Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hegel, Georgy Girl

Way back when I was happily on sabbatical (I haven't had an unhappy one yet), I said a few things about the slow movement of Mozart's 23rd piano concerto K. 488 and things that fall out of various analytical approaches — or more particularly, one particular one. The overriding approach was to use music theory to try figure out how the tortured big-interval opening at the right became the strangely ordinary and oddly celebratory repeated C-sharps and simple tonic arpeggations of the ending (whose answer seemed to be a high D left hanging in the piano several times receives its long-term resolution at the piece's end). Go ahead and read the post. As a static blog, I'm not going anywhere.

As a teaser, I made mention of something that my dissertation's second reader suggested I check out in relation to this piece — the Hegelian dialectic. And in the post I suggested looking into it — or at least some cheap imitation of said dialectic as applied to music, and to this particular piece. It turns out said Hegelian dialectic is like a Facebook relationship status: it's complicated (I've used that joke before, and I will again).

In the intervening time, I have taught the piece again in second year theory, and have received a few more papers written about it. Also in the intervening time, I spent time in France with, among many others, a Hegel scholar. So of course I am terrified that as a mere musician, my approach, at least as far as philosophers are concerned, will be more appropriate for nine-year-olds than for grownups. What do I know from Hegel?

Hegel answers: I'm dead. Leave me alone.

Okay, so I'll speak in hushed tones.

When I talk about the K. 488 movement, it takes about two and a half hours to get through everything I have to say about it, and it's a multi-layered approach. The point, of course, is to explain why somebody like me (or somebody who is me (or somebody who me (or somebody me (or somebody (or))))) would keep going back to it — and the corollary, how in great music like this there's always more to be discovered — you just have to know how, and where, to look.

Speaking of dialectics (which I was a few paragraphs ago), let's review a little about the standard concerto dialectic: a soloist plays together with a large group, and they interact in various ways. Big duh there, pardner. Normally the group is supportive of the soloist (it was probably in the union contract for concerti), and accompanies it unobtrusively, or shares and trades back and forth musical materials. A common large scale example is the double exposition of the first movement of a concerto, in which the orchestra plays a sonata exposition that doesn't modulate, and then the soloist enters, and everybody plays the exposition again, this time with the proper modulations. I love that, metaphorically, only the soloist contains the seeds of knowledge of modulation — like that Star Trek episode where Bones returns Spock's brain to his head by wearing a big dome hat that transmits the brain surgery secrets to its wearer.

Okay, maybe I should lay off the Star Trek references. Because apparently I just called a concerto soloist a big dome hat.

This piece, though, has a concerto slow movement dialectic that is, for Mozart, unique to this concerto. The soloist plays music, it finishes with a perfect authentic cadence, and the orchestra responds, no soloist allowed, with different, unrelated music — that nonetheless stays in the home key. It's a gorgeous and passionate melody in the clarinet (clarinet!) and violins that is presented in canon with itself, with the bassoon, in a rising sequence. For the record, this is one of my favorite moments, and melodies ever, and the harmonic analysis there is powerless to tell me (or anyone else) why (the reduction also omits the string deedles in the middle register). The melody soars (metaphorically) and is constructed such that the long notes hold over the barline and seem to lean into into delicious dissonances whose correct downward stepwise resolutions are as satisfying as anything in music.

And perhaps the first ten or fifteen times I listened to this piece, it never occurred to me, lost in its gorgeousness and in the creaminess of the clarinet sound (metaphor overload alert), that what I was listening to was a non sequitur.

That's right. A non sequitur. The piano plays by itself and presents its thematic material; the orchestra responds with different music, though in the same key. And its music finishes with a perfect authentic cadence as well.

It is far more common in a concerto (as in Mozart just about always did it this other way) for the orchestra's response to a solo passage that begins a movement is to play its music back at it, except bigified. Wow, so what happens here is flouting convention! And I hardly ever get to use the word flout any more.

So, as if handing the microphone back to the soloist, the orchestra does its expected cadence and gets out of the way. And look at what the soloist does now, all by itself. It reprises its own opening, with the leap to A ornamented. But it seems to have forgotten how to get beyond the second bar of its own opening — it repeats those two bars, even more ornamented. And still it doesn't know how to follow up. So it starts the phrase a third time.

This time the orchestra has had enough. In the middle of the third iteration of this two bar phrase, it enters with a supporting modulating chord, and together the soloist and orchestra modulate to A major, just as they are supposed to. And what a tortured modulation it is, at first intimating A minor, a large leap in the piano to the piece's highest note yet (E), that E's resolution to D-sharp rather than to the correct D (sounds like Mozart was staying out of the way of that note) under an augmented sixth chord ... lawdy, this is complicated and strange. (Just to note here that this is a typical use of the augmented sixth chord — leaning into the dominant of the new key to strengthen the upbeat to the tonic of the new key)

So wait.

The piano has its own music. The orchestra responds with its own music. Is this ... thesis-antithesis? Is this ... opposition of a sort?

Well, musically speaking, yes and no. In the concerto dialectic, it is quite unconventional for the orchestra not to repeat the soloist's music back at it, so yes. In the musical sense, since both themes are presented and cadence in f-sharp minor, they belong together. So, no.

Wow. So music has layers.

But how about developing the thesis-antithesis/opposition argument? What can the orchestra do that the piano can't? And vice versa? And how do their characteristic musics reflect that? Well, the orchestra can sustain tones and crescendo on them, and their big creamy tune and its downbeat fourth species dissonances certainly take advantage of that. The piano, meanwhile, doesn't have the characteristic sustain, thus the tortured tune is more pianocentric — which is to say that the big jumps in the tune are much easier on piano than on orchestral instruments — that, and the piano gets a rhythmic motive with a dotted rhythm.

