A Well Shaped Phrase
November 6, 2018
Irving and I were working on the right hand in the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto.
Botticelli’s paintings are praised for the sensuous lines which outline and reveal his shapes. These shapes are more than simply visual, they can also be felt tangibly in imagined sensations of touch*.
The beauty of the shape of a musical a phrase can also have to do with the care the musician takes to communicate the outline each phrase. There are many criteria for how to shape a phrase.
One way, though not always applicable, is on the basis of when the pitches are ascending and when they are descending. More especially the places where the direction changes, for they are the places in the phrase where its outline is most sinuous.**
I remember in first year Calculus, that to draw a curve, it is sufficient to know only the points where the curve changes direction from rising to falling or falling to rising. It is easy to connect those points with a smooth curve. The pianist should similar trace the undulations of their phrases.
For the queasy of stomach (like me), the moments on a roller coaster ride that are most jarring are these sinuous points when up and down flip, and when left and right reverse. They are the moments that stand out in my memory of the ride.
I am not one to apply metaphors from one art to another but sometimes, when I’m playing I feel like sound is a viscous substance that I can, like a sculptor, mold into a shape (through time). Or another analogy that works for me is to take a sculpture that barely rises off a background surface and have it round itself into three dimensions. Or, sometimes I will feel myself holding a somewhat stiff, yet flexible, rod in my hands and imagine it being bent into an arc.
*I learned this when reading books on the Italian Renaissance by art critic/aesthetician/historian Bernard Berenson.
** In first year calculus I learned how to sketch a curve on a graph given only information about where the curve changed from ascending to descending or changed from bending one way to the other.