Tag: classical piano

Technical Challenges in Moszkoski’s Etude in F and Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op 14.

A.J’s lesson today.  Two works he is preparing for a competition.

-From: 15 Etudes de Virtuosité, Op.72 No. 6 (by Moritz Moszkowski), “Presto” in F major/.

#1. The “ear” as the abstract creator of the figurative shapes of  sounds:

#2. The balance of sound between the two hands.

#3. A ladder falls apart if there are no rungs connecting the sides.

#4. The undulating patterns of three-note groups in the right hand:

-Beethoven: Sonata in  E Major: Op 14 / 1 :  I : The left hand sixteenths in the development section.

#5. “Additive” Clusters as a unit of pulsation through the passage  with                    sixteenth notes.

#6. The desired effect in sound does not always follow upon a logical  or                   teleologically designed set of causes.

-From: 15 Etudes de Virtuosité, Op.72 No. 6 (by Moritz Moszkowski), “Presto” in F major/.

#1. The ear as the abstract creator of the figurative shapes of  sounds:

The ear, as the observer of the flow of sound content through time, may seem at first to be but a passive instrument.  It listens, it notices, and only with a slight lag as the sound has already been physically produced.

If not distracted by the physical actions we make to start the sounds, there is an exact in knowing in the accuracy of the notes.  The awareness of sounds in the ear and the more it is divorced from any muscle movements that physically give rise to the sounds–the more accurately and subtly it  judges the sound characteristics of the music being played.

Through a miraculous confusion of tenses, the ear as a passive listener, after the fact that the sound has begun, yet can be the most effective force in controlling our sounds.  In this regard it is far more efficacious than consciously controlling and gauging the quality of quantity of our muscle movements.  This present tense in consciousness is not a mathematical instant, a point of zero duration.  It contains, according to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the spilling over of the past into the present and the impetus of the present to be on the verge of becoming the future.  A duration, though recognized as the present, has yet the efficacy of having what has just happened to have an undefinable but definite effect on what is just about to happen.

#2. The balance of sound between the two hands.

A.J. is having difficulty coordinating the two hands in the Moszkowski Etude in F.  His left hand seems to be pursuing its own course–not blending with the right hand, but merely showing up at the same time as the right hand – at the beginning of every third note in the right hand.

I suggested that as he played one of the left hand chords, hold it for a few moments along with the first of the three triplet notes in the right hand.  He should see if his ear could spread its attention over the sounds from the right hand as well.  And then determine quickly whether together, the sounds of both hands formed a cohesive whole.

With just a little attentiveness, just a split second after the notes start sounding, one will notice whether the sounds from both hands seem to reach out towards each other eclipsing the distinction between them and creating a larger sound-whole than either hand’s sounds alone.  And this fusion takes place as he listens to the sounds.  It takes but an instant for this synthesis to occur.  At the first instant there are disjointed sounds from two sources, but a mere instant later these sounds have instinctively reached out towards each other to form a synthesis in consciousness.  Or, to put it another way, it takes just a bare moment for the ear to note and to form a larger whole out of the sounds of both hands.

To his surprise, A. had no difficulty in causing these sounds to fuse together though physically they were made by separate physical acts pertaining to a coordination of the individual sides of his body.  He was surprised since in as much as he wasn’t aware that had done nothing physical to effect this balance, but merely remained attentive to the sounds for more than a split second.  This synthesis had nothing to do with any physical effort to make the sounds be simultaneous.  Nor was there any specific mental ‘effort’ involved.

The combined power of his ear and his brain focusing on the notes, brought the sound together. His previous preparation and physical muscle memory came through in a moment where his head may have easily gotten in the way–thus is the power of the ear.

#3. A ladder falls apart if there are no rungs connecting the sides.

As an analogy for what had just happened, I suggested that the left and right hands were like the two vertical sides of a ladder.  They can remain upright only if there are rungs crisscrossing between them.  These sides had nothing to keep them together without the ear forming the rungs.  Without the attentiveness of the ear those side pieces would fall apart.

Once such a sound-synthesis has been effected at any point in the piece, the possibility then exists to ‘mold’ and shape the forms of these connections.  It now became possible to mold how one of these composite sounds morphed into the next one.  Though intangible in nature, the pianist now has a focal point to help steer all the course of all the individual notes of the composition through the medium of time.