And meanwhile. The piece modulated! Torturedly so! And the music in the new key is so ... so ... so ordinary.

And the concerto dialectic is restored.

Restored? What do you mean restored? This is the first time in this movement that the soloist and orchestra cooperate, as in, a ... concerto. They pass motives back and forth, and all, and they phrase in nice compact four bar phrases with nary any controversy.

There may be a point that Mozart is making here about the key of A major. We've been there already, and in the first movement — yes, it's the key of the concerto, after all. And what happened in A major? Well ... everything. And how much fond recall of that concerto dialectic thing should we have? Well, notice how very similar the head motive of the slow movement (above right) is the opening of the entire piece (to the right).

Maybe ... and this is really pushing it ... Mozart is using the conventional modulation expected of a slow movement in minor to bring us back to the key, and thus, to a time, when the usual concerto dialectic was at play, and ... pushing it even more ... here's where the orchestra and soloist kind of remember how to play together in the same sandbox.

Okay, that's kind of heavy. Which is why I had to put it in Italics.

Fine, Davy, but where's the Hegelian dialectic? Where's opposition-reconciliation-synthesis (as some people put it) or thesis-antithesis-synthesis (as others put it)? All we've seen so far is opposition and I remember happier times in this piece.

Okay, then, let's follow through. The A major music is ordinary and kinda square and nowhere near as interesting as the F-sharp minor music (that's a Davy valu-judgment™). Why do you think it took such a tortured modulation to drag us there? So wouldn't it follow that we'd want to get A major over with and get back to F-sharp minor as soon as the, uh, underlying form allows?


And look what Mozart does. A very ordinary two-bar modulation to a recapitulation (the second line, clarinets, are in A). Contrast that to the ten bars it took him to get to A major.

And then the entire opposition thing is restated — this being a recapitulation, how could it be anything else? Except that now, given the experience of the piece, we know at least that it is a place that is more interesting than at least one alternative. So what's the first crack in the opposition? It's the orchestra interrupting the soloist's authentic cadence where it would end with its own idea — a deceptive cadence ... which also seems to be a local dominant to the Neapolitan that so characterizes the soloist's music ... and thus the problem (see earlier blog post) of the unresolved high D is yet again put into relief, as the soloist has to repeat its cadential music.

And the orchestra allows the soloist its cadence the second time around.

After which it restates its own music, without variation from it original presentation. And thus is opposition/thesis-antithesis restated.

An ordinary concerto movement, say one by Joe Mozart, would tend to end right here. The two themes in the tonic have been restated, with just a bit of spicy variation, and both have had their perfect authentic cadences. Thus if anything else happens now, it is gravy. Or, in musical terms, the coda.

So what happens next is kinda breathtaking.

The piano plays the orchestra theme, ornamented in the way that a piano normally ornaments — all that two-note slur stuff is customary, and is a way for keyboard instruments to make up for their lack of real sustain. The earlier deedles of the violas get put into the left hand as an (pianocentric, anyone?) Alberti bass. And finally, that bassoon line — the canon with the tune that the piano is now ornamenting — is heard in the violins, in octaves.

Well, okay. Now the piano is playing the orchestra's theme, and the orchestra is supporting it, as in the traditional concerto dialectic. Thus have we come to, in a sense, the beginning of a reconciliation. But this isn't the synthesis of which we've heard. Perhaps there is more.

Well, yes. The piano has to resolve that high D, too. That's in another layer, right?

Well, what would a synthesis, in a musical sense, consist of, then? Perhaps the piano would have to become more orchestra-like, and the orchestra more piano-like.

Aha. And this is the beginning of an explanation of why the piece gets so weird now — and in the coda!


The new piano-plays-orchestra theme spawns a strangely long dominant pedal (the longest one of the piece in the home key), thus creating a rather large upbeat to ... what I used to call the piece's strange music.

Pizzicato arpeggios for the entire string section. Pizzicato! And the piano plays long, sustained notes. And ooh! Looky there! It's the high D in the piano resolving to C-sharp, at long last!

Hey, wait. Pizzicato arpeggios. That's piano-like. And against that, sustained single notes in the right hand of the piano. That's orchestra-like.

And what of the chord progression in the pizzicati? It's a simplification of the piano's music, so there is another level of ... say it together with me ... synthesis going on here.

By the way. I still call this section the piece's strange music. But I used to, too.

And what of the final music of the piece? The orchestra gives us a stripped-down version of the first two bars of its theme, three times — hey, didn't the piano do something just like that a lot earlier?

The piano answers: Hegel is dead. Leave me alone.

And what does the piano do while the orchestra is pianifying its own theme? Those repeated C-sharps that strangely celebrate the resolution from D.

And it's worth mentioning that this sort of thematic fragmentation is a not uncommon to make ending music. So that's what Wolfie did. So the fragmentation would seem to be carrying two levels of meaning. Cool.

Man, that's a weird piece. And a strange coda. And it seems the D-to-C-sharp story complements and works together with the kid's version of the Hegelian dialectic here.

Another interesting detail — the movement that follows starts with the same gesture as this one — a passage for the soloist that finishes with a perfect authentic cadence. How does the orchestra respond? With the same music!

And there's even more. I'ma gonna listen to it lots more times and report back when I figure out how to talk about it.

Meanwhile, speak amongst yourselves with today's study question: what other ways have composers played with the concerto dialectic and/or the Hegelian dialectic? Be concise, and be sure to use bullet points.