the primary theme must be first-rate, but for lesser known works like Nardini's, it's more of an uphill battle to overcome a blah first impression.

As for Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, I really do love everything about this bit of pastiche and the only music of his I love as much is his first-movement cadenza for the Beethoven concerto - another case in which he's intentionally working within a more Classical aesthetic which I find merges well with his sentimental tendencies. (The first part of Kreisler's Sicilienne and Rigaudon is almost as good, but maybe leans a little too sentimental, although if we're talking Kreisler, I'll admit that I do unreservedly love this tune.)

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P.S. This post includes further reflections on my affections for Romantic/Modern works intentionally meant to evoke Classical style. I should've added Prokofiev's 1st and Shostakovich's 9th to that list of lovably neo-classical symphonies.