Though to the body, the sounds originating from the right and left hands seemed to exist spatially apart and separate, from the point of view of the attentive ear they were (already) fused together.  It is more the ear, something intangible, than the body, something tangible, that ’causes’, these sounds to meld and form a resonant four-note chord.  We need only seek whether they do.

It is only after the fact of their fusion into a single sound that we can, for analytic purposes, speak of these fused sounds as having two spatially distinct origins.

#4. The undulating patterns of three-note groups in the right hand:

Next we turned A’s attention to just the right hand’s stream of notes, a rapid stream of triplets.  I suggested that each and every group of three such notes comes to life in a molten state, which the pianist can then form into a well-rounded shape.  Despite their melodic and harmonic differences, all such three-note groups should cast into the same shape.  This creates a form ‘texture’ that holds the entire piece together.

The most recalcitrant triplets, the ones that would most resist such shaping, occur when the right hand is playing a chromatic scale.  No group of notes yields up so little harmonic value to a repetitive pulsation, The chromatic scale is most innately without a shape.  If started on a C Natural, and if accompanied in the other hand by a C Major chord, the scale tries to break down into uneven units of, first four note (C C# D D#), then three notes (E F F#), then five notes (G G# A A# B).  This is too much of a strain on the scale which therefore yields up little by way of harmonic implication.  It is the changing size of the harmonically influenced note groups that render the scale inchoate rather than redolent with harmony.  In this etude, the smithy of the mind resists this falling apart of the chromatic scale and obstinately takes every three note group, regardless of its harmonic implication, and shapes those notes into a three note melody without reference to harmony.  If I had to express this using a spatial analogy, each three notes would be, in its unformed state a straight line, which the agency of the ear then coerces into the shape of a letter ‘U’.

Beethoven: Sonata in E Major, Op 14 / 1 :  I : the development section:

#5. “Additive” Clusters as a unit of pulsation through a lengthy passage with sixteenth notes:

The chord with which the left hand commences, c3-e3-a3-c4, is a first inversion A Minor chord.  For many hands this is an uncomfortable arrangement that promotes flitting moments of tension.  There are two ways out of this dilemma.  One is for the hand to change its overall shape as each finger takes its turn enunciating its note, removing if necessary the other fingers from the previous notes they played.   The other way does away with all the physical difficulties by having the ear take on a constructive role, building up, one note at a time, the eventual cumulative sound of the 4-note chord (c3-e3-a3-c4).  When doing this, each single note, in its turn, prepares the eventual and cumulative sound of the four notes occurring at the same time.  It is only through the first iteration of this four-note sequence of tones that the full chord does not sound until the fourth note.  But after that, and with the pedal down, the simultaneous sound of the four notes is continuous.  The evenness in the balance of this four-note is not the result of mechanical manipulation but the result of the expectation of an ear focused on the simultaneous sound of the four notes.

#6, The desired effect in sound does not always follow upon a logical or teleologically designed set of causes:

A.J. didn’t see how such a passive, ear-based, technique could possibly effect the evenness and balance of the four sixteenth notes.  This prompted the following conclusion from him, his most significant realization of the lesson though at the same time not a logical one.

“Mechanically what I did makes sense as a way of achieving the sound effect that I want in sound.  And yet … the result is the sound which I desire.  This apparent disconnect between cause and effect is a normal sign of a sudden breakthrough technically.  The physical means of doing something, when considered in and of itself, may or may not seem to be capable of logically producing the sound effect that the ear is after.

Yet that effect is what is achieved.  So it makes no sense.  It takes bravery to abandon physical/logical sense of consistency between cause and effect and be accepting of what in “Big History” is called an “emergent form”; or a form that is not contained in the some of its parts.

You find that the way to the newly emerging form is not foreseen in its physical and mechanical causes.  The means happens to produce the ends, but cannot predict the effect.

 

Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Concert Pianists, and their Performance Arcs

“A. B.” came for his regular Thursday lesson.

