Mozart, Giver of Pain

There’s an episode of the original “Star Trek” (OK, you’ve outed me as a “Trekkie”–that wasn’t hard, was it?) in which the crew finds itself on a planet populated entirely by primitive, downtrodden men dressed in bearskins and such.  Where are the women?  Turns out they’re around–up in the hills–and running this unfortunate world.  (They’re armed with electronic torture-gizmos that enable them to keep the male populace under their heel.)  They do come down to the male precincts occasionally to reassert their dominance and, when necessary, procreate.  Turns out the men have no word for “woman” in their lexicon; they denominate the female of the species, rather, by a phrase of several words: “Giver of pain and delight.”

What does this have to do with Mozart? I’ll tell you, but it will take a minute. Last week we took a look at his “advanced” side–which often has dissonance at its heart. And it occurred to me that if it’s dissonance you’re after in Mozart, you may as well go to the single most piercing instance of it in his work (and, arguably, in music).  It’s found in the slow movement of his String Quintet, K. 614.  The movement begins with about as innocent a theme as Mozart was capable of cooking up (at 10:38 in this clip).  The two note “pickup” that starts the theme is then used to start a similar (and similarly untroubled) theme that comes in at 13:46.  But at 16:10 Mozart takes this new theme’s pickup and, in an exercise  of something bordering on musical sadism, repeats it three times in settings of increasing (and, in the third instance, almost unendurable) dissonance.  This kind of anguish is the last thing one may think of Mozart as inflicting–though as you get to know his music better, you realize that this is hardly the only case of his having a whip in hand ( just the most extreme one).  Not only could Mozart be a “giver of pain” when he wanted to, but when he really wanted to, he could give it like no other. (Not, of course, that he couldn’t give supreme delight as well when, as was far more frequently the case, he was of a mind to.)

Mozart Pushes the Envelope

There are two common impressions of Mozart’s music.  The principal one is of what could be called “Musicbox Mozart,” the graceful, elegant sort of piece epitomized by “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”  In recent years a second impression has developed, courtesy of the play (and then movie) Amadeus.  This could be called “Romantic” Mozart, dark-hued, even demonic. (It’s telling that the “Romantic” nineteenth century already recognized, and was drawn to, this side of Mozart, as represented by music like the Overture to Don Giovanni, the outer movements of the D minor Piano Concerto K. 466, or certain sections of the Requiem.)

But there are still other facets to Mozart.  One of them is his “advanced” side, in which he pushes the envelope of convention, especially in the sphere of harmony, where his music could be daringly, even shockingly dissonant. His K. 465 string quartet is in fact nicknamed “The Dissonant,” owing to a wrending moment in the slow introduction to its first movement.  But a spot in a different Mozart quartet is even stranger (and much less well known for its strangeness).  The minuet in his last quartet, K.590 (at 14:56 in this clip) starts sweetly, even innocently, but in its second half (beginning at 15:30, and then repeated) the harmonic stress-level rises to the point of going over the top.

Towards the end of his life, Schubert said that he was imagining harmonies that had never been heard before.  It wouldn’t be surprising if some of them resembled Mozart’s harmonies in this minuet, which reside at an outer limit of the classical musical language.

Mozart Pulls a Switcheroo

When I signed off last week I was wracking my brains trying to think of the name of the jazzy tune prefigured in the finale of Mozart’s K. 590 string quartet.  My thanks to reader Doreen Spungin for passing along her son Andrew Lubman’s guess as to the tune in question, which 1) turned out to be absolutely correct and 2) allowed my life to resume a less troubled course.  It’s “Twelfth Street Rag.”

Mozart quartets being on my mind, I got to thinking of a remarkable spot in the 3rd movement–a minuet-and-trio–of Mozart’s immediately preceding one, K. 589. But in order to realize what’s remarkable about it, you have to know a little about how minuet-and-trio movements are normally put together. In simplest terms, a movement of this kind is in an A-B-A form: a minuet (itself in two sections, each of which is repeated), a “trio” (some completely different music, also in two repeated sections), and a return of the minuet.  One more thing: the trio is usually more modest, in every respect, than the minuet: “lighter,” more naive, easier-going–and often just plain shorter. A good example of the typical trio’s relative lightness is found in the minuet-and-trio of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony.  The trio begins at 2:30 in this clip. Notice how much shorter and less grand and complex it is than the minuet by which it’s sandwiched. (It does have one intense stretch, but things return in short order to sweetness.)

