Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Great moments in musical analysis

Prokofiev's Toccata starts off with a perpetual repetition of the note D, interchanged between the right hand (which plays the single note) and the left hand (which plays the same note but with the lower octave as well). After a brief development, there are chromatic leaps in the left hand whilst the right hand plays a repeated figuration. The two hands soon switch positions, although the leaps still continue for a while.

A series of split chromatic thirds leads upwards until a descending melody (in A) with chromatic third accompaniments begins, with the left hand traveling in contrary motion upwards. This leads back to the main repetition 'theme' before a very short pause. Both hands soon play a weaving series of the right hand's repeated figuration from the start, before the split chromatic thirds pattern reappears. This leads more violently to the descending melody pattern, but this time in D, before the D repetition 'theme' reappears, this time in alternating octaves in both hands. The toccata slows down and halts temporarily before a chromatic rising scale leads to octave exhortations, followed by a glissando sweep up the keyboard to end on the top D.
Wikipedia on Prokofiev's Toccata, op. 11

A wonderful example of why writing about music is so difficult. I mean, everything he says is true, as far as it goes, but the result is just a blow-by-blow account of the piece, couched in highly technical language. If you know the piece, this description might remind you of how it goes; if you don't, the description is no help at all.

At the beginning of the article, Prokofiev's piece is described as a "further development of the toccata form", and names Bach, Schumann, Kabalevsky, Ravel and Khachaturian as composers of well-known toccatas. Maybe it's just me, but I expect the average educated musician would think of an organ toccata (probably the Widor) before realizing that there's one by Ravel (it's in Le Tombeau de Couperin, if you're wondering) or by Kabalevsky (I mean, I'm not surprised that he wrote one, but it's not a repertory piece). This is pure discrimination - an egregious case of a pianist-author picking a group of his piano-toccata cronies over a group of better-qualified organ-toccata candidates - and I plan to report the matter to the appropriate authorities. And finally, kids - toccata is a process, not a form.

Lest you come to the conclusion that I'm just another snobbish Wikipedia-basher, I refer you once again to their Messiaen article. Not only is this one of the best Wikipedia articles I've ever seen, but probably the best introduction to the composer's life and work currently available in any medium.

Previously: Almost profound


John Richard Ahern said...

It's actually sort of shocking how many music historians and analysts continue to call Messiaen a "mystic" or refer to his "mystical Catholicism", considering how many times he seemed to go to great lengths to assure people he wasn't a mystic and did not compose mystical music. Tangential to your point, I guess, but, in my browsing of the Wikipedia article, I don't find reference to his ostensible mysticism. So, there you go.

Osbert Parsley said...

Exactly. I think most music journalists (and many musicologists) don't have a clear idea of what the work "mysticism" actually means. I suppose to a secular audience, anyone that takes religious doctrine seriously must seem somehow "mystical". . .