Friday, December 13, 2019

Parker's Pastorale

One of my Christmas obsessions for the past several years has been a musical genre known as the Pastorale. Five years ago I wrote a ten part series about these pieces which are connected to shepherds and the countryside and can therefore seem to have a connection to Christmas as well. It is an idyllic picture these composers paint in sound, of a countryside with which many of these city dwellers are none too familiar. But the reason I wrote about them in the first place is that I noticed a few that were not textbook examples--that is, they might have displayed some of the characteristics of the pastoral proper (drone bass, dotted rhythm, triple time, slow and/or quiet), but in other respects they hardly resembled what I would have though was a pastorale at all. Since then I've added a few more specimens to the catalog, some in four/four time, some which sound more like polkas, some which have no drone bass at all, and then there is this one...

This one is loud and fast. But it is in triple time, with a rocking bass, and a rollicking tune. It comes to us from one Horatio Parker. I wasn't looking for a pastorale when I found it, in fact...what WAS I looking for, anyway?

Well, that's the internet. Whatever I was looking for, I happened to notice that Horatio Parker died on December 18, 1919, which means that this coming Wednesday is the 100th anniversary of his death. Composers often get celebrated on the occasions of their major year birthdays, or, failing that, on the major anniversaries of their death. Musicologists must be a macabre bunch.

Parker may not be a familiar name to you: he was a professor at Yale in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a pretty celebrated composer in his time. Now he is mostly remembered for a cantankerous student he had once named Charles Ives. (His "Hora Novissima" gets occasionally performed, too).

So due to a "vortex of combined circumstances" (which is a phrase I stole from Dostoyevsky, who has nothing at all to do with the present entry) this year's pastorale comes to us from Horatio Parker. As I mentioned, it is loud, and brisk. It is marked "con brio" and it is possible I played it with a bit too much "brio" but I rather like it that way.

One thing that I would prefer to complain about, however, is the key relationship between the first and second sections. This is the place where, at 1:11 of the present recording, the first part ends in F major, and suddenly we start up in Db,  which does not sound like it has any present business in the piece at all. Now technically there is a fancy name for this: it is called a common tone modulation, and it was done throughout the 19th century by some very reputable composers. I can even hear some of my former conservatory colleagues in my head bringing this up loudly, and with an air of "you are an idiot for supposing that this was a bad idea on Parker's part. It is a perfectly pedigreed key relationship, therefore it is by definition a good thing to have done."

But no. Just because a textbook, or custom, or tradition, or an illustrious example, says so, that it has worked in the past when it was done by great composers of the past, does not mean it will work here. And the reason it does not work here is that the composer has not, at any point, so much as introduced a Db major chord or an Ab major chord, or any harmony that had even remotely anything to do with the tonal world of Db major before he suddenly sprung it on us, full bore, at the start of the second section. Having a single note, F, in common between both key areas simply isn't enough to establish a strong enough connection, or any sense that the narrative went where it wanted to go, rather than merely where the rules said it could, if handled properly.

Let's talk about football. You get the idea?

(by the way, Bach does a brilliant job in his pastorale of getting us from the third movement's c minor back to F Major. That shouldn't really work (given the Eb), but he gives us enough strategic Dbs (leading up to the final C major chord) that the narrative flows brilliantly. But he's Bach.)

Enough weeds. Those who were lost can now sigh with relief and listen to this nice little piece. It is clear to me that this piece was written by a professor, rather than a creative genius, and it is a nice example according to a nice textbook rather than an inspired piece, but it will still be worth your five minutes.

(also, the re-transition works out just fine).

Listen to Pastorale by Horatio Parker

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