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.

Another transformation (this one in Saint Saens)

In the last post (“Solution to a Beethoven Mystery”), we traced Beethoven’s transformation of a melodic phrase into something almost (but, crucially and wonderfully, not quite) unrecognizable. In writing about this move, I was reminded of a transformation it would be amazing if one recognized. (I certainly didn’t, until I read of its existence.)

In no later than the thirteenth century (and maybe much earlier) a Catholic cleric wrote a chant-like hymn whose melody begins like this.  Until fairly recently, many Europeans (and not just Catholic ones) would have had no trouble recognizing this famous tune: the “Dies Irae.” (Its less-than-cheerful text begins “Dies irae! Dies illa / Solvet saeclum in favilla,” i.e., “Day of anger! That day /  Will dissolve the world in ashes.”)

This melody has been veritable catnip to subsequent composers, dozens of whom have quoted it in their works down through the centuries–usually in order to introduce a hint (or more) of doom into the proceedings. Most of these quotations are, as they’re meant to be, easy for the listener to pick out (e.g., the one in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, or in Liszt’s Totentanz). But there’s a “Dies Irae” quotation in Saint Saens’ wonderful Danse Macabre that’s anything but easy to hear.  As I said above, I only recognized it when I read about its presence in the piece, and I still had trouble finding it (this in a piece I’d known intimately and loved dearly since childhood).  Here’s a fine performance of Danse Macabre: can you hear where the “Dies Irae” makes its (relatively brief) appearance? Don’t feel bad–unless feeling bad makes you happy–if you don’t catch this highly transformed quotation straight off: I don’t think Saint Saens would have wanted you to (that devil–at least in his role as composer of this devilish little danse). Soft touch that I am, I’ll point the quotation out to you in next week’s post.


Solution to a Beethoven Mystery

In my previous post (“A Big Surprise in Beethoven”) I called your attention to a phrase–the climactic one in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet–that has the uncanny quality of sounding at once new and familiar (one of the deeper things music can do). The familiarity part is no illusion, since the phrase is anticipated earlier in the movement. But its anticipation isn’t the easiest thing to recognize–and last week I invited you to find it.

The phrase has its genesis all the way back in the stirring theme that, after a slow introduction, begins the movement proper (at 2:09 in this YouTube clip). Note, in particular, the “dotted rhythm” portion of the theme (in red here). Now fast-forward to a thrilling stretch in the movement’s development section where, beginning at 5:13 in the clip, Beethoven hones in on that dotted rhythm portion, passing variants of it between the first violin and the cello. One of these dotted-rhythm variants has an unsuspectedly auspicious future.  Here’s the variant I mean (it’s stated twice, at 5:15 in the cello and 5:21 in the first violin).

Now jump ahead to the climactic phrase at the end of the movement. (It occurs at 8:48 in the clip.)  In a simple-seeming but utterly transformative move, Beethoven has taken the melodic shape of the dotted-rhythm variant and given it an entirely new rhythm, one surpassingly suitable to the variant’s new role as the hymn-like crown of the movement. (Scratch “transformative;” insert “transfigurative.”) If we feel as though we’ve heard this “crown” before, it’s because we have (even as we haven’t, quite). In this recasting of spirited phrase as glorious crown, we see musical creativity at its whitest Beethovenian heat.

A Big Surprise in Beethoven

I’ll kick off this blog by giving you a steer to one of the great surprises in classical music. No, not the sudden fortissimo chord that rocks the slow movement of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony (surely classical music’s best known surprise). It’s a passage, rather, in Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet of 1809. The passage begins at 8:20 in this YouTube clip.

The “Harp” gets a bit lost among Beethoven’s quartets.  It falls chronologically between his three “Razamovsky” quartets of 1806 (as monumental and path-breaking in the quartet genre as his “Eroica” symphony of 1803 was in the symphonic) and the “late” quartets of 1825-6 (in which Beethoven–in fact, not a few would say, the entire art of music–is commonly held to go highest, farthest, deepest…name your dimension). The passage I’ve cited begins the “coda,” or concluding section, of the “Harp’s” first movement.  The first violin’s sudden launching into virtuosic flight is as unexpected and electrifying a musical move as any I know.  Beethoven once grudgingly admitted to some satisfaction with something he’d written by saying it had “less lack of fancy than usual.” Lack of fancy certainly isn’t a problem with this spot in the “Harp!” But the fancy of the first violin’s flight is firmly grounded in Beethoven’s customary iron logic.  The rising pizzicati, passed pluck by pluck around the “ring” of the remaining three instruments, have figured prominently throughout the movement (and in fact give the quartet its “Harp” moniker). And then, at 8:38, in comes (surprise upon surprise) the opening figure of the movement’s main theme, passed in soaring echoes between the second violin and the viola, as all elements build together toward as stirring and exhilarating a climax as any in Beethoven (which is saying something).

Speaking of this climax, there’s a little mystery in it I invite you to solve.  It’s stirringness derives in no small measure from a hymn-like figure introduced by the second violin (at 8:48 in the clip). This figure, like so much in Beethoven, seems deeply “right;” it crowns the movement so satisfyingly… But why? Especially since it’s new to the movement…. And yet it seems completely of a piece with it… In fact, its newness notwithstanding, isn’t there something a little familiar about it?  The truth is that the figure both is and isn’t new to the movement.  It’s anticipated…where? And in a form that differs…how? I won’t end all these posts with a cliff-hanger, but I can’t promise I’ll never stoop to one again…. Answers in next week’s entry.