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.)