Thursday, August 26, 2010

What's it all about — Bobbie?

Wouldn't It Be Nice starts out by pulling a fast one.

There's a happy little vamp in A major, perfectly suitable to accompany, say, a performance of Heart and Soul, that gets intruded on by a loud snare drum stroke with lots of echo. And the verse starts — in the key of F major. F major! The wrong key.

Wait. Introductions to pop songs establish the mood and the key, right? So there's a strange disconnect between the introduction and the actual song. Especially given the happy, carefree feeling of the introduction. That single snare drum stroke and what follows it flouts convention.

My friend Stu is fond of saying that the introduction here is the singer's dream world, and the song itself is the singer's reality. Oh good, crank up the metaphor engine. 'cause then we get to invent a reason for that snare drum stroke: it's the sudden intrusion of reality; it's a slap in the face. While we're cranking out the metaphors. The song fakes left and goes right.

Oh, that Brian Wilson guy. So provocative, so original. So metaphorical.

I think Schumann must have been thinking of this song when he set out to write Dichterliebe in 1839. He knows how the entire set of sixteen songs of Dichterliebe is going to turn out, and he wants to set the proper mood at the very beginning. Reader's Digest™ version of the whole set: I (poet) have a love, it is unrequited. Sturm. Drang. I won't complain. I won't do anything but complain. Okay, you're dead.

So in setting the stage for the first songit's a beautiful day and I just told her of my longing and desire — Schumann also starts with a repeated vamp. Whereas Wouldn't It Be Nice starts with a circular progression, Schumann repeats a Phrygian half-cadence in F-sharp minor, twice.

Weirdly, the song begins with a sixteenth note upbeat C-sharp, harmonized immediately with a D. It's not like that's a prepared dissonance, in the manner of fourth species counterpoint. No, instead there's a feeling that we're walking in on something that's been going on since before the music started. In medias res, as they say in Latinville. Like on the old Liberace show when the camera would enter the room, Liberace was already enraptured in something he was playing, he flamboyantly notices the camera, smiles, and invites the audience into his ... into his ... drawing room? Into the expensive television studio made up to look like a drawing room.

So the poet (the "dichter" of "dichterliebe") starts by inviting you into his, um, drawing room, I guess. And he's waiting for something to happen, waiting, waiting. The repeated Phrygian-cadencing, and the leading tone unresolved ... here comes the tonic F-sharp minor!

Which, given that we know the song already, would be fraught with profound disappointageness.

What Schumann did to break the logjam of repeating Phrygian cadences is much, much better. The voice joins the piano on the sixteenth-note C-sharp upbeat and drags the piano along to a happy little ol' cadence in A-major. Whoa, how does he do that without us noticing, so much?

Sleight of hand. The b-minor first inversion harmony — the first chord in that pesky Phrygian cadence thing — is recontextualized as ii6 in A major, a common-chord modulation that is breathakingly quick. Thus, the third time around, the Phrygian half-cadence thing in F-sharp minor is abandoned — leaving E-sharp unresolved — and the phrase resolves in the "wrong" direction, to a very strong perfect authentic cadence in A major.

Wow. So the intro is the poet's dream world and the first vocal phrase is the real world? Brian Wilson, you are a genius! Oh, I mean, Bobby Schumann, you are a genius!

But seriously, since there's no authentic cadence in the opening key, the beginning and its hanging, unresolved E-sharp represent some serious unrequitage. If it were requited, there'd be a bass line of D-C-sharp-F-sharp, or scale degrees 6-5-1 in minor — the principal motive, incidentally, of the famous C-sharp minor prelude of Rachmaninov.

I hate to break it to you, but there won't be any requitage in (what we presume is) the home key. The unresolved Phrygian reverie thing is a framing device in this song. Which goes Reverie, Verse, Reverie, Verse, Reverie (ends on V7). Ending a song on a half-cadence is okay when it's just one of many songs, and more are to follow. It's an appropriate way to portray the expectation latent in "I just told her ..."

No requiting today, come back tomorrow. Or you can turn the page.

But wait. Getting back to the verse. Two strong perfect authentic cadences in A major, followed by a rising sequence. Rising sequences are perfect for portraying expectation and heightened excitement, yes?

Said sequence tonicizes B minor and then D major, with — ooh, ooh! — parallel Phrygian approaches, for lack of a better term. The bass line each time is 6-5-1 in the tonicized key, and in the case of the D major slice, it's flat-6, borrowed from its parallel minor. Flat-6? A G minor triad in an F-sharp minor song? That's nutty!

Well, looky here. We're denied the closure of a 6-5-1 bass line in the song's home key. But we can shonuff have that closure in other keys, but only in the verse — temporary closure at that, within a rising sequence.

Hmm, I'm starting to think that ... given the text ... the intro is the poet's real world and the verse is the poet's fantasy world. Bobby, you've switched up on us. You are a complete and total nut.

For you see, now in the fantasy world, the poet gets to cadence on the note F-sharp, the real world's tonic. Woo hoo! Oh, but it's the wrong tonic. It's the third of a D major, freshly tonicized. Real closure would have to be F-sharp heard in the tonic triad, and resolving an E-sharp, yes? I am reminded of Woody Allen's Manhattan when Diane Keaton says, "I finally had an orgasm, and my therapist told me it was the wrong kind."

Yes, the wrong kind. G-natural to F-sharp is the wrong kind of tonic resolution. Note how the piano immediately "corrects" the singer by repeating the figure with G-sharp. And when the piano does that, it recaptures a bit of ... its beginning! ... and with the harmony lingering on D major, it's pretty simple to slide right back into the Phrygian vamp. It's almost as if Bobby knew he was going to do that.

Second verse, same as the first. Though with different words. So again, the happy shift to A major. Again, the rising sequence. Again, the wrong kind of orgasm. And again, the rêverie, never resolving. The last note in the piano? Well, not only is that E-sharp just a-hanging there — now there's an unresolved tritone to go with it.

So the next song resolves the E-sharp, right? Uh, go back up and look at the story of the song cycle again. The next song abandons F-sharp minor entirely and goes back to A major.

From my tears many blossoming flowers shoot ...

A major. The poet's fantasy world? And F-sharp minor? Never to be heard from again. The unresolved E-sharp? Unresolved forever.

Sounds like some heavy metaphors going on, huh?

Well, you can go to the twelfth song. It begins with a G-flat major chord. Close enough? Ah, but it has an E-natural added to it, for extra flavor. Yeah, by now F-sharp is G-flat, and it's the German augmented sixth in the key of B-flat major. And what's happening now? The flowers are talking to the poet. Literally. But only in G major. In a B-flat major song. If you're a big fan of anthropomorphization, this song cycle is definitely for you.

Oh yeah. And that G-flat moves to F, supporting a cadential 6/4, and then to the tonic, B-flat. Here, eleven songs later, is a normal 6-5-1 in minor. Uh, except that the song is in major.

Wouldn't it be nice for that E-sharp in the first song to resolve? Sometime? Dude, it's 1839. And why is there no big echo-laden snare shot to separate fantasy from reality? Dude. It's 1839.