Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Off balance

Today's selection is a little Minuet.

This isn't one of the most earth-shattering pieces in the piano literature, exactly. In fact, there are hundreds, nay thousands, of these little movements in the piano corpus. The name is taken from a dance that the rich folks at court liked to dance back in the 18th century. It was, you might say, quite a fad--not that the powers that were necessarily believed in fads. They liked to think of things being eternal, like their own power. In terms of geopolitical alliances and the organization of time and space, you might say they liked to think big. But when it came to the Minuet, they proceeded in baby steps.

That's actually where the word gets its punch. You'll note it is similar to the word "minute" as in small (and if you accidentally stressed the other syllable, as in unit of time, that's pretty small, too--or was until seconds and fractions thereof came along more recently). The minuet is a dance comprising small steps. Only peasants use large ones. Physical exertion is SOOO not cool.

The reason I'm sharing this one with you today, though, is not because it is typical of the times, but because it isn't. There is something odd about this one. Oh, sure, it's got a nice, aristocratic air about it, but something doesn't quite fit. Listen to this less-than-everything-is-going-well phrase.


This isn't exactly the sort of phrase you would expect in a minuet; it is not something the nobles would want to hear. It is a downer. And, in fact, in terms of musical coherence, it doesn't need to be there at all, since the phrase before it leads perfectly into the phrase after it, making this strange moment seem harmonically unnecessary. I'm going to play the minuet portion (part one) of this piece for you without that little phrase; notice how you wouldn't miss it.


But that isn't the way Joe Haydn wrote it. Right as we are about to make a triumphant return to the opening phrase, after the little outbound journey that is the common property of nearly every sonata movement, and the preparation for the return, he sticks in that little phrase you heard first. It not only delays the return by a few measures, it seems a little out of place. For one thing, it is the only place in the entire sonata (including movements one and three) where Haydn uses the minor mode.

 Haydn: Sonata Hob. 9 in F: II. Minuet

Oddly, in terms of architecture, the additional phrase seems to restore the balance required by the long outer sections. But psychologically, it takes us where we don't expect to go, and whispers to us brooding things, but only for an instant before the party returns in full force and gaiety returns. Does it now seem forced? The gaiety, I mean.

Maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe I'm trying to make Haydn sound like Shotakovich.

But I wonder. What made Haydn insert that strange little phrase, and is it going to keep me up at night?

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