Today we examined how a particular pianist puts together their experience of being  in control of a musical passage while performing.   The pianist forges their experience and control of a piece through various parts.  For diagnostic purposes we did these preliminary exercises:

We played a Bach Chorale, looking at the keyboard only for the placement of the beginning chord of the chorale, and then not looking at the hands at all from that point on.  The purpose of the exercise is for the pianist to discover how they form their intuitive sense of where their hands and fingers are on the keyboard, and if they get off course, whether they can find their way back without looking at their hands.

Next we did the same for a I-V-I in all keys.  We used this particular chord-spacing: c3-g3–c4-e4   g2-g3–b3-d4   c3-g3–c4-e4 (Root-fifth-root-third, root-root-third-fifth, root-fifth-root-third).

I asked him not to look at is hands, neither when going from one chord to the next within the three chord progression in one key, nor when moving each of the notes of the third chord up a half step to begin the progression in the next key.  This proved difficult for him.  I said “I think we are starting to hit ‘pay dirt'”.

Then we did the same for the first prelude from Book One.  This was relatively easy for him.  So I added this twist.  “Pick a random measure, make a simultaneous chord out of the notes in the measure, release the chord, send the hands to some far away place, then without looking at hands or the keyboard, find your way back to that chord.”  As it turned out this was quite easy for him!  I said: “I think there is a moral to this story.”

We moved into the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto, a piece he knows well.

I have come to understand that A. normally bases his  performance of a piece mostly on muscle memory, with his ear standing vigilantly as a guard against any wrong note.  I said, “You have spent a lifetime carefully building this relationship between muscle memory and the ear.  Now I am going to ask you to go into an uncomfortable place.  Take any spot in the movement, and as you play the notes, say the names of each note you play in the right hand.  If there is any hesitation in your voice, we’ve uncovered even more pay dirt.”  We want gradually to shift the identity of a note to something due to a union of a sense clear placement of the hand on the keyboard joined with a clear sense of the name of the note being played.

He said: “I can’t say the note I’m playing play at the same time that I play it: not if I try to say it, not if you do it for me, and not if I say it only in my imagination.” Boom. “I think we just hit the mother lode because of how difficult this is for you to do.” And what an incredible discovery–to find the missing link in the mind, and work towards an exercise to correct it.

To put this in perspective,  consider that doing this is not an unusual thing to ask of the student.  For example, whether playing either from the score or by memory, I am always conscious of what note I’m playing, even when I steer myself through a group of notes by following the ascending or descending pitch curve of the notes. This awareness keeps me from getting lost in a piece, even when I am struggling. I am not playing by rote or muscle memory and relying on habit: I am choosing what I play and when.

Considering the difficulty of naming the notes as you play them, I recommend that he try to perfect a particular measure in this regard.  It is the ‘trying’ to do that is more important than doing it correctly.  It is the trying that opens up new possibilities in your mind.

Later in the lesson we went back to the I-V-I exercise we did earlier without looking at his hands, and I asked him to try to name the notes in each of the three chords in each of the three note progressions starting with the bass voice of each chord and proceeding to the soprano voice.  This  proved far more difficult than he imagined it would.  I was pleased with this: he was gaining a direct insight into how his musical brain works.

Returning to the the second movement of the Bach Italian Concerto:

How many, “rhythmic words: are there in the ‘vocabulary’ of this movement.  It is a limited set.  A word a distinct rhythmic pattern, for instance a word might consist of series of four sixteenths, or a dotted eighth followed by a series of sixteenths, or some other combination of rhythmic note values that repeats frequently in the movement.  Note that there is only a limited number of such combinations in this movement. Be aware of which such ‘word’ you are saying at every moment in the movement.” Playing this movement is like speaking a language of rhythmic words, a vocabulary consisting of just a dozen or such words (although they can be put together in many different ways to create different meanings).  When I  play it I ‘speak’ each such word with its own definite and unique form of expression and inflection – one that pertains just to that rhythmic word.

He objected that the expression of each word would change dependent on the varying setting of the musical context. To which I replied, “I agree that the same word in different settings should be spoken differently, but at first make all the same ‘words’ sound the same“.

He tried this and was surprised that this added to his musicality in playing rather than making it seem less musically nuanced.  I said, “The final musical result needs to rest on something solid before the nuances are added.  This might not be true of other pianists who can manage both at the same time right from the start, but you often get bogged down coping with the details of the musical meaning that you want to convey before attending to first principles.  Start with the language and the vocabulary.  Wait until later on before you change it into Shakespearean English.”

