Monday, April 20, 2015

Notes on a Very Polite Train wreck

We're going to do some musical rubbernecking today.

A young fellow named Scott Joplin needed a way to generate some interest in his first publication. So he chose to title his piece after a recent bit of sensational news involving two trains and a lot of spectacular property damage. What he created from this real life destruction can be described as a musical train wreck.


Actually, it is a pretty harmless little march, with a sonic representation of the train wreck itself in the last section. Now before we get there, there are three things to note about it.

First of all, you'll have to wait a few minutes for the collision itself, because, being a true march, it consists of a first strain, that repeated, a second section, that also repeated, and then we get to the trio. (This is the part of  that in a different march--"Stars and Strips Forever"-- has been given the words "Be kind to your web footed friend," etc. The trio is often the most tuneful part of a march). That trio then has a "complicating incident" in which the low brass instruments go at it, complete with tense and dramatic harmonies, until we come out the other side and the trio melody sings again. That's the same part of the piece in which Joplin has his train wreck.

The second thing to know about it, before we get there, is that it's pretty wimpy.

If you were tasked with describing a collision in music, you'd probably be tempted to write some obnoxious loud cluster of notes in the bass that would assault the ears and really get the point across that something hellacious was happening. Not Joplin. He's too polite. His idea of musical chaos is a V7 chord. Like so:


Not only is it not very disruptive (except, perhaps, for being in the bass, which gives it some rumble) but it even connects smoothly with what follows.

Ah, yes. What comes next. That's item number three. Now, if you listen to the aftermath of the train wreck, you'll note that the chipper little melody comes roaring right back. We all just had a really great time watching all those people die in that terrible locomotive disaster.


Except that I did some more research and found out not to feel guilty about it. You shouldn't either. True, Joplin's piece is actually based on a real collision between two trains that happened in 1896. But it was a staged collision. That's right, people needed something fun to do, and the idea of slamming a lot of stuff together at high speed held a lot of mass appeal even then. In the days before monster truck rallies, or action movies (or Hadron colliders) this apparently was pretty entertaining.

We are assuming, of course, that the engineers managed to jump out before the collision and that nobody got hurt.

Oh, one more item. Because in a march everything gets repeated, you'll hear the collision part twice. This is before they had instant replay, or super-slo-mo, or reverse angles, or any of that, so Joplin's audience might have considered this to be a real privilege. It could even be an indication that Joplin was ahead of his time. But not really. He was just doing what the march form required.

Enjoy your collision.

Joplin: Crush Collision March

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