Too Much Tchaikovsky

Style, Part 1

Okay, we’ve done some work with Rhythm and Melody. Time to tackle Style, right?

Maybe not. Style is way more complicated. When we talk about style in classical music, we’re referring to a music’s particular way of presenting itself—hi, I’m Handel, not Mendelssohn. Or, I’m Romantic, not Classic. Experienced listeners can tell, often in 30 seconds or less, when something’s by Fauré and not Saint-Saëns. But to explain it? We pick the wings off that butterfly only by discussing combinations like phrase length, texture, melodic structure, timbral emphases, overall form, and more. (The precise technical language for this is it all depends.)

It’s not about memorizing a checklist of characteristics and then applying them. Real style from real musicians sometimes offers as many violations as confirmations. The best way (painless, organic, social) to develop style consciousness is by listening to music—a lot of music—with a friend and then discussing what you heard. For example:

What did we hear? Solo piano. Regular march-like rhythms; a firm accompanimental “drum bass”; in the right hand a sprightly tune; in 10 seconds a strong, simple cadence; then an immediate repeat of the cadential phrases. But, in lieu of a second strong cadence, the music breaks off to launch a new tune: flowing scale passages launched with grace notes, already present in the first tune but now energizing the scales. These passaggi are repeated and varied, leading to extended play that ends with another simple cadence—much simpler than the first—at 35”. Now comes another new tune, the one you’ll remember, even though it’s little more than a quick triadic flourish. This new tune sounds even fresher than it otherwise might, because at the end of the first theme group’s extended play we modulated to a new tonal center. This music now leads into further play. Following that, the whole section draws to a close with an extended series of cadential phrases. At 1’17” the music literally starts over; we hear an exact repeat of everything we’ve heard so far. (That’s customary for the exposition.)

How much of this matters? It depends. The man who created this piece lived in a culture that expected music to appeal to both connoisseurs and amateurs. Amateurs might have been amused by that mock-pompous first cadence, or delighted by the second theme’s colorful flourish. Connoisseurs may have enjoyed the way the composer mixed, matched, and transformed bits of material to create those extended-play areas, including various fiddlings with the “drum bass” motive throughout the movement (see here for the whole piece). The more you listen, the more you hear. (One of the reasons I like this music is that its themes behave as if they were making conversation in a Jane Austen novel.)

We have been listening to Joseph Haydn’s Sonata No. 44 in F (Hob. XVI:29), written in 1774, relatively early in the Classic Era. It comes with Haydn’s fingerprints all over it. I’ve described a few of them above: simple themes, frequent repetition, clear sections, predictable overall narrative (sonata form) but full of little surprises, like raisins in a pudding. A charming new album from pianist Einav Yarden (Challenge Classics CC72742; SACD and DSD download) features six such sonatas from the 1770s. I got a kick out of hearing them, partly because they don’t get as much public play as Haydn’s later piano works. Well done, Einav!

Here’s something quite different:

Solo clarinet and string quartet, a combination used by Mozart and Brahms. Long-breathed, lyrical melodic lines. A “sigh” motive that pervades the theme’s repeated fragments, rounding off the first section before a second, more urgent theme takes over. It’s tonal, with aching, slightly dissonant harmonies in its pungent cadences and other phrase endings. They sound familiar. Brahmsian, perhaps, but emotionally more generous while providing less in the way of development. The music encourages us to relax, to luxuriate in its timbral beauty, its nostalgia and regret. Form is obviously not as important as feeling.

This is Souvenirs de voyage, the final concert work from American composer Bernard Herrmann (1911–75). Its style? Neo-Romantic, for sure. Like fellow neo-Romantics Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Dimitri Tiomkin, Herrmann was better known for his film music. There he brought a command of Romantic language not only to main-title music but also to the art of underscoring, i.e., telegraphing the emotional thrust of a film scene to a mass audience. Those pungent cadences may have made you think of Kim Novak and James Stewart: somewhere in the soft-focus distance, she wanders; he watches. Souvenirs is brought to us by clarinetist Michel Lethiec and the Fine Arts Quartet in an enjoyable new album (Naxos 8.559796) that includes another clarinet quintet, David Del Tredici’s Magyar Madness, originally commissioned by klezmer-mad clarinetist David Krakauer. Live performances, enthusiastically received by the audience.

Finally:

Whoa! Obviously Modern. The orchestra seems to be tuning up, trying to establish a tonic note, a beacon in the fog. But what’s that instrument raising its own distinctive tone? Inching up towards E-flat from the ensemble D, its keening voice calls out so forcefully that the half-step between D and E-flat seems to stretch a half-mile. Then down it goes, beyond D, to D-flat. And back up. Gradually the orchestra finds its voice too, dispersing and regrouping with all manner of glissandi, buzz tones, stings, stutterings, fusillades, toccatas. Through it all, the solo instrument continues its incantations.

This is Mana, a one-movement concerto for bassoon and orchestra by Sebastian Fagerlund (b. 1972), played by the Lahti SO under Okko Kamu (BIS-2006; SACD and download). The intrepid bassoonist is Bram van Sambeek, who poses with his instrument, sporting Chuck Taylors, a biker jacket, and a smirk. I’d smirk too, if I could play the bassoon like that.

Let’s wield a checklist on this one. Fagerlund’s style is recognizably Modern because (1) the bassoon is asked to execute difficult technical passages and new techniques unheard of a hundred years ago; (2) the relationship between soloist and orchestra is fluid, not locked into roles assumed by Tchaikovsky, Bruch, or Brahms; (3) although this music’s harmonic language is not pointedly “atonal,” its pitch combinations, tension-and-release patterns, and counterpoint don’t follow the rules generally evident in Vivaldi or Barber. From Kimmo Korhonen’s excellent liner notes: “Here the soloist is a powerful, shamanistic figure. . . . at times a magnificent virtuoso, elsewhere meditative, as if fallen into a trance. . . . Like a mediator between reality and the spirit world, with his gestures [he] opens up new worlds for the orchestra.” Good to know.

The album’s other major offering is a 2004 Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra by Kalevi Aho (b. 1949). It’s a substantial four-movement work in more conservative style by a well-established member of Finland’s flourishing music community. His works, including his many concertos, have been praised in this space before. By rights this piece deserves as much or more attention as Mana. If you get this recording (and you should!) you’ll probably return to Aho’s piece more often than Fagerlund’s. Both have received top-notch treatment from BIS. Here is a bit of the Vivace:

I’ll be back in two weeks with more thoughts about Style, Style Disrupters, and Style Aggregators.