Now look at the minuet-and-trio in the K. 589 quartet.  The minuet is a rich, noble, and–in its second part–expansive item. The trio comes at 2:00 in the clip–and with it, what can only be called, to use the technical term, a switcheroo.  Because it’s the trio (which here, unusually, is much longer than the minuet) that’s the really ambitious element in this movement–especially its second half (beginning at 3:07) with, as its capper, a marvelous extension, beginning at 3:51, that features virtuosic cross-bowing in the first violin. Just when we’re expecting the movement to become more relaxed–to take, in its trio, a kind of breather–Mozart launches into one of his most extended, exciting, and inspired flights.  That’ll teach us to think we can ever be sure what genius has up its sleeve.


Impudent Prophetic Plagiarism – 3

Last week we saw Beethoven discovering jazz (and moving on to other things with nary a backward–or should that be forward?–glance).

After writing that post, it occurred to me that Mozart can be caught in the same act, though in Mozart’s case it’s not jazz in general he predicts, but a particular song. And for the life of me, I can’t remember what the song is.  Can you help?

In the finale of his last string quartet, K.590, he plays every which way with a little 3-note scrap of descending scale (it comes in right away at the beginning of the movement, which starts at 19:04 in this clip). The contrapuntal complications he works upon this fragment would take a while to recount (and a lifetime to properly admire) but I’m going to skip over all that and take you right to the little “closing” theme that ends the movement’s first section (it comes in at 20:55 in the clip). If it makes you laugh out loud, you’re forgiven: the syncopated, dizzying repetitions of the three-note figure instantly whisk us ahead a hundred years-plus to an age when ragtime roamed the earth. (The bluesy alternation of major and minor beneath the repeated figure is a demonstration of prescience squared). Mozart himself knew he’d happened on a remarkable, and remarkably winning thing, as shown by the fact that he works the repeated figure non-stop for almost the entire  “development” section–all the way to the movement’s “recapitulation” (which begins at 21:50).

What IS the raggy song Mozart presages here? Until someone is kind enough to tell me via a comment to this post, I won’t be getting nearly as much sleep as I need.


Impudent Prophetic Plagiarism – 2

Last week we caught Mozart peeking at the future in composing a passage that could have been written by Schubert (if on a more inspired day, perhaps, than even the latter ever had). In bringing off this miracle, Mozart’s futurescope was focused about forty years ahead.

When Beethoven pulled off something comparably prophetic, he shot beyond his time by something more like a century. His last piano sonata, the Opus 111 (1821-22), has only two movements rather than the customary three or four, but it’s safe to say that no one has ever felt shortchanged by it.  The second movement, in particular, is, to adopt a phrase sometimes applied to Schubert, of a “heavenly length:” a theme and variations, marked Adagio molto, that lasts at least fifteen minutes (and often a good deal more) in  performance.  (It starts at 9:22 in this clip.) While the movement’s glacial tempo never changes, things seem to speed up from variation to variation in the first few of them, as Beethoven packs the same slow beats with progressively more (hence progressively faster) notes. (Eventually these notes speed up so much that they become a trill, which Beethoven uses, in a bit of paradoxical wizardry, to stop time altogether in the movement’s extended coda.)

It’s the movement’s third variation that gets prophetic.  Of what? You tell me. When I first heard this variation, which begins at 15:56 in the clip, I could hardly believe my ears.  Who knew there were honky-tonks in 1820’s Vienna? Not that Beethoven ever visited them again; it’s as though, having happened on an entirely new world we call jazz, he left the exploration of it to a later age.

Of course the composer himself didn’t hear the writing in this variation as “jazzy”–just powerfully syncopated.  Can we “forget” our experience of jazz, and hear Beethoven’s variation in all 19th-century innocence of the future?  Not easily, but that doesn’t mean that, as a mind-stretching exercise of our historical imagination, it isn’t worth trying to.


