Monday, January 16, 2006

Endings & Beginnings, part I

Though a mere two and a half inches tall, she could hold my attention for extraordinary lengths of time. For years I carried her around in my pocket or in a girly purse, fidgeting my fingers around her steely (ok, pewter) tutu and trying to imitate her perfect fifth position feet or the way she held her head slightly over one shoulder. I wondered what she might be about to do--or what she might have done--but, being only a figurine, she refused to reveal an inclination either way.
That’s the neat thing about ballet. You end like you begin; a casual observer has no idea that you’ve done all that work. If you hold the finish--and I hate when students slump and slouch and start stretching out on the last count of music--you punctuate one sentence yet are ready to begin all new again.
These sentiments, expressed by Mme Edgren-Williams to the first beginning ballet class of the new year, reminded me of classical music, where harmonic schemes and formulae typically bring a piece to end where it began. So often, the tonic harmony--Big Roman Numeral I--asserts its position as formally as the dancer standing at the barre. In dance class, the movements of a given exercise, from the beautiful and expressive to the awkward and painful, are held (arms en bas) neatly and tidily between the preparatory count of "and" and the pianist's final cadence. Formulaic music harmony is similarly bittersweet, secreting away a symphony or sonata's pathways and developments in order to return to the home key. (Just ask Schenker!)

To be fair, Debussy and Bartok are not capital-C (Classical) composers, but they often adhere to the models and plans established by their predecessors. The other day, while shuffling through piano scores looking for something "minimalist, maybe motoric, lacking a recognizable tune, harmonically evocative of the early twentieth century (impressionistic?) and somewhat, even outright, virtuosic," I found two pieces that seemed to meet the criteria, including, also, the all important "jesting or wryly humorous, but in a contained—i.e. not because of strong musical contrasts—way." Though dissimilar in form (the Debussy is ABA; the Bartok is through-composed) I heard a comparable compositional cheekiness at the very end of each piece. In both cases, a deliberately placed low note--bomp!--acknowledges the beginning and sums up the whole, making a rather self-satisfied "point" of returning to the tonic. Debussy and Bartok, impudent!

I learned Debussy’s Mouvement over a decade ago; at the time, it lived in the shadow of Reflets dans l’eau and Hommage à Rameau (its antecedents in the first book of Images) and never received the knowing [wink, wink] performance it deserved. The opening pages of this etude are a grand joke on the piano’s Pentateuch, on the first notes most pianists ever learn, the five white keys from middle C up to G. Teasing and noodling on this simple five-finger pattern eventually leads to more intricate harmonic motion at the beginning (m.67) of the development. Here, my fingers actually enjoy moving from the snowy topography of C D E F G to the awkward tangle of overlapping major and diminished triads--the difference feels good. Mouvement is still all about C, however, a fact that is nowhere more apparent than in the dramatic climax (m.89 – 114) built entirely around F sharp, the pitch that parses the octave, C to C, exactly in half. (C becomes conspicuous by its absence.) The whole thing is so silly, isn’t it, and as the recap takes its obligatory detour by way of whole tone scale—up, up, up—one might think a fade out ending the most appropriate way to finish. (Fade out endings are so carefree and noncommittal.) But no, in case you didn't "get it," Debussy writes the very lowest C of all in the last measure, bringing the piece emphatically 'round to its beginning. What a sassy pose. (I find it all wildly humorous, but then again, today I am an ultimate piano geek.)


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