More About Skeletons

In; reading Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis, it strikes me that the analysts whose work he describes (such as Schenker and Reti) have made a fundamental mistake; they’ve attempted to apply their methods across the board to all music. As both an occasional composer of not-especially-profound music and an avid listener to all sorts of music, it strikes me that a method of analysis that works well for one genre or one piece of music may not work at all for another. Frank Zappa’s music is extraordinary, but one would hardly expect it to show many common features with a Haydn string quartet. Not only that, but a method of analysis that purported to find such commonalities would be deeply suspect.

Reti’s probing search for motivic unities in Beethoven is a case in point. Those unities are unquestionably there — sometimes, when Beethoven chose to put them there (and perhaps sometimes when he was guided by his unconscious and didn’t know he was putting them there). One of my favorite examples is the melody that begins at bar 75 in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Everybody knows that the first subject of the Fifth Symphony recurs in the third movement. But if you look at bar 75 in the first movement, you’ll find it hidden on the weak beats in a legato line. Unquestionably, Beethoven did that on purpose. But as Cook points out, Reti’s methods can far too easily reveal supposed motivic unities that aren’t really there at all.

Just for kicks, I had a stab at doing a Schenkerian analysis of the D minor fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Now, that doesn’t mean the fugue has no large-scale tonal structure. It quite clearly moves up from D minor to A minor (the dominant) at the halfway point, almost exactly as if it were a binary form piece. But those upward leaps of a sixth, which are so important to this fugue, are difficult to analyze using a Schenkerian method, as are the fugal entrances, which are pretty much all over the place. There’s a lot going on, so much that trying to find a straightforward linear analysis would be perilous.

What I did discover, while examining the piece analytically, was that after reaching the halfway point, Bach stated the fugue subject in inversion five times in a row. I knew it was inverted in some of its statements, but I hadn’t noticed while playing it that the inversions were deployed so consistently. His gigues often have this form: a three-voice fugue in which the fugue subject is inverted in the second half of the binary form. Clearly, he was inverting the subject of this fugue at this spot quite intentionally. But it would be silly to assume that he invariably used the same pattern, or anything like it, in every piece, or even in every fugue. Composers don’t work that way.

I happen to know the cello suites pretty well, so I’m aware of Bach’s intentions in several of them. The opening movement of the Second Suite is a fine example. This movement is in 3/4, and the second beat is very heavily emphasized throughout. In 38 of the 63 measures, the second beat is either the highest note in the measure, the lowest note in the measure, or longer than the notes surrounding it (as in bars 40 and 42). In a couple of other measures (49 and 53) the note on the second beat is an E-flat, creating a momentary Neapolitan harmony, and in 57 and 58 the second beat is emphasized by being the top of a rising figure, though the third beat here is even higher. So really, 40 or 42 of the measures out of 63 have this feature.

Neither Schenker’s method nor Reti’s would reveal it, though Leonard Meyer’s analysis of strong and weak beats using the terms of Greek prosody (iamb, dactyl, etc.) would. But would Meyer’s approach tell us anything about the C major prelude from Book I, which is an uninterrupted stream of 16th-notes? Probably not.

All I’m saying is, don’t insist on adherence to any particular method. Just notice what’s in the music.

 

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