Impudent Prophetic Plagiarism – 1

I once heard a lecture by the late great critic Charles Rosen on two strands of Romanticism: a classicizing one (exemplified by Mendelssohn and Brahms) and an “advanced” one (exemplified by Schumann and Chopin–and later, of course, Wagner).  In the Q & A period, someone who looked suspiciously like me asked Rosen where Schubert fit into this scheme.  His answer was that Schubert was a special case: off to his own, magical side of this dichotomy, though descending in an essential way from Mozart.  (I’d say Schubert’s early symphonies indicate consumption of a healthy dose of Haydn–but then who wasn’t hugely influenced by Haydn?)

Rosen was surely onto something when he said Mozart strongly influenced Schubert, but there’s at least one case in which the influence seems to run the other way. I’m thinking of a passage in the slow movement of the Mozart’s G Minor String Quintet.

At the risk of telling you what you probably already know (I certainly hope you do), the last three of Mozart’s four string quintets are among his greatest works.  So the slow movement of the G Minor (it begins at 16:23 in this clip) never had much chance of being anything less than a wonder from first note to last. But at 18:49 in the clip, in comes a theme whose “oom-chuck” accompaniment and surpassing lyricism make it sound like an emissary from another world.  The world in question is the future: in particular the province of the future where Schubert lived. It’s as though Mozart saw what music would be forty years on, and demonstrated that he could not only envision it but could beat it at its own early Romantic game. (Not Schubert or anyone else could have conceived the impossibly beautiful echo with which Mozart dance-partners his theme at 19:03.) Having brought off this bit of time-travel, Mozart returns the movement to the 1780’s as though nothing remarkable had happened. (He may have visited the future,  but apparently saw no reason to stay there.)

The late great critic Donald Tovey once accused Haydn, in an immortal phrase, of “impudent prophetic plagiarism” (the pilfered bit being a spot in Brahms).  As Mozart’s Schubertian theme shows, Haydn wasn’t the only genius who was capable of such a crime. (Another example next week.)

Kilroy–I mean Haydn–was here

In last week’s post we listened in astonishment as Beethoven forklifts a passage out of his 5th Symphony’s third movement and drops its into the alien environs of its fourth and final one.

As we saw, this remarkable move is motivated by an unassailable (if unanticipatable) logic.  The relocated passage first appeared as a transition-cum-build-up that led from a strangely prolonged quietness at the end of the third movement into the glorious, trumpeting theme that opens the fourth.  This theme returns a while later in that movement, and Beethoven, having so excitingly built up to it the first time, opts for the brutally simple expedient of building up to it again the same way: opts, that is to say, for extracting the build-up, lock, stock, and barrel, out of the third movement, and dropping it into the fourth , where it leads into the trumpeting theme’s return as thrillingly as it led into its debut.  If there’s no precedent in music for this bold stroke, so be it (and, given its effectiveness, God bless it).

Except there is a precedent.  No surprise where it’s found: in Haydn.  Follow Beethoven to even his remotest locales, and there’s a good chance that, like Kilroy, Haydn has already been there.  (The young Beethoven studied with Haydn, but not for long, feeling that the great man had nothing to teach him. If that was true, it was probably because Beethoven had already learned the better part–in both senses–of what he knew from Haydn’s music.)

Consider, in this connection, a spot in Haydn’s Symphony#46. Its third movement–a minuet (beginning at 15:50 in this clip)–includes a little ear worm of a theme (at 16:21) which ends the movement’s first section–or could have.  Haydn in fact affords the theme the privilege of an immediate repeat, with a richer orchestration–those noble horns!–to boot.  One senses in this repeat some special feeling for the theme on Haydn’s part.

Fast forward to the symphony’s fourth and final movement (which begins at 19:17). The music is racing along per usual for a classical finale when it comes to one of Haydn’s trademark, sudden halts. A brief, suspenseful silence–followed by a reappearance (at 21:58) of the little theme from the minuet! (Shades of the reappearance we looked at in Beethoven.) Our response to the theme’s return may have a couple of aspects: surprise of course (it’s not in every eighteenth century symphony that a theme  from one  movement finds its way into another), mixed, perhaps, with a sense of having come into some unexpected luck. (“That theme comes back?” one says to oneself. “Here? What a welcome surprise! The return of this theme makes me realize, as though for the first time, how much I’d liked it already.”) When Haydn immediately repeats the theme as he had in the minuet–in the full reorchestration he’d offered there, noble horns and all–a couple of additional feelings may enter our complex of response: that Haydn seems to hear something like a spiritual import in the theme, and that he knows we hear it too. In bringing the theme back for this gratifying encore, Haydn establishes an uncommonly deep connection between composer and listener, one in which each knows something innermost about the other, and knows the other knows. To say this another way, if the thematic return in Beethoven is driven by logic, its predecessor in Haydn is driven by love.


