Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pitch-class set class 3-3 is like a journey

The staff of TBWCTW has lately been provided with much hilarity by Sigmund Spaeth's Great Symphonies: How to Recognize and Remember Them. Published in 1936, Spaeth's book sets lyrics to the principal themes of the most frequently performed symphonies from Haydn to Franck. Judging by the number of used copies floating around the Internet, Spaeth's works seem to have been quite popular: it would be hard to imagine another book of music appreciation from the Depression era that can still be readily obtained for under two dollars. Yet something seems to have changed between then and now: Spaeth's lyrics to the great symphonies, which he intended as memory aids, are now unintentionally hilarious. So for the opening theme of Schumann's "Rhenish" symphony, we have the following:
Rhineland, lovely Rhineland, Super-fine land,
Full of beauty, song and story,
Land of legend, land of glory!
For the english horn melody in the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony:
English horn, all forlorn,
pipe your plaintive lay,
Dreaming slow, soft and low,
What does Dvorak say?
Nothing loud, nothing proud,
naught of pomp and pow'r,
Simple song, not too long,
shy as hidden flow'r.
Once again, sad refrain,
here it rise and fall,
Tender, true, ever new,
human heart-throbs' call.
and for the contrasting second theme (approximately 4:50 in the video):
Whither away?
No answer?
Whither away?
No answer?
Seeming to say,
"Let the music play,
Let's call it a day."
And, finally, Spaeth's arguable masterpiece, to be sung to the opening of Mozart's 40th:
With a laugh and a smile like a sunbeam,
And a face that is glad, with a fun-beam,
We can start on our way very gaily,
Singing tunes from a symphony daily.
And if Mozart could but hear us,
He would wave his hat and cheer us
Coming down the scale,
All hale
and strong
in song,
all hale and strong in song.
Now, whatever one might say about the quality of this verse, Spaeth's book has one great strength - the author's ability to communicate the essence of a symphonic narrative to a broad audience without vulgar programmaticism. Spaeth is not embarrassed to give his readers a concrete image to associate with each musical theme, but he usually derives these images from musical characteristics that are already obvious (the peasant dances in Haydn symphonies, or the gypsy fiddling in Brahms's Second). In the absence of explicit references of this sort, Spaeth never makes up fanciful stories about leprechauns and herds of wildebeest; instead, he generally gives us a skeletal narrative about a "hero" and his struggles, with their eventual resolution. This sort of thing is precisely what an untrained listener wants when he tries to follow an hour-long symphonic narrative: he doesn't need a fanciful story to distract him, but he should be told to listen for the varying characters of the different musical themes, to try to perceive an agonistic or complementary relationship between them, and to be aware of an eventual resolution to the conflict, when it arrives. Spaeth's book may be too dated to return to general circulation, and his lyrics may deserve oblivion, but his basic approach to music education is by no means unsalveagable.

What occurs to me, however, is that the themes in Spaeth's book - from composers like Schubert, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, are already memorable to begin with. No-one needs lyrics to remember the opening of Beethoven's Fifth or the chorale theme in the last movement of Brahms's first symphony. Such a memory aid, however, might be invaluable in confronting, say, Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, or Xenakis's Keqrops. There's a substantial market, I think, for a latter-day Spaeth who can come up with catchy lyrics to the various tone-row permutations in Webern, the octatonic melodies of Messiaen, or the jagged-edged motives of Stravinsky. The book would sell to classical music newcomers, of course, but could also be popular with aged symphony subscribers, who have long complained of the lack of "singable melodies" in Maderna and Stockhausen. Prove 'em wrong!

1 comment:

Danielle said...

I'm looking pointedly at Nick and Dave.