Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Case of the Missing Measures

This one is for composers.

I’m getting ready to post an early sonata by Haydn over at Pianonoise (click Listen). This is from the finale of the Sonata no. 6, or no. 13, depending on which catalog numbering system you are using.

Here’s the question: what is the difference between this phrase and this one?

I know, it’s me picking on a tiny detail again. Still, I find it fascinating, and if that makes me a geek, so be it. Frankly, I think it is also why we are listening to Haydn after a couple of hundred years.

You noticed it too, right?

The second phrase is shorter than the first by three measures. This gesture, which lasts two measures, fizzles out, and has to be started again (which is a dramatic way of saying he repeats it), is hurled headlong into the next gesture without pause. And this repetition isn't the only casualty. In the first example, this measure right at the end is repeated. In the second, it isn’t.

So what’s the difference?

Lots.  I don’t have a letter from Haydn, but I think this is what’s going on here: the first phrase is from the first section of the piece. In classical period music, balance is important. Balance can be most easily achieved by repetition, not to mention the notes are going by in a hurry and it helps to get our bearing by hearing small gestures twice before going on. But in the second instance, pulled from the piece a minute or so later, we’ve already heard the first section twice, plus a bit of middle-of-the-movement development. Now it’s time to head for home, and in this concluding section Haydn leaves out the repetition. We've already heard these gestures several times (if you include the standard repeat of the entire first section), so our ears don’t really need the reminder, and cutting the extra measures serves to streamline the plot, move the action forward a bit, and move the center of gravity to the next phrase, which begins with that lovely high G and continues splashing its way all over the keyboard to the end of the piece (sort of).

Classical balance, we've been told a hundred times in theory class, is important. But so is drama. And drama doesn't work very well if you have to repeat everything every time there is an opportunity. Drama works better if, after the plot and characters have been established and you are careening toward the final curtain, the action speeds up a little. Or a lot. Don’t tell us what we've already heard twice before. Just refer to it. And get on with it.

It’s curious how often master narratives we are told about the overall tendencies in musical production are belied by the music itself. Classical tendencies unfold one way; romantic, quite the opposite. And here, of course, in the field, in an actual piece of music, we have both. Which is not really that odd, and neither is shortening the return to the opening to sustain the drama. Importantly, what’s needed to qualify as repetition is there. We hear again what we need to identify it as the return to the opening, to bask in the familiar, and to recognize that signpost in the piece’s unfolding. A casual listener probably wouldn't even notice a difference; yet, somehow, our interest has been sustained by leaving out what was once essential material, and now is just getting in the way. A good composer can tell the difference.

Ninety-nine composers out of a hundred wouldn't bother with a detail like this. But then, with so much music having been written and continuing to be written, we can’t listen to everybody, can we?

Take note, composers.

Oh--I suppose you wouldn't mind hearing the whole piece now.

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