Monday, July 14, 2014

1001 themes

From theory class to theory class, every professor who wants to be worth his salt always makes this brilliant observation: it's about economy of material.

A gifted composer, taking just four little notes (three of them the same) makes an entire symphonic movement out of just that little theme and no more. Hardly a note exists anywhere on those pages that can't be traced back to the main theme. That's economy.

It isn't easy to do, either. To constantly keep the 'purpose' in view, and not to just wander off whenever you can't concentrate anymore; furthermore, to be able to see a wealth of characteristic possibilities in such a tiny musical idea, to see it from all sides and envision it travelling in all directions: it's still what it was in the beginning, but it has also become something else.

Maybe the rhythm is kept, and the melody is changed. Or just one little interval. Or it's been turned upside down, played backwards, inside out, both upside down AND backwards, elongated, shortened, made to fit a new harmony, tried in a new register (high or low) or a new tone color (on the bassoon instead of the clarinet). It involved experimentation, and innovation, and yet at the same time, being able to never lose sight of that little theme.

It's an amazing way to compose.

Today's little sonata isn't about that method. At all.

Instead, Mr. Haydn pretty much gives us something new to think about every two measures, as if he couldn't stop coming up with new, incongruous little ideas, and festooning his happy little piece with them. Joy, profusion, excitement, and a complete lack of discipline. Which is really odd for Haydn, who is known for making his entire sonata movements be about ONE theme, when nearly everybody else, even the most gifted, would give it at least two.

And yet, eventually, during the traditional "development" section, our prodigious composer does develop a couple of themes. Most of his ideas come and go, replaced by others as fast as he can think of them. But a few stick around and begin to germinate into something else. All the more interesting, then, because the occasion for my recent performance of this work was a church service on the morning when the scripture lesson was Jesus' "parable of the sower." The sower scatters his seed indiscriminately, flinging them everywhere, and most of them fail to grow. But a few do, and produce an amazing crop. My very bright composition student, sitting behind me, caught on to this without my having to tell him.

I think Haydn must have had fun writing this, even if it isn't his best work. A few people pointed out afterward that I seemed to enjoy playing it. I think they enjoyed listening to it, too.

Now it's your turn.

Haydn: Sonata in G, Hob. 6: I. Allegro

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