Friday, July 6, 2007

Symphonies 2: Form

When most people listen to music, they pay attention to the patterns it contains. Every kind of music has patterns in it, often working on several different levels: coarse, or gross, patterns on the one hand; fine, or subtle, patterns on the other.

One of the "grosser" patterns, and thereby easier to detect and follow, is rhythm. Last night at Busch Stadium (Cardinals 3-Diamondbacks 2) I heard a good deal of music that consisted of very little except rhythm: "techno-dance" music, a very industrial-sounding, digitally-produced music that is highly valued in social settings where anonymous sex is on the menu (i.e., where the dim but chaotic lighting prevents you from clearly seeing the pimply loser who is trying to pick you up, and the music is so loud that you can't fully appreciate the lameness of his pick-up shtick). What it has to do with baseball, I don't know. I say the same thing about the "charge!" riff that the DJ played literally EVERY time a member of the home team came up to bat. I don't get it; baseball isn't a line-of-battle sport; people do try to run in circles, but they don't charge! But I'm going way off track.

A little farther along the sliding-scale toward "fine patterns" are ones that most classical-music fans listen for. Some of them pay more attention to the tonal patterns: what key-relationships the piece explores, and how it works its way back to the opening, tonic key. Another pattern that rewards careful listeners is the return and elaboration of themes stated early in the piece. Both of these patterns relate directly to the question of form, or structure, in music. As you listen to the symphonies I recommended in an earlier post, particularly for the second or third time, a little knowledge of what's going on structurally may increase your pleasure. So that's what I want to discuss right now!

The slow movements of Haydn's 94th and Beethoven's 5th, and the finale of Beethoven's 3rd symphony, all contain a musical form known as Theme and Variations. This is a pretty easy form to follow, though you may not always be able to pick out the notes of the theme within each variation. First, the composer states a theme: typically a complete, periodic melody (i.e., one that has a complete structure of its own). The journey from the tonic key, through different tonal areas, and back to the tonic happens within the theme itself, and again during each variation; only, the theme itself gets broken up into more and more abstract patterns, and different aspects of it are embellished or altered, until you can only recognize the theme by the harmonic route it travels.

Now let's observe the form of the theme itself, on which the variations are based. In each of the three examples noted above, the theme begins in the tonic key, then works its way to a cadence (like the end of a musical paragraph) in a closely-related, but contrasting key; the whole paragraph is repeated; then a second paragraph commences from the key where the first paragraph ended, touches lightly on some other keys (this part of the format is very flexible), and comes in for a solid landing in the original "home" key. This very simple but effective structure, known as rounded binary form, has been used to generate many popular tunes! Here's a cute little diagram that might make it more clear and memorable. NOTE: The symbols : and : mean mean that whatever goes between them gets repeated. For example, the word between the two repeat signs in the previous sentence would be pronounced "and, and."

: A :: BA' :
This means: the first section is repeated; the second section, which ends with material based on the first part, is also repeated. This is the way people who listen to theme-patterns hear it, anyway. If you're more the type who listens to harmonic, or tonal, patterns, a more meaningful diagram for you would be:

: I - V :: V ~~~ I :
: i - III :: III ~~~ V - i (I) :
In other words: If the Tonic is a major key, the first section of the tune moves to the Dominant (the key on the fifth note of the tonic scale), then repeats; then the second part moves from the Dominant through wherever, ends up in the Tonic again, and repeats. If the tonic is a minor key (symbolized by lower-case Roman numerals), the road map will usually lead through the Relative Major (the major key that has the same key signature as the Tonic) instead of the Dominant, though the piece will generally end by going from Dominant to Tonic or its Parallel Major (same Roman numeral, but major instead of minor).

OK, that blew your mind. That's college-level stuff these days. But knowing it really opened my eyes to some spectacular things in fine-art music.

Now, skip to most of the Minuet & Trio movements. They're just one step up the complexity scale from Rounded Binary Form (RBF). First, there's a minuet in full-blown RBF, with repeats and everything. Then, there's a lighter, contrasting section - as it were, a separate piece-within-a-piece - also in RBF. This is called the "Trio" because, at least in the beginning, it was performed by two solo instruments plus basso continuo (which, incidentally, consisted of something like a string bass playing the bass line, plus a harpsichord improvising above it; so "trio" refers not to the number of instruments but the number of written musical lines). After the Trio, each section of the Minuet would be played one more time, without repeats. Since both Minuet and Trio were an RBF unto themselves, they were often in the same key; though there are cases (such as the third movement of Mozart's 40th), when the Minuet is in a minor key, and the Trio is in the Minuet's relative or parallel major. Here's how it looks in diagram form, for the theme-pattern followers out there:

: A :: B-A' :: C :: D-C' : A B-A'

For you key-pattern enthusiasts, both the Minuet and the Trio are identical with the RBF diagrams shown above, though the key-relationship between the Minuet and Trio may be worth noting.