Beethoven Bites Off the End of a Bottle

Beethoven once found himself facing an especially tough compositional problem.

The good news was that he’d just brought off one of the most innovative and astonishing coups in music.  I’ll get to the bad news in a minute.

I’m afraid I’m going to be talking about his 5th Symphony–though, if it’s any consolation, about its third and fourth movements, not its so-familiar first. The 5th’s third movement is a scherzo (a faster-moving descendant of the minuet); it’s fourth movement is a rousing (to put it mildly) finale. So far so conventional: Haydn had patented this sequence decades earlier. But if we focus on the 5th’s scherzo, we find some weirdness afoot. The movement begins with a hushed, mysterious theme (after a little self-communing by conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt in this clip), followed by a loud, forceful theme (whose da-da-da-DAH rhythm is an overt echo of the famous “fate” motive that opens the symphony; this theme comes in at 0:53 in the clip). In a standard scherzo, these themes would be literally repeated (after some intervening material).  Sure enough, the mysterious theme does return (at 6:42), but–the first hint that Beethoven is up to something–it’s reorchestrated part-way through.  (The bowed notes become plucked ones, with a bassoon along for the ride.) And when the loud theme returns as expected (at 7:03), it (unexpectedly) isn’t loud: it’s as quiet as the “mysterious” theme–and stated not by the stentorian horns of its first appearance, but by more plucked notes in the strings (and more puffs of bassoon). Pretty peculiar.

The movement should end at the conclusion of the loud (now soft) theme’s restatement. But it doesn’t. It’s suspensively prolonged (at 7:50): first by a sustained note in the lower strings (as the tympani softly tap out the “fate” motive beneath), soon joined by wisps of the “mysterious” theme.  Things are hanging some sort of fire…until a rapid build begins, a crescendo that climaxes in the glorious opening–all splendid trumpets and sunburst C major–of the fourth movement (at–not that you could miss it–8:24; this, we  realize in retrospect, is the explosion Beethoven has been keeping a lid on in the sustained quiet that precedes it.) The drama of this unprecedented movement-to-movement transition is unsurpassable.

Now for the bad news (from the composer’s point of view). The symphony’s fourth movement is in “sonata form,” which means that it’s glorious opening theme must be repeated–or “recapitulated”–about two thirds of the way along.  And with this requirement comes Beethoven’s above-mentioned problem.  The original statement of the “glorious” theme was so stunning, such a huge release; any restatement of it will be a letdown in comparison. But let’s think about this problem (as Beethoven must have). What gave this theme’s original statement much of its tremendous impact? The suspensive buildup to it. Of course that buildup is history: it’s a feature of the third movement, whereas we’re well into the fourth.  Beethoven’s response to this situation is to issue one of the great “So what?”‘s in the history of the arts. If the buildup to the “glorious” theme was essential to that theme’s impact, then let’s bring the buildup back! Let’s forklift this bit of the third movement–different meter and tempo and all–into the fourth! Which Beethoven goes ahead and does (to hear this audacious move in a bit of its context, start listening at 13:34 in the clip), leading into a resplendent recapitulation of the “glorious” theme. The boldness, even ruthlessness, of Beethoven’s solution reminds me of a method suggested, when all else fails, for dealing with a bottle of beer that won’t open: simply bite off the end of it.

“Inch Worm” (or The Other Kind of Counterpoint)

When we think of counterpoint, we’re usually thinking of the imitative kind, where melodies (or bits of them) echo one another.  This is certainly the kind most of us encounter first, when we learn as kids to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Frere Jacques” as a round. It’s also the kind we encounter most often–not infrequently on a cell phone, whose ring tone may well be the opening of Bach’s Two-Part Invention in F.

