Monday, April 22, 2013

That doesn't really work, does it? Have you tried....

We've been discussing G major chords and the first movement of Robert Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood" for the last two weeks on Mondays here on Pianonoise: the blog. It's more intriguing than it sounds.

I'm not a big fan of unmitigated hero worship, so I should warn you Mr. Schumann will be on the hot seat today. We've already seen him avoid the obvious by pulling a diminished chord out of his pocket in our first blog, and then find a way to affirm it in a way that made it more than just a musical nicety in part two. Today, we have to answer the question, "when is a chord not a chord?" Or worse...

First, let's listen to the whole piece again. By "whole piece" I mean about 90 seconds, paying particular attention to the start of the second half, which begins at :37. and the first phrase of which ends right at :45

Schumann: Of Strange Lands and People from "Scenes from Childhood"

In case you didn't notice anything odd about that, I'm going to pull it out for you and we can listen to that single "chord" by itself, together. (You know what I mean.) Actually, I'll start with the chord right it, because the way it leads into that next chord is part of its "charm."


So what is this, the Middle Ages? That attempted G-Major chord is actually missing its middle member, the note that tells us it is a major chord, and not just an open fifth, G and D. This isn't just the musical equivalent of bell-bottom pants we are talking about; open fifths were the in thing about four hundred years earlier, not just four decades.

It certainly is a crude sound, and for those with "period" ears it really sticks out, missing note and all, but is this just another example of a composer making us first want something and then giving it to us? The next phrase ends with the melody rising to the very note that was missing from the chord at the end of the last one. Ah, 19th century bliss! A full chord! (What hath man wrought!)

Well, sort of. Actually, Schumann sort of steps on that Nirvana too. Listen to what actually happens where that next G-Major chord should be:


Now, in Twenty-first century pop music this might pass for a polite/cool conjunction of tones, a little "GMAJ sus 2" chord, or something, but keep in mind Mr. Schumann is about two centuries early for that, and besides, with the sustaining pedal on he's got a G, an A and a B all sounding at once (with a bit of C showing up at the end, along with the D in the tenor--that's a five-note cluster!), which is not only a little spicy, it practically destroys the musical syntax completely. Even if the composer hadn't written a ritard there I would have to slow down to look at the musical accident. And then he caps it off with a fermata to hold on to the dissonance longer.

After that, of course, the music returns to normal, and beatified innocence prevails. But it has been an interesting look at the musically alien; not everything about those "strange lands and people" has been Romanticized.

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