After RBFs, Minuets & Trios, and Variations, the structures you will most often find in a symphony are known the Sonata and the Rondo.

The Sonata, sometimes more specifically called Sonata-Allegro Form, is basically an RBF with an extra-sophisticated twist. This form is typically found in the first movements of symphonies, multi-movement chamber works (such as string quartets), and solo-instrument sonatas (big surprise there). Sometimes it also turns up in the finale of a symphony. The repeats are optional (they get more and more so each year, as orchestras and conductors skip the composers' repeat signs in order to shorten their performances). From a harmonic/tonal standpoint, sonatas are pretty similar to RBFs, but the way they use themes is strikingly different.

First, there are often at least two distinct themes - and "often" became "always" as the form moved out of the 18th century. Within the "A" section, following the announcement of the first theme, there will be a transition to a contrasting key, such as the Dominant or the Relative Major, where the second theme will be announced. Then the "A" section wraps up with a little "wrapping-up music," for which the technical term is codetta. These four parts - first group, transition, second group, codetta - may then be repeated, emphasizing that they belong together in what is often called the "Exposition."

Now this is where it starts to get a little weird. Where the rest of the RBF is one big section that works its way back to the Tonic, and then repeats, the part of the Sonata that follows the Exposition is usually analyzed as two distinct sections: the "Development" and the "Recapitulation." Don't get the wrong idea, though. When the symphony was young, most composers didn't feel an urgent need to "develop" the themes exposed in the exposition. To the average contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, this was simply the part of the RBF where the piece explores different keys, usually by means only a little more sophisticated than simple chord progressions. This would end with a retransition back to the tonic, where the piece would end by "recapitulating" (i.e., repeating) the whole exposition section -- with the decisive difference that all of it would now be in the Tonic, with all the adjustments to the transition & codetta material this would require. Optionally, there could be an additional passage of "wrapping-up music" at the very end; this was analyzed as a fourth section of the sonata, called the "Coda."

One of the reasons Haydn and Mozart stand head-and-shoulders above their contemporaries is that they actually did something with their "development" section to make it worthy of the name. Instead of merely blaring chords and running scales all the way back to the tonic, Haydn and Mozart established a tradition of doing clever things with their themes (including ideas from the transition and codetta), things such as breaking them up and moving the pieces around, repeating them in different keys, switching them from major to minor or vice versa, even piling up contrapuntal entries of a theme in a fugue-like passage known, appropriately, as fugato. Instead of hurrying from the Dominant back to the Tonic as quickly as possible, they took their time to explore different possibilities of their musical ideas, different textures and combinations of instruments, different harmonic worlds. Because their music does more to reward attentive and repeated listening, Haydn and Mozart's contributions to the symphony have remained popular long after the world has forgotten the names of - huh. I forgot their names!

The Rondo is a bit simpler, but it is also very flexible, and flexibility sometimes makes for a good imitation of complexity. Many slow movements and finales, and even some of the Scherzo/Intermezzo movements of symphonies like those of Brahms, are in a kind of Rondo form. The basic idea of a rondo is that it has a refrain, or ritornello, that comes back over and over, regardless of what happens between times. So, the opening section of a piece - which may, by the way, be an RBF theme - will lead directly to a contrasting "episode" in another key. Then the first section comes back (ritornello), and is followed by still another contrasting section before it comes back a final time.

Slow movements, when they are not a theme and variations, tend to be short rondos with, say, 5 sections, of which three are either the original ritornello or a shortened variant of it (ABACA). Faster rondos are longer, such as the seven-part ABACADA, or maybe ABACABA (with the first episode returning at the end), and they are even more likely to permit some variation or abbreviation of the later A sections. The first exciting kink is that different A sections may be in different keys, though at least the first and last ones will be in the same Tonic. A second and even more exciting kink happens when the first episode (B) moves to the Dominant, the second ritornello (A') continues from there, and second episode (C) goes through a variety of keys, and sometimes even develops ideas from the ritornello; then the ABA sections return, only now they are solidly in the Tonic. This ABA'CABA structure is a kind of hybrid form that is sometimes described as a Sonata-Rondo, which can make final movements of certain symphonies really interesting to analyze!

Maybe analyzing music isn't your idea of "interesting." It always has been for me. I remember listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture about a hundred times in a row and trying to diagram the structure of the piece, depending on the order in which I heard certain musical ideas. I was eleven or twelve years old at the time. I'm still the same way, and I think it has added to, rather than taken away from, my enjoyment of fine-art music. To those who saw me plugged into listening stations at the college music library and shook their heads at me for taking music too seriously, as if that might somehow take the joy out of it, I could only reply - now as well as then - "True joy is a serious thing." May these few notes on some "technical aspects" of the symphony enhance your pleasure in experiencing some of the world's most serious, truthful, and joyful pieces of music!

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