Category: Phrasing

A Well Shaped Phrase

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.



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Three Mordants

In the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, there are two places where one plays in series three identical mordants.*

Ideally, we want to play each of the three mordants with freshness and brio (liveliness or spirit).  To do this it is useful that each one of the three has a certain difference or freedom from the others.  When doing the second or third, there should be no memory either in the hand or in the ear of the exact nature of the one or two preceding it.  In an important way, each of the three should be created as the first one.   This principle can be generalized: every note is the first note of the piece.  The piece is being created by us on the keyboard on the spot: ex nihlio (out of nothingness).

When something new happens, especially if happens suddenly, it occupies our full attention at the center of our consciousness.  This is true of a sensation that repeats.  At first it takes over a large portion of our attention.  However if the sensation keeps on repeating, especially if with little or no change, we become inured to it fairly quickly: it recedes into the background of consciousness where it may remain unnoticed, or be forgotten altogether.  It is only if the sensation changes or stops entirely will we suddenly become aware (sic) of its absence. (aware of its absence … an interesting philosophical concept).

What is the advantage of being first?  The first has a quality of freshness, newness, that is often a prized quality (especially as we grow older).  It is like watching the sun rise in the morning after a night of darkness, versus looking at the sun in the middle of the day when we have gotten a number of hours to get used to its presence.

For the pianist playing the mordants, this ‘newness’ has several aspects.  In the repetition there should be no accumulated tension in the hand from the repetition before it.   More importantly, psychologically, there should be “no obligation to the past”: we do not need to feel that we have to make the second instance sound just like the first (or the third like the second, or like the first and second).  That it is an easier thing to do to do if we do it over and over exactly the same, than to look for newness.  However, for freshness,** we should want to have forgotten what is in the immediate past, what the first mordant sounded like as we craft the second one.

Some habits take years to form (and sometimes years to undo).  However, on a shorter time scale, one measured in seconds, our mind, always on the alert for a possible “pattern”, tries to create one, a pattern based on the immediate past which we makes us have a prediction of what will happen in the next moment.

At heart every iteration of the mordant happens in a new way.  We want to break the shackles***of memory.  Each mordant stands alone in time, perfect and new: as is the promise in the newness of a sunrise.   The pinnacle of being new is that of it being unforeseenNo obligation to memory.  Warding off comparison with the past.  And if it happens that something repeats, there was no obligation for it to repeat.

As pianists we are frequently asked to repeat a short phrase or a chord over and over.  Like the opening of the “Waldstein” by Beethoven.  Or like the oscillation between the interval of a third and sixth in Chopin’s, toccata-like Etude, Op 10, No. 7 in C Major.  Most of all, how we go about executing a long trill, with an obligation to make each next two notes sound like all the ones the preceded it in time.  A short two-note melody repeating incessantly, in which a portion of the past continuously overlay and replaces the new, next moment in time.***

But as for this ‘newness’ it can apply at all levels of time-scale.  As with the recapitulation of a Classical period sonata-form movement which often involves the literal repetition of material heard earlier in the movement.

Based on what we have said so far, it would appear that the secret to executing such repeating figurations, is for both the ear and the hand to forget that there is any repetition going on.  Each event is unforeseen; as if there has been what we might best term an amnesia of what came before.  A person with short term memory loss forgets that he has said something moments or minutes earlier.  It is odd, but we need to selectively cultivate this state when playing.  If we do not think that something is repeating, then every time we execute it, it is not effected by what has happened before.

* In this instance the mordant is an ornament that consists of a note in the score, then a note just below it, followed by the original note.

** The association between time and music is closer than the relation any other art has with time.  Time, at heart, is that which brings change and newness.  The closer we are to an ongoing sense of newness the deeply we live in the flow of time (see the writings of the French philosopher Henri Bergson).

*** The poem “London” by William Blake expresses what the absence of newness can do to our minds.  We are left with no choices, everything has been determined already by our actions in the past, or the actions of others.  Line 8 is especially relevant.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,    Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.   And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.  

In every cry of every Man,   In every Infants cry of fear,   In every voice: in every ban,   The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry    Every blackning Church appalls,   And the hapless Soldiers sigh   Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear   How the youthful Harlots curse   Blasts the new-born Infants tear   And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

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