We turned next to Mozart’s Adagio in B Minor:

“You and I often have different agendas as to what to work for and what needs the most reinforcement.  Today will prove to be no different.”  What is missing for me is the basic and constant “flow” wherein you carry each note through its duration of time to the next note, and then that next to its next, etc..  Each note is directed to the next note.   I hate to use an analogy that uses the word ‘weight’, which is usually anathema to me, but it as if the note has heft and you have to pick it up and move it through time (or space if it helps to think that way) to the next note*.  Every note should  experience the full pressure of time – which I call the ‘flow’ of time – to bring it to the sound experience of the next note.  Each note has to experience that dynamic sense of motion to the next note.  It is hard to describe how to do this other  than my making certain gestures as you are playing, but though these are spatial motions, what we are looking to experience is the motion of consciousness through time, without abatement, and mostly felt between the beginning of one note and the beginning of the next note.  It is the inevitable and relentless pressure of passing time.

* If you do think of this spatially then let the direction always to the right and not in the direction of the pitches as the arrow of time in Western math and physics is usually depicted rightwards (as it is in the convention of the musical score).

Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Harmony in Late Brahms

Harmonic wonders in Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3 in C# Minor

#1: The key

What is so compelling about C Sharp Minor?  Perhaps it is due to the effect of certain pieces that were written in that key: the opening fugue of Beethoven’s late quartet, op 131; the 5th prelude and fugue from the first book of the Well Tempered; and, Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3.

The spell of this key is both obvious and subtle.  Tragic but not overly so.  Deeply reflective of the human condition, but without overstatement. or wallowing.   Notes that enter this solar system of retain reveal the opposite effects of stoicism and great sympathy.

#2. The theme.

As in many of Brahms’ his late pieces, the motivic material out of which the piece is woven are themselves terse and simple.  Nothing startling in itself.  In Op 117 No. 2, just two notes, descending in a step, suffice to create the entire varied panoply of music effects heard throughout the piece.  In the case of Op 117 No. 3 it is woven out motives of three notes, rising in pitch by the steps of a scale.

Sometimes the distance between the second and third note is enlarged to three half steps.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a passing tone between the other two notes which are chord tones.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a lower neighbor note connecting two identical chord tones.  Out of these motives a long theme emerges which takes most of the entire first line of the score.

Every time the theme returns it does so in one way – invariable: exactly the same sequence of pitches (C# D# E …).  There is a growing sense of ineluctability about it, an effect that is progressively offset however by changes to the chords that set the notes of the theme.  No matter how these chords lead us away from the tonic, C# minor, all eventually leads us back to that tonic.

At the beginning the theme appears without simultaneously sounding chords.  When it appears again there are implications of triads (chords having just root, third and fifth).  At the next statement, the chords embracing the theme have become 7-chords.  And even later they have become 9-chords.  This is done is such a way that, a particular note of the theme, let us say the third note, E natural, sounds first as the third of a chord, then as the seventh of a chord, and ultimately as the 9th of the chord.  This means that the chords, rather than being built on the same root note, are built on changing root notes: a more revelatory way of enlarging upon the chords, so as to be always expanding the harmony.

We go on to trace in somewhat more detail these changes of harmony, changes that are always put held in check by the constancy of the theme notes:

– At the beginning we hear the theme as unisons, amplified by sounding in three octaves once at once, an effect made starker by the absence of vertical chords.  The harmony is there. but remains adumbrated by just the melody notes (which are sensed as chord tones and which as tones of embellishment.

– When the theme appears again at the end of measure 5, it is almost as if Brahms wants to keep the harmonic implications as Spartan as possible.  There is a hint of the tonic chord (C# minor) and a dominant chord (G# major).  The third is missing in the dominant chord, though, so we hear it as major only through the implication of the melody notes.   The effect here is one that when I played the piece today I described to myself as tragic inevitability tempered with patience and nobility.

