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3.4: Building on Identity

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  • Now that we have established how musical identity is created, it is time to study the language of transformation.

    Literature is filled with stories of transformation: In the legend of King Arthur, a commoner becomes the ruler of England; in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” a humble flower girl becomes a “fair lady”; in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a miserable miser is transformed into a generous benefactor; in the legend of Siddharta, an Indian Prince gives us his belongings to achieve enlightenment.

    Scrooge meets his ghosts; Eliza Doolittle studies diction. How is a musical idea transformed? In music, transformation is achieved through dynamic repetition. Whereas literal repetition repeats the music with all its aspects intact, in dynamic repetition, some new element or quality is added: That is, one or more aspects of the musical material are kept constant while others change. We will first examine how dynamic repetition can refashion an entire theme. We will then study how dynamic repetition itself is accelerated and intensified through fragmentation.

    Preserving the Melody

    Transposition is one of the most basic ways of creating dynamic repetition. In its simplest form, an entire musical passage is shifted up or down, as if it were riding in an elevator.

    Preserving the melody but changing its speed modifies the repetition.

    To evoke a Witches’ Sabbath in the final movement of his Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz quotes the “Dies Irae,” the Latin hymn for the dead from the Requiem Mass. Each phrase of the “Dies Irae” is played at three different speeds: First, slow by the low brass; faster and in harmony by the middle range brass; and faster still by the woodwinds.

    The melody of Thelonius Monk’s Brilliant Corners is first played at a leisurely pace, then quickens.

     Varying the register, instrumentation or accompaniment—either individually or collectively—offers ways to presents a theme in a new light.

    In this excerpt from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the repetition of the lyrical theme is refreshed by a change of register, instrumentation and accompaniment. The theme passes from the cellos to the woodwinds.

    The repetition in this excerpt from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture is revitalized in a similar way: This time, the theme passes upwards from the cellos to the violins, as the accompaniment becomes more lush.

    Olivier Messaien’s Turangalila Symphonie offers an example where only the accompaniment changes. At first, the spiky, rhythmically exacting theme is presented over a spare, murmuring background, accentuated by the percussion. As the theme is prolonged, its support becomes more ornate, with elaborate piano figuration.

    Embellishing a melody enlivens its repetition.

    The strings initially present the theme of the slow movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor.”

    Later in the movement, the piano presents an embellished version of the theme.

    Thelonius Monk’s Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are is based on the following theme:

    In this excerpt, Monk’s fanciful improvisation leaves just enough details intact to make the original melody still recognizable.


    Preserving the contour—the shape of a melody, but not its exact details—is another way of creating dynamic repetition.

    Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in G opens with the following declamation:

    Later in the work, the opening statement is restored, but with its details radically changed:

    The originally jagged rhythms are “smoothed out;” the texture includes plucked strings; the harmony is different. The theme is recognizable primarily from its contour.

    The opening theme of the first movement of Bela Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste is presented by the violas, alone.

    In the Finale movement, Bartok restores this theme. However, the initially cramped tune is “opened up:” While its contour is maintained, the arcs of its motion are now wider. The addition of lush harmony further invigorates the theme’s recurrence.

    Changing clothing can make our physical appearance look different. Similarly, varying the harmony can “dress up” a theme in different ways.

    Here are three different harmonizations of the Promenade theme from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

    In these excerpts, the nearly “unclothed” theme of Claude Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, is followed by two different harmonizations.

    In tonal music, playing a melody in the opposite mode creates a very significant change.

    This melody from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony no. 38, “Prague,” is first played in Major, then switches to minor before reclaiming Major.

    Conversely, the primary theme from the first movement of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in a-minor is first played in minor, then switches to Major, before returning abruptly back to minor.

    Thus, we have seen how a melody may be preserved, but its repetition varied through changes in speed, instrumentation, accompaniment and harmony.

    The most rigorous and self-sufficient way of building on melodic identity is a canon. Like a round, a canon is based on imitation. In a round, the voices are cyclical: Like a merry-go-round, the voices keep replaying the same tune and underlying harmonic progression over and over again. A canon, on the other hand, is through-composed: Rather than turning around in circles, the melody and underlying progression keep moving forward. Thus, our distinction: rounds maintain the identity of a theme, whereas canons elaborate on it.

    The third movement of Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in d-minor, Opus 76 No. 2 includes a two-voice canon: The violins play the lead line in unison, which the viola and cello then imitate in full. The canon is divided into two halves, each of which is repeated.

    Twentieth century composers emphasized the plasticity of canons. In most traditional canons, each voice moves in a distinct register, like drivers staying in their lanes. In the following canon by Anton Webern, the voices constantly flip over each other. Like a game of “Three Card Monte,” it is easy to lose track of who is where. The repeated notes that recur throughout this brief movement are actually caused by the two canonic lines “bumping” up against each other.

    American composer Conlon Nancarrow created an innovative series of canons for player piano. Using a mechanical means of performance enabled him to conceive of rhythm relationships too complex for a human performer. In Study No. 24, the three voices are moving in a speed ratio of 14/15/16. The effect is similar to heterophony; but here the voices are split into different registers.

    These twentieth century examples dramatize how canons build on identity. Though Webern and Nancarrow’s canons are each based on a single melodic line, the complexity of the canons disguise this internal consistency. The resulting textures take on a life of their own.

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