Let me share with you this terrific piano piece I'm playing at the Virginia on New Year's Eve. It's called "Grand Sonata in Rag" by William Albright. Technically, it is a classical piano sonata. I say technically, because--well, here is how it beings:
That's not how Beethoven would begin a piano sonata, for sure. Sounds more like a saloon than a salon. And then, after a slight pause for suspense, out breaks:
Again, not the best behaved sonata in the world. And that is at the root of it. This is a wild, exuberant excursion into the music of ragtime, something that respectable people and religious societies of a hundred years ago thought was the music of sin and/or having too good a time. Music and social movements go together, and there are always people on the bottom rungs of the ladder that the others look down upon as inferiors. And they have their music. At one time, this was it.
But there is more going on here. The first movement is called "Scott Joplin's Victory" and thereby hangs a tale.
Scott Joplin was a man who valued art, and dignity. He wanted his music to stand for both. In an era when ragtime, and the African Americans who played it, were looked on as refuse, he wanted to show the world that his music was worthy of honor, and a good listen. One of the ways he went about that was to ask that his music be played slowly. Most of his published rags contain little boxes that warn the pianist against playing the music too fast because "it is NEVER right to play ragtime fast."
See a problem with the raucous opening of our sonata? But don't worry, Mr. Joplin will have his turn.
You see, a sonata is a bit like an argument. First one side gets a chance to speak, then the other. Eventually there is a chance for them both to develop their arguments, or talk at once, which is often the case both with the Sunday morning shows and the sonata, and then finally the dust clears and the two sides are heard presenting their arguments for the last time.
Joplin will get to speak, but first we have to establish the other guys. Those other guys weren't just critics, they were pianists. Ragtimers themselves. They like their ragtime with a little more kick. And fast. You really can't get a bunch of pianists together in a room and not expect some of them to try to play as fast and as loud as they can just to show off. Joplin be darned.
So this first part of our narrative is going to be fast and wildly exciting. After a short first section, the parts just tumble out, one after another. You heard just a bit of the second section as the last example faded out. I'll leave the rest of that to your imagination.
Then in comes a third idea, which reminds me of a bit from The Nutcracker. Those jarring chords are just the way the composer wrote them!
Then a chance to lose our balance by way of an odd time signature or two:
At this point, the phrases are just tripping over each other to get out, sprawling headlong into the ragtime rush, and it will take a bit of good old oompah-oompah in the bass just to restore order:
You'll notice that even here there is a bit of the bizarre. Those upper crunchy chords that jump out at you are just as the composer wrote them. Mr. Albright sticks those bone rattling harmonic jolts everywhere. He explained once to us that one of the things that drives his music is humor, and there seems to be plenty of it in supply here, making this at times a loving send-up of the genre. And with the headlong rushing tempo and measures with various beats lopped off the ends, the whole thing is getting a bit out of control. So Mr. Albright tries to calm things down the way a classical composer would calm things down, namely, with a little symmetry. It is time to return to the beginning, which is something a ragtime composer wouldn't do, but Beethoven would. Notice the end of that example I just played for you. Here it is again:
It doesn't really work, does it? Establishing a feeling of repose, I mean. Not when you've got an opening theme like that. But then, subito, in strides Mr. Joplin, the epitome of cool. Maybe our composer has him confused with a guy named Tex:
It isn't subtle, this change of tempo, and mood. It is as if the slow movement couldn't wait and began right in the middle of the fast one. It is pretty chic, though, and eventually, after a few episodes, culminates in a section titled "cakewalk in the sky:"
This is actually the first section that sounds like Joplin maybe, just maybe, could have written it. It is also the end of the section. In comes the same music we heard at the very beginning, and then, slowly, inevitably.....
Oh no! They're back! Those crazy New Yorkers with their New Yorkified ways! And the music is fast! and Loud! and people love it! Oh dear....
(by the way, I love that little gesture that near the end of the example (:32) that glues it to the next section. That little "tata tum tum." I've played a lot of Joplin and he seriously overuses that little rhythm as a way to get from section to section. It's a ragtime cliche that Mr. Albright cattily inserts here.)
Now there are two things still to check off our list if we want this to get certified as a sonata by the Sonata Association of America and one of them is there needs to be development. In other words we need to take at least one of the themes, namely that little rocket we heard right in example two, right up at the beginning of the sonata itself (after the slow introduction):
and develop the heck out of it, which basically means chop it up, slice it, dice it, play it in different keys, make it part of a horrific symphonic maelstrom:
Now see if you can find those bits of thematic development in the midst of the storm:
Ok, check. That is the hardest thing for people to listen for and the part they often find the least rewarding. But clever composers can be counted upon to do it anyway.
Now we heard for home.
I told you earlier that a sonata was like an argument with two sides vying to see how would win. I might as well tell you now that the contest is rigged. The first one to speak always wins. (don't be that way: when we watch a movie the good guy always beats the bad guy but we are still immersed in the drama the entire time as if it were really a question.) In a sonata the two sides are heard in order at the beginning, and again at the end, which you might think would give some weight to the second fella, but by then it is being done in the key and the mood of the first theme, so the amicable understanding they have come to is really all about the second accommodating the first. And we get a nice sense of well-roundedness and symmetrical civility.
But unlike a sonata a rag doesn't end up where it started. It leaves the home key and never comes back. Funny thing about the rules being different that way. This being a "Sonata" you'd expect that if you heard from Mr. Joplin again at all, he would have given up and played his music fast and loud and in the same key as the other guys. Sonata accommodation and all that.
But...surprise! Our second theme, Mr. Joplin's "cakewalk in the sky" comes back for a bow, no compromises at all in mood or tempo, except that it is quite loud for a few moments, making its grand, overstated entrance, and then, once it safely has the floor, it abruptly becomes sweet and lovely, and leaves us with the a smile at the end.
I've been a little busy this month, so I'll have to bring you a complete recording in January. For now if you want to hear the whole thing uncut, come to the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois at 7pm on Dec 31st. And to think that this is only the first movement! I'll be back to blog about the rest next week.