Monday, May 09, 2011

Coplandic Passacagliana

I was inspired by that David Orr book to finally read Aaron Copland's What to Listen For in Music, from way back in 1939. It's something along similar lines for classical music: really the classic music appreciation book, stateside at least. It's a good, clear read. Its datedness does show, for example in assuming a striving attitude on the part of the listener, bordering on an obligation. "To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one's whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glories of mankind," he concludes. Less substantively but more destructively, his pronouns and hypothetical figures are claustrophobically male. So I'm not sure this would really work as a layperson's reader any more.

I'm still digesting it, but for now here's an isolated fragment that shows an important point of light. Here's Copland discussing the passacaglia form:
Speaking generally, the composer has two objectives in treating the passacaglia form. First, with each new variation the theme must be seen in a new light. In other words, interest in the oft repeated ground bass must be aroused and sustained and added to by the composer's creative imagination. Secondly, aside from the beauty of any one variation, taken alone, they must all together gather cumulative momentum, so that the form as a whole may be psychologically satisfying.

I may be forgetting something, but I think Copland's second thought here is about as concretely as he discusses dramatic intensity as a key ingredient of musical construction. (He does allude elsewhere to the "long line" of a work, a dramatic contour, that needs to be instinctively felt by the composer.) But anyway, here they are in microcosm, the two aspects in which a piece varies as it goes from measure to measure: in musical content and in dramatic intensity. Copland spends a lot of time on the former and not a lot on the latter. Which is fair enough, since the dramatic line is much, much harder to describe concretely. Plus, it's basically subjective in the ears of the listener. But I think the tricky thing is that the dramatic line is also more important to how you're going to experience a long-form piece of music.

And I think the same thing is true on the macro level, with musical variation more or less aggregating to form and dramatic variation to the "long line." It's not like you can disengage the two things, but I think the second one's the primary one. If you want a give a glib instruction for an instrumental composition, it's not "have a robust form," it's "don't get boring."

Anyway, I'm not going to dash something off and outdo Aaron Copland in an evening. Here's the passacaglia he gives as an example -- and if you know the piece, you already know it's going to be the exemplary passacaglia -- Bach's magnificent Passacaglia in C minor. (With bonus fugue!) The two high-register variations at about five and a half minutes always get me, I think because the sublimation of the bass line lends them a sense of wistful vulnerability.


Blogger Pete said...


I'm pretty sure we've watched footage of this particular pornganist before, at Aunt Katie & Jack's house, once upon a time.

But, I'm not gonna let this new-fangled HD video stuff tear me away from the real master, E. Power Biggs.

5/09/2011 10:30 PM  

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