Monday, April 13, 2015

You can say that again

One of the major problems we pointed to when it comes to music with a program is that it can sound like a lot of disconnected episodes. It might be good at establishing imaginative connections with the world outside the notes (depending on your imagination) but it lacks internal cohesion.

That isn't a problem for Robert Schumann. His "Kinderscenen" is a collection of 13 short pieces which, somehow, sound as if they really belong together.

Actually, that "somehow" is no mystery. Schumann has a mind that knows how to connect his ideas. Today I'll give you but one example. Take these four little notes:


This little musical idea shows up in at least 20 places. First we hear it near the beginning of the set, in the second half of the very first piece.


It shows up again in the sixth piece, "important event" where it starts in the middle of the phrase, so it may be harder to hear. Schumann accents the four notes, however, and since I made this recording I've gotten less subtle about making sure those four notes can be heard:


But we are far from finished. Near the end of the set, in the middle of a rhapsodic piece like "frightened" which changes moods and tempi like the weather, is this little comment (upside down!):


It's those four notes again. And finally, in the second-to-last piece of the set, just as the child-hero of our musical story is falling asleep, we hear it again (It's in the right hand accompaniment, so don't be distracted by the melody in the left!):


I said finally, but it is present in many other places as well. Beside the first four notes of the final piece, there are subtler versions of the motive in pieces like "knight of the hobby horse" and "suddenly too serious"--the first of these has additional notes interpolated, and the last is stuck in the middle of a long phrase so you aren't likely to notice it.

Once you start finding connections like these it is hard to stop. That's partly because there are so many of them. And, for the skeptics among us, the ones who raise their hands and ask "sure, but it's only four notes. Couldn't you almost stick it in there just by accident? Isn't it like making a big deal out of how many times a great novelist uses the word 'the?'"

Good point. But look at the motive again. It's not as simple as the musical version of good morning. You have to make some effort to use it. Also look at the number of strategic places in the music where Schumann gives it center stage. That's my test for intentional use of a motive.

As I said, Schumann had a gift for connectivity. And when you have that gift, there are times when it may indeed "happen by accident"--when you put it on the page first, and realize it afterwards. That is the role of inspiration, and the subconscious. But it doesn't happen to everybody, and it doesn't happen without some attempt to think that way in the first place. Just ask Frantisek Kotzwara.

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