July 2011

July 2011

Monday, 3 October 2011



Apparently Music has an unlimited scope for melodic and harmonic combinations, yet people wonder how it is possible that we can think of an endless stream of new songs without it ever getting to the bottom of the barrel and we have to conclude 'we have done it all'!

Even in this respect the endless stream of (popular) song is based on a very limited scope of chords I IV V with no end to the inspiration. Of course here we may naughtily apply an observation made by Leonard Bernstein: 

"The British don't like Music, but they do like the noise". 

We may be forced to correct this observation somewhat though. The British exceedingly do like Music, but they like the money stream and the scope for social aspects attached to it even more...

Style of Music is always a response to what has been before. When the busy texture of Baroque, like its architecture, had become a burden, the simplicity and contrast of the Classical Style set in. 

But according to Robert Schumann, there was no Classical Style, only a Romantic style, which was almost by divine decree entrusted to him for further development, if only its Form could be preserved.

This focus on 'Form' by Robert Schumann and his 'league of David', became the platform for the progressives lead by Franz Liszt and Wagner to set themselves off against by dropping 'Form' altogether. For Robert Schumann of course this was only so because Franz Liszt had never matured as a composer to the level as he had as a performer. 

The French school again found an entirely new harmonic platform and since they also were not so good at 'Form' they invented simplicity. 

All this was leading to the Music of the 20th Century, which we will look at later. 

Texture  is the way the various melodic elements or instruments in a piece of music relate to each other and interact. It is quite distinct from the harmonic or rhythmic concepts of a piece of music. Once we understand that we can see why the scope for Musical composition is so unlimited.

Let us look at two entirely different pieces of Music.

The opening movement Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Rachmaninov's Prelude Opus 3.

Both are written for the Piano. Both are in c# minor. 

You may say: "Well, that's about it, the music is entirely different!" But is that so?

What does Beethoven do here? He is setting the key of C# minor in a full chord progression  of I VI IV V I. (He, BritPop are you listening?)

Now, let's have a look at Rachmaninov's prelude...

What is Rachmaninov doing first? He is setting the key of C# minor in bass line imitating 'the Bells of Moscow" using VI (IVb) V I.

The structure, the idea and the intention is the same, yet the texture is entirely different resulting in an entire different character and style of the Music. 

Ok, that's just for starters you'll say. That's the beginning!

Let us explore further. Both the Moonlight Sonata and the Prelude by Rachmaninov present after the first introduction of the key the main theme of the piece. And after they have done that both change the tonal center of the music to.... E major. 

Then admittedly Rachmaninov moves to G#, which is the dominant of C#, whilst Beethoven uses a much longer route to get there, through B and F# minor. Then Rachmaninov's Agitato section before taking up the original idea in an exciting climax is much more substantial and meaningful as is Beethoven's middle section. But then you can do so much with basically an identical structure!

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