Monday, April 15, 2013

The power of the obvious

Famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger would tell her composition students, "Never strain to avoid the obvious."

I've always felt the key word there is strain. Despite getting bombarded daily with all the advice to keep things simple and to "just be yourself" (which might not be the same thing) and not to use 50 cent words when a penny word will do just as well because otherwise you are necessarily being pretentious, it seems to me a composer who only deals in the blatantly obvious ought to be writing greeting cards or making chitchat about the weather at parties, not stringing musical cliches together. We won't remember them anyhow.

But there is something effective about telling us what we already know, grounding us, reminding us of something obvious and important, if it is done well.

Last week I spent the entire blog post discussing the first movement of Robert Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. I noted how he took this melody and harmonized the first upward leap in an unusual and effective way. Schumann's fifty cent musical word turned out to rescue what would otherwise have been a serviceable but rather dull opening phrase, and instead turned it into a psychological portrait.

That is only half the story, however. Schumann managed to avoid harmonizing the high G with a plain old G major chord, but he didn't do it for long. The curious thing is that this short musical idea, with the opening leap to high G, occurs three times. The first two times the composers gives out that surprising diminished chord, full of tension. But the third time, he resorts to the perfectly obvious G major chord.

It is an odd strategy. You might expect a composer to do something obvious at first, and then save the musical surprise for later. Or if he starts with something we didn't see coming, to serve up something even more interesting once our ears had adjusted to the first wave. (Schumann builds the climax of the famous Träumerei, later in this set, on a chord that few composers would have even thought of.) Instead, just as the accumulated energy of three musical entreaties demands something really special, Schumann "settles" for the most obvious thing at hand, a garden variety tonic major chord.

It works. Here's why: the diminished chord Schumann uses the first two times is full of tension, such that the major chord on the third iteration comes as a glorious release. The other reason is that, as Theory 101 as that chord is, Schumann didn't actually use it the way it comes out of the box, with another G on the bottom. Instead he used a B, which means two things.

For one thing, he's dropped the bass lower, which means there is more distance between the top note and the bottom note. It is like a swimming pool getting deeper. The surface of the water stays at the same level; the bottom drops. The effect of this is a musical illusion: it sounds as if Schumann's melody note has gone higher, which is what you'd expect. If you are going to say something three times, ordinarily, on the third time, your upward leap will expand, not stay where it was. Schumann leaves it right where it was and moves the bass down instead. He hasn't moved the characters, he's moved the scenery!

The other thing that results from choosing a B in the bass is that it keeps the piece moving forward. Theory students learn about notes called "tendency tones" which set up musical incompleteness that needs to be fulfilled by moving to another note. It is as if I had said "I am going to the." The sentence isn't over. You expect a noun like "hospital" or "bodega" or "avocado farm" to complete the thought.

Schumann completes the thought by finally changing the melody, and giving us an important structural, load-bearing C major chord, which turns the phrase homeward and makes this little piece work so well.

Schumann may have experienced all of this as a flash of insight, but he wasn't unaware. The difference between genius and the ordinary isn't that one feels while the other thinks, as popular as that notion is, but that genius processes all of that decision making much faster. Unpacking it can take hours!

Next Monday we'll probably spend one more week with this fascinating little piece, and then I'll give you more music and less analysis for a while. It's not easy to slog through, I agree. But it does give us an idea of why some music is worth remembering long after the demise of its composer.

Schumann, Scenes from Childhood: Of Strange Lands and People

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