But there’s also a non-imitative sort of counterpoint, a kind where different (often very different) melodies are made to “fit” together. Maybe the most familiar example of this sort of counterpoint is also found in Bach: his setting of the  “Wachet Auf” chorale, in which he overlays a stirring Lutheran hymn with an almost ostentatiously dissimilar melody–one of the all-time ear worms, as it happens–of his own invention.  (Think this isn’t hard? You try writing one unforgettable tune that has to fit contrapuntally with another.)

I’ll never forget my first encounter with non-imitative counterpoint.  (How could I, it being one of my signal musical experiences.) One day the director of our grade school chorus was teaching us a pretty little song called “Inch Worm.”  (As a third grader at the time, I didn’t know, and couldn’t have cared less, that the song was written by the great Frank [Guys and Dolls] Loesser for the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen.) The key moment came when our director divided the chorus in half, and taught the half I was in the song’s haunting countermelody (with its chromatic touches of minor), which you hear first, sung by the class of children, in the clip: “Two and two are four…” etc..  The sinuous combination of this melody with the main (“Inch worm…”) melody (sung by Danny Kaye in the clip) still gives me the good kind of chills.

It was only many years later that I realized Loesser’s full brilliance in contriving this countermelody.  The song is in 3/4 (i.e., waltz tempo), into which the main, “Inch worm, inch worm…” text fits perfectly.  But the text of the counterline doesn’t fit into 3/4, at least not comfortably.  The 3/4 meter leads to unnatural stresses in the line (“Two and two ARE four __ , four and four ARE eight __ , eight and eight ARE sixteen, sixteen and sixTEEN are thirty two…”).  But the counterline works perfectly in 2/4 (alternating stressed with unstressed syllables: TWO and TWO are FOUR __ , FOUR and FOUR are EIGHT__ , EIGHT and EIGHT are SIXteen, SIXteen and SIXteen are THIRTY-two…) Which is to say that what we have in this seemingly innocent ditty is an example not merely of polyphony, but of polymetric polyphony. But here’s the kicker: what is the text of the (2/4) counterline talking about, if not measuring by multiples of two!  The transcendent musico-verbal wit of this connection reduces one to saying of Mr. Loesser, as a certain Mr. Schumann said in announcing his first acquaintance with the music of a certain Mr. Chopin, “Hats off, gentlemen: a genius.” (As if we didn’t know this about Loesser already.)

A Still More Amazing Transformation?

First things first: last week I invited you to find the hidden quotation of the ancient “Dies Irae” hymn in Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre.  If you found it (at 2:25 in this clip) congratulations on having a darned good ear (and probably not a little pertinacity).  As I mentioned, I’d known the Danse since childhood, and the “Dies Irae” since college (which has come to seem almost as long ago), before I recognized this quotation–and only when I read a mention of its existence and went hunting for it.  And even that hunt took a while–and no wonder, for the hymn is, to steal Yeats’ phrase, “changed utterly” by Saint Saens.

The thoroughgoingness of this transformation got me thinking about a comparably extreme and quite miraculous one.  You’ll probably recognize the theme in this clip as one of the most romantic in music. So iconic is this theme that it’s become detached in the popular imagination from the work in which it’s found: Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by [Nicolo] Paganini.   The theme on which Rachmaninoff’s is based is that of the 24th of Paganini’s “Caprices”–etudes, in effect–for solo violin. (Paganini was to 19th-century violinists what Franz Liszt was to 19th-century pianists: an incomparable and almost inconceivably popular superstar.) The 24th Caprice is itself a theme and variations; its brief theme–it seems to have barely begun before it’s over–runs from 0:09 to 0:24 in this clip.  What does–what could–this instantly unforgettable scrap of sprightliness have to do with Rachmaninoff’s soaringly rhapsodic creation? Well…take the opening gesture of the Caprice theme, change its meter, slow it down, put it into major instead of minor, and–here’s the clincher–invert it (i.e., turn its melodic shape upside down), and…voila. When it comes to profoundly recasting a bit of musical material, and having its new guise be as (very) immortal as its old one had been, Rachmaninoff’s transformation of Paganini’s theme is in a league of its own: a bit of magic that’s become so familiar to us we can be forgiven for failing to recognize–not to mention credit–its genius.