Compositions

What is not heard is often more important than what is heard

March 18, 2019

Brahms: Intermezzo: Op 116 No. 4 in E Major

Often in a well constructed piece, the meaning of something lies in how it stands out in contrast, or in relief, to something else.  Much of this has to do with memory, and what the listener may expect to hear at a certain time.

An example:

In the recapitulation of the Classical sonata movement, the second theme comes back in the in the tonic, it is not as we remember it in the Exposition, in the dominant (or relative major).  What happens at that moment is that an expectation is momentarily revived and  enhanced but a new present reality is superimposed upon it.  For a moment the two tenses interact*, but a moment or two later our ear has taken our bearings in the new.

The ears of a sensitive listener will prick up earlier, at the moment before the second theme, at the exact moment when the composer deviates from the harmonic path that led to the second theme in the exposition.

One of the things that makes late Brahms difficult to sort through is that when something stands in relief with something else, we often haven’t had an opportunity to hear that something else earlier in the piece.  So how does the pianist make a contrast with something that is not ever heard, but whose meaning lies entirely in its contrast to this unheard base or reference.

An example from the Brahms Intermezzo:

Consider the passage in measures 10 through 14.  Contrapuntally, what is going on has less to do with the triplets in the right hand but in implied, but not literally heard, duplets formed by the second and third triplet notes with the first triplet note put back onto the beat, omitting the first triplet note entirely, and playing the third triplet note as the second note of a duplet.  If we do this, we suddenly hear a very conspicuous use of an appoggiatura.  In measure 12 for example the e5 is clearly heard as an appoggiatura to the d5.**   As we shall see, this perception need not become vitiated by the delay of the  appearance of the appoggiatura to its original position one triplet eighth later than the sounding of the chord in which it functions as an appoggiatura.

The same relation of appoggiatura for the c5 to b4 and the a4 to g4.   When performed successfully, this passage haunts the listener with the sustained feeling that something else is going on other than what is most obvious to the ear (delayed triplets).  There lurks this implication of regularly arriving appoggiaturas on the beats.

Similar appoggiaturas occur throughout the passage.  Once Brahms makes establishes this comparison to the implied, simplified counterpoint,  he is able to take a further step to hide the actual appoggiaturas, by attracting the ear, in measures 11, 12 and 13, to a descending scale in the top voice.   Do we hear the scale though?  Almost.  At least we get the feeling that there is a scale present.  For here too, there is a layer of removal from what is heard to what one might call what is meant-to-be-heard.  We hear a melody stopping and stopping in two note groups, which if there were no interruptions would simply be the scale: b5 a5 g5 fs5 | e5 d5 c5 b4 a4 g4 | etc.  The beauty of a melody arising from following this scale depends on the implication of leaving out of our consciousness the first of each group three triplet notes (a note that is merely part of an accompanying chord) so that the notes of the scale seem to flow connectedly one into the other.

I have my students leave out the first triplet note, and change the next two notes to regular eighth notes, putting the first of the eighth notes back onto the beat.  The scale is now much clear to the pianist’s ears.  Crucially, if that point, the student goes back to playing the written notes, the reference to the fluid duplet scale is not lost.  It attempts to maintain itself in spite of the pauses.  It haunts the image of the passage and changes a somewhat trivial passage in triplets to something more transcendent sounding.  Thus a passage can transcend itself.  It becomes beautiful only in relief to something more basic, not literally heard, to which it yet can refer itself.   Generally, in late Brahms, we often must try to make a passage sound like what it isn’t! – something clearer in harmony, clearer in rhythm, and clearer in voice leading and counterpoint).

* This momentary contrast, if it were prolonged would lead to a confusion in the sounds, like when a person accidentally takes a double exposure with a camera.  If, however, the process could be frozen in time, and  experienced just in space, we would have the equivalent of a biologist looking through a microscope that allows on eye to view one slide and the other eye view another slide, as for the purpose of noting what contrasts there are between them.  A side by side comparison.  In music it is more sublime.  It is a sound image from time past that melds with a sound image from time-present.  The past isn’t gone it lives in memory, for many in the form of a sound-memory.  The past sounds do not really sound in the glare of the light of present, but colors it.  But a comparison is made.

**

e5    d5

a4___

fs4___

Clearly there is a D Major chord trying to fully form and as an e5 yields to the partially formed chord and resolves to the chord note d5.

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