Monday, December 23, 2013

What does this Mean, then?

A couple of weeks ago I tipped my hand and posted what I'll be playing for Christmas Eve. If you haven't heard it, here it is. If you already have, thanks for listening, and here it is again. One of the difficulties that "classical" music has with the public is that requires a lot from the listener and contains a lot of unfamiliar musical "information." One way to deal with this is to listen to a piece several times so that you become familiar with it and find yourself enjoying it like a conversation with an old friend. So here it is (again):

Introduction and Variations on a Ancient Polish Carol by Alexander Guilmant

Another way to deal with all of that information is to divide and conquer. Knowing how the piece is structured makes it more understandable. In this case it is a series of variations. Those variations are on a tune that may be familiar to you, in which case, that will also help.

The first thing you will hear, though, is the blustery introduction, grand and dramatic, and opening in a minor key. Only a few seconds later it switches to major, and repeats what becomes the opening phrase of the carol. After tossing giving us several hints about what tune we are about to hear, things begin to simmer down, and just when you think things are about to get peaceful--he really sets the stage for a nice tranquil presentation of the tune (at 1:02)---

It's nice and loud! Which is something I mentioned last time and something I'm going to elaborate on today.

Meanwhile, you hear the tune, all 35 seconds of it, in full organ. Then, after a conclusive held chord and a short pause comes the first variation (at 1:37) in which the tune is in the bass, and descending notes are in the treble. After this section comes a soft meditative one (at 2:15) in which the harmonies slither a bit and get interesting. Then, the final variation (3:04), which is full of running notes and musical jubilation. And that's pretty much it except for the big ending.

If you're counting, that means we only had three variations, which shouldn't tax anyone's patience very much. The whole piece is under four minutes long.

That describes the blueprint of the piece, but it doesn't tell us what the piece is about. Now right away we've wandered into one of those huge debates in which there are two passionate sides convinced the other hasn't got a clue. To exaggerate, there are some who see stories in every piece of music, and others who believe music means nothing at all beyond a collection of satisfying notes. In a nutshell, I've always believed that suggesting the latter is as much as to say the sole reason for writing is to pay attention to grammar and perhaps things like rhyme, assonance, meter, and so on, but no more. And yet, in writing, words always point to something beyond themselves, though at the same time good writing does put words together in a way that causes a harmonious blend of the constituent parts themselves. That just isn't the whole enchilada.

Maybe I'm playing into the notes-alone argument here, but it seems as if the easiest time to search for what a composer may have had in mind besides the marks on the page is when he does something unorthodox. And what could be more unorthodox than to introduce the tune "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly," a lullaby, fortissimo?

In fact, one performance of this piece, one I heard on Youtube when I was looking for something to play by Mr. Guilmant, left out this rather startling bit of dynamic usage. The performer  decided to tone down the composer's dynamics and registrations, and to do things much more quietly. I am going to suppose he may have done this because

1) he thought the composer had lost his mind; or
2) he decided that the entire reason for the strangely loud dynamic was that the composer was planning to play the piece at the conclusion of a church service, when the church would be very noisy with the sound of people leaving, and talking loudly to each other, and decided he needed to bellow in order to be heard above the din. Since this was for a recording in a "concert" situation, this performer did not need to resort to such shouting.

This last was indeed the first thing that struck me as a possibility, but I have wondered since whether there might be more than mere practicality in mind. It seems to me that clever composers often manage to do things both for practical reasons and for reasons of effect, or meaning, and to marry the immediate need with a larger plan.

After all, it isn't just the end of the service that is going on, here. It's midnight on Christmas Eve--or maybe it's 1 am (if it was a midnight mass). In any case, Christmas has truly arrived, and what is called for isn't just a cozy snow season and baby in a manger, but a shout--an announcement that HE IS HERE! and that Advent has been fulfilled and the waiting is over! Merry Christmas, everybody!

(which is a great feeling if you've been waiting for it. But we don't like to do that. A famous experiment wherein children were given one marshmallow which they could eat now or were promised two more if they could wait until the adult left the room for a few minutes and came back, showed who few of us like to wait, no matter the reward. Years later, it was found that the ones who could wait also had much higher SAT scores. Surprise!)

In that context it makes sense. If you are sensitive to the rhythms of the church year, and you understand, in our no-waiting, one marshmallow society, that we've been building up to this moment for a month, not to collapse from exhaustion when it is over, but to celebrate its arrival, then you will want to shout the glad tidings along with the organist.

Until then, there are shepherds on a hillside, puzzled, asking themselves, with wonderful King Jamesian superfluity, "What does this mean, then?" And confused astrologers, seeking a point on a map by follow a hot ball of gas to God-knows where. And a lot of other people just going about their business, not knowing, or caring. But then....

There we are, in its midst. And if that isn't worth a shout, what is?

Even above the noisy throng.

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