Onward and upward with our New Year’s survey of musical elements. Last time, we got a start on rhythm, because any art form that moves through time must consider rhythm primary.
Yet in Western classical music, pitch is usually awarded pride of place. Westerners have done pretty well with it. Purely melodic constructions in Euro-American “serious” music lack the complexity found in, say, Indian music, with its long tradition of improvisations on raga or mēḷakarta. But in our own brief history we did create—besides melodies—harmony and counterpoint, two pitch-centric techniques largely absent elsewhere.
Pitches also seem to be prime carriers of emotional rhetoric. The range and specificity of feelings that come with a pitch sequence are arguably wider than those that come with rhythms.
In these thousand words I’ll explore how melodies are constructed, while mentioning harmony and glancing toward emotion. It’s a tall order. We may ignore a few hundred details. Let’s begin with Beethoven’s Greatest Hit, as delivered sensitively by Alfred Brendel:
In terms of structure, Für Elise scores high on the Simple and Repetitive scales. That’s why it’s popular; check out any song in the Billboard Hot 100 to confirm this principle. It begins with one crucial, ear-wormy ingredient, a pair of oscillating pitches (o.p.’s) rounded off with repeated ascending broken chords (b.c.’s), leading to a repeat of the entire phrase (o.p.’s plus b.c.’s)—call it all “A.” That much—from first o.p. to last b.c.—is immediately repeated (so, A again). For a moment Beethoven switches up with little b.c. variations, and then. . . . back to the o.p.’s. This is the B-to-A half of the piece, which is—you guessed it—immediately repeated, resulting in a form of AA BA BA. Perfect for ringtones.
Is a profound emotional association in there somewhere? No. Beethoven himself called it a Bagatelle, i.e., a trifle. For deeper emotion, try this (Brendel again):
But wait, where’s the melody? It’s certainly not present in the first 23 seconds. That’s just the accompaniment, consisting of a repeated b.c. plus an equally placid, hypnotic bass line. As the music goes on, bass and b.c. subtly change, together, to produce harmonic flow. This is what people remember. The “melody” begins about 24 seconds into the movement, with a repeated single pitch. Eventually, Beethoven arranges five whole pitches artlessly (i.e., with extreme care) in sequence. You don’t pay much attention to them, because the first few seconds have already established a mood. This time it is profound, encompassing sadness, longing, and loss.
Anything simple or repetitive in this is expertly offset by unconventional treatment. Few Classic-era piano sonatas begin this way: not quickly with fanfare, but slowly, with only the barest attempt at melodic action. We cannot for an instant dismiss it as a trifle. Again and again during his career, Beethoven proved that “melody” is not an issue; it’s how you work with it.
When other good composers practiced the economies of the “Moonlight” Sonata, they also produced superior music and avoided Ringtone Syndrome. Here is Chopin’s famous E-minor Prélude (Ingrid Fliter, pianist), which relies on a harmonic progression delivered in placid, unchanging 8th-note rhythms under an almost non-existent melody:
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that good composers ignore melody. It’s that they prefer to subvert, extend, or otherwise modify the formulae. Listen to the first few bars of Mozart’s C-minor Piano Sonata, K457 (from Mitsuko Uchida):
How many melodies in there, fans? Let’s enumerate: (1) dramatically ascending b.c., brusque, demanding; (2) immediately met with a fluttery, downward-swooping treble response; (3) followed by that dramatically ascending b.c., now in the dominant; (4) return of the fluttery, etc. etc.; (5) all giving way to a driving murky-bass accompaniment and right-hand “melody” of mournfully interlaced, irregularly descending chromatic lines. That’s just the first 16 seconds. Mozart uses these abrupt thematic switches to create a miniature drama, a fast-moving dialogue.
If dialogue is possible, then so is soliloquy. Berlioz manages a whole series of them based on a single theme, the idée fixe of his Symphonie fantastique. Here’s how we first encounter it (Daniel Harding conducts):
This lengthy, complex melody begins with another version of the ascending b.c., by which it gains height and gathers energy. Then it stalls, falling slowly downward, step by step. Another try, on the dominant, reaches greater heights before stalling. The stall-and-fall fragment repeats at successively higher pitches, eventually producing a climax, then a final downward fall.
Thus does Berlioz depict his autobiographical protagonist’s unfulfilled longing. Whereas Berlioz used a term from contemporary psychology connoting obsession, this theme’s musical rhetoric—its “sigh” motives and more—goes back to the 17th century. The point was to communicate a specific feeling through melody. It still works; even 21st-century listeners get it.
I could cite further examples. Another thousand words might introduce Brahms properly: he adopted Beethoven’s minimalist strategy, proving again that the simpler the material, the more you can do with it. Or we could explore Tchaikovsky’s endless flirtations with, and narrow escapes from, the Simple and Repetitive. In his negotiations with popularity, he avoided Ringtone Syndrome by crafting tunes both shapely and memorable. People got melodies they could take to heart without fear of earworms:
(as shaped by Mikhail Pletnev!) Are these tunes’ emotional content as specific as Berlioz’s? As Shostakovich’s (see below)? Perhaps not, and that’s also a key to their relative popularity. Listeners can project personal emotion into them with far greater ease.
We’ll come back to Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Meanwhile, two recent recordings offer veritable master classes in melody. First is cellist Natalie Clein’s set of Suites for Solo Cello by Bloch, Dallapiccola, and Ligeti. Late in life, Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) wrote three unaccompanied suites for Zara Nelsova, with whom he had earlier recorded Schelomo and Three Pieces from Jewish Life. The suites owe something to Bach but a lot more to Bloch, who steadfastly “proclaimed the primacy of melody in his creative thinking.” (New Grove 1980, italics added)
Here Bloch anchors a series of three-note statements with single bass-note “accompaniment,” gradually allowing the embryonic melody to expand in length, range, and intensity.
In the First Suite’s third movement, “Canzona,” Bloch heads for the instrument’s high register, offering a finely spun melody in which low-register anchor notes drop after the melodic statements:
Clein has a big, warm sound, and she's not afraid to use it. Even Dallapiccola’s difficult 1945 Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio, which reflects the harrowing war years in Italy, emerges as pure music. A fervent anti-fascist, he expressed his love of freedom in part by adopting Schoenberg’s 12-tone method. The results remain passionately human. The second movement is subtitled Allegro con espressione drastica:
And so to our second master class, Shostakovich Violin Concertos from Frank Peter Zimmermann, Alan Gilbert conducting the NDR Elbphilharmonie. I found the keening lines of No. 1’s first-movement “Nocturne” particularly moving:
In 1948, as Shostakovich was finishing this work, he found himself back on a government blacklist, his music considered too “formalistic” for good Russian ears. You can hear the composer’s anguish at having to bear—again—the loss of his public voice at a time when he had so much to say; this concerto waited seven years for its first performance. Throughout the recording, members of the orchestra add exquisite counterpoint, intensifying the music’s impact. It’s also superbly recorded, as is Clein’s collection.