– The next statement of the theme occurs after a Spartan interlude.  This interlude begins with an inexorable march notes of equal value (eighth notes) to which, at the end, sixteenths are added so that there is a sense of reprise of the rhythm of the main theme (which uses the rhythmic germ of sixteenth, sixteenth, eighth.   The measures of the interlude repeats, but with the magical addition of an extra voice appearing in the left hand which creates a rhythmic counterpoint to the steady eighths, but whose beauty is largely the result that these attempts at rhythmic variation are still imprisoned by the constant eighth notes.

As the theme occurs throughout the piece, it does so unaltered in terms of pitches (a series that always begins with the notes C# D# E.  However the chord that is woven around theme has expanded into a 7-chord, an F# Minor-7 chord.

The piece is in three broad parts, the first of which is brought to a close with a statement of the theme that retreats into its initial harmonic simplicity: there is a tonic chord, there is a dominant chord, but but the two are blurred together by the retention in the dominant chord of the C# from the tonic chord, an effect added to by the absence of a third in the dominant chord.  We are being reminded, though subtly, that we are in C# Minor, so that we more fully appreciate the modulation to A major in the second part.

The second section of the piece a contrapuntal and harmonic miracle brought down to earth from the celestial harmony of the spheres.  I want to hold off describing what Brahms does there until we have followed the remaining statements of the main theme which occur in part three.

When the theme next appears in its entirety is at the beginning of the third section.  The 7-chord has been expanded by a D#-9 chord (the ninth being a minor ninth above the root note).  It is as if Lear asked the of his three daughters: “what {harmony} can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”*.  Unlike Cordelia’s answer, which is most understated and matter of fact, Brahms’ answer is a 9-chord compared to the previous “sisters'” ‘5’-chords and 7-chords .

In the coda, at the penultimate entrance of the theme, the melody is accompanied by a chord whose root note is now A# which, with the other chord tones in the melody, forms an A#-half-diminished 7 chord.

At the very last, we hear the theme one more time and, as if surveying the field of a great harmonic battle which has taken place over just a single day, and which now looks deserted and barren: the original theme returning one last time accompanied by just a tonic and dominant chord, bringing the piece to rest on the C# minor chord, which, which for the first time in the piece is heard alone, complete in time and unencumbered.’

#3. The middle section of the piece

The middle of the piece deserves special analysis.  Let us start by trying to “uncover” its ‘main theme’, or at least that, which by default acts in the place of a principal voice line.  In itself it is not the most melodious of note sequences,  it is devoid of any rhythmic personality, and moves seemingly randomly from one note to another – sometimes in skips, sometimes in steps, and sometimes in capricious jumps: seeming somehow in between insipid and random.  However, this seemingly undernourished melody is is able to usher in, with each new note, a new “chapter”, a new harmonic vista, allowing us to see further and then further to the harmonic horizon, as if from higher and higher vantage points.

In its most stripped down form, which we never get to hear literally, the theme consists of the succession of the notes E F E B G# A C.  Upon this Brahms performs a series of transformations and eventually metamorphoses.

The first transformation seemingly makes things worse rather than better:  a random yanking around of the melody notes from one octave range to another.  In its base form, all the notes would sound in the octave of middle (we shall call this octave number “4”).  But this remnant of pitch stability is dislodged so that the first E sounds just in octave 4; the F simultaneously in octaves 4 and 5; the following E just in octave 5.  This is followed by B in octaves 5 and 6 simultaneously, G# in one octave only – octave 5, and the last two notes, A and C, each heard in two octaves (octaves 4 and 5).  What began as uninspired is now wonky** as well.  It is like being on a roller coaster and leaving out the parts that connect the low points and the high points.

To this Brahms adds a single bass tone, A, modestly appearing at the beginning of each measure of 2/4.  It is a first attempt at establishing a tonal center for all the meandering of the theme.

But the stability is further broken by shifting each melody note (which lasts a quarter note, or four sixteenths), to the “left” so that each note comes in a sixteenth too early, just before each beat.

So far in this analysis we see how octaves have been changed, almost capriciously, melody notes brought in ahead of time, one modest note in the bass to remind the listener of where the first beats of the measures actuakkt are.  Not a good state in which to leave things.  There is however one more step to the transformation,  Each melody note is accompanied by an voluptuous figure of four sixteenths that swoop down and then soar back up.  Somehow this makes everything else make sense to the ear.  If we examine these four note groups, by making chords out of their notes, we get this succession of triads: e-cs-e, e-b-d, e-cs-e, e-d-f, fs-d-fs, forming just by themselves, as it were, a single “thick” melody.

There are still other startling details before this section finishes***.  But it is the last one that is the most stunning.  Something that the ear believes and disbelieves at the same time.   It occurs after the second double bar, where the key signature changes back to 4 sharps.  In other words a point when we would expect either a return to the original theme, or first, some transitional passage linking the the end of the second part, the one we have just been discussing, to the beginning of the third part.  What happens instead a polyphony worthy of the forty-voice Renaissance motet “Spem in alium” by Thomas Tallis.  Little, nascent, voices, appear and then disappear into the overall harmonic firmament, each one living just for three notes, each modeled exactly on the first three notes of first statement of the theme at the beginning of the piece.   Moreover each ephemeral voice makes its appearance in such a way as to partially obscure (or perhaps “occlude” is a better word) the end of the previous one.****  This process continues in a cascading fashion working its way through an elaborate dominant-like (G#) harmony that barely succeeds in stabilizing the whole affair.   I say barely because it is intentionally destabilized  by coercing a cadence to end it based on a B Minor-7 chord.   And then, to completely throw the listener off, a similar cascade begins, seemingly without reason or preparation, tracing over the first cascade but with each note two half steps above the similarly placed note in first cascade.   The first was built around the dominant of the original tonic key of the piece.  That seems to make sense if we looking for a transition back to the original C# minor key.  The second is just ‘quasi-dominant’ in nature, but its root note is A#!   Now this unexpected A# turns out to be the dominant of D#, which is the dominant of G# which is the dominant of the original C#.  Thus it only becomes clear why this shift of two half steps had occurred between cascades when the original theme comes suddenly comes back in its full form (starting with the usual notes: cs4 ds4 e4) but this time surprisingly surrounded by a D# Major (9) chord.   This chord then transforms itself until, in a fairly short amount of time, we are clearly back in the original C# minor.  Thus the previous six measures have prepared two separate but parallel things: the longer range goal of an eventual return to the tonic key of C# Minor, and a shorter term goal of preparing the D# chordal sonority that will underlie the return to the original theme.

#4. The end of the piece

In the last two measures of the piece we have a stable, lasting C# Minor chord.  So, in the end, all is drawn back into this tonic key, which may have been at times out of mind, but which never lost its grip on the piece.  At the end there is only the solace that no matter hard we try to get away from fate, we never free our self completely from its somber embrace.  As is the case with Brahms – perhaps the greatest worker of harmony – for all the restless harmonic movement towards or away from the tonic, no note, no chord, no modulation is ever away from the tightest control of the original key.  There is never a chord, be it ever so remote from the tonic, that is not perfectly clear to the listener as to its relationship with the tonic, in spite of as many as several key regions that we would have to travel through to get to it from the tonal center of the piece.

These are just some of the harmonic and thematic wonders of Brahms’ Op. 117 No 3.

* King Lear, Act I, Scene I

** Searching google produced this definition for wonky:

– (of a thing) unsteady; shaky…                – synonyms: wobbly, unstable…                                        – not functioning correctly; faulty.

***

In measure 4 and 5 of this middle section there are two flowing voices, one in eighths, and one in sixteenths, that chime with each other in the presence of a D# followed by an F#, and a B followed by an A.   This all occurs as the ‘main’ melody settles down to rest on a long C.

In the fourth and fifth bar of the section that follows the next double bar, the simplest kind of canon is utilized, but with ranks closed, the imitative voice starting but one sixteenth after the imitated voice, but also with the imitated voice sounding a sixth lower than the imitative voice.  A simple idea structurally but one which has the effect of creating near chaos with where the principal beats are supposed lie.  The ear wants to be thrown a lifeline, and Brahms does so, but with the least clarification that will still shed some light on the situation.

****

The first such contracted theme motive is on the notes bs4 cs4 ds5, snd when the ds5 occurs, it is hidden in the middle of a triad, whose bottom note is the beginning of the next, furtive, momentarily flickering motive entrance (whose notes area4 bf bs4).

Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *