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The Early Music Week faculty share thoughts on the year's program

pamJan. 8, 2018


by Larry Wallach

Our theme this year opens an enormous subject, especially if considered across the last thousand years of Western music, from the beginnings of written polyphony in the eleventh century (roughly) to the present.  One way to define “transformation” is:

A process (or processes) whereby one piece of music turns into another. 

This raises two questions: 
            1. what do we mean by a “piece of music?” and
            2. when does a variant become a separate piece?
Many other questions ensue, specifically about what those processes might be; but what follows are my attempts to respond to these first two questions.

1.  A “piece” could be thought of as part of some larger musical organism.  Many medieval French motets of the 13th century were originally embedded in a larger work based on sacred chant called an organum until Machautthey broke free and became “pieces” (literally, pieces of some larger ‘thing’).  By the 14th century French and Italian songs stood on their own and were clearly separate musical entities, but there were still cycles of songs, such as Machaut’s Lai de la Fonteinne written as a tribute to the Virgin, in which a single poem of 12 verses is set to twelve distinct melodies, each complete in itself.  Is each one a “piece?”  Are all twelve “a piece?”

A similar situation prevails in Monteverdi’s sestina, Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata (Tears of the lover at the tomb of the beloved) from around 1614.monteverdi A sestina is a highly formalized poem in six six-line stanzas plus a three-line envoi (tercet).  Monteverdi sets each stanza as a madrigal that can be (and often is) performed separately.   But the full power of the work is felt when it is done complete.  The sixth madrigal includes the tercet, which in fact is an epilogue to the entire poem, an indication of the composer’s unified concept.  Monteverdi, of course, had been busy writing operas, a genre that intensifies the question about “pieces.”  In this same collection of madrigals, Monteverdi takes a piece of his (mostly lost) opera “Arianna” and transforms it into a set of four madrigals.  Is each of those a “piece?” Are all four a “piece?” Is the original opera a “piece?”  The answer to all four questions is “yes,” but reveals something basic about music:  it is not a physical substance that simply breaks into separate bits; it is always possible to link together a chain of “pieces” that in one way or another becomes one larger “piece.” So one process of transformation might be the breaking down or building up of pieces to create new musical entities.

Listen to the Lagrime d'amante:


2.  If a simple French or Flemish chanson is provided with elaborate ornamentation by an Italian composer, is it still the same piece?  If this same chanson is fitted out with new words in a new language (possibly German and Lutheran) is it the same piece?  When a simple folk-song or dance is the subject of keyboard variations (by Scheidt, Frescobaldi, or Böhm for example), each variation becomes a transformation of the original, by virtue of gaining a new harmony, rhythm, texture, melodic profile, or all of the above.  Performers feel free to cherry-pick variations and create a set, or to play all the variations as set forth by the composer. Even Bach’s Goldberg Variations were (was?) intended to be cherry-picked by Herr Goldberg, despite having an astonishing unified plan. The transformation process is meant to be recognized as, and functions as, a thread stitching all these pieces together into a larger whole. 

These examples all involve variation. Another type of transformation involves changing context (which can be combined with variation).  BachAn example of a problem about context is a beautiful Cantabile, ma un poco adagio by Bach that was part of the second version his sixth sonata for violin and harpsichord, but then discarded in the third version.  The same music appears in two cantatas as arias with violin obligato with two different texts; and there is a possibility that it was used a decade earlier in a lost cantata.  The history of this “piece” is unknown, but in each case it was part of a larger work.  Today, the violin version is heard as a stand-alone. It is one of Bach’s most beautiful creations, but it feels like it needs to be part of something larger to have full effect. 

Listen to the Cantabile:


Context can mean taking a simple piece and incorporating it into Scheidtsomething much larger.  Scheidt’s Canzon super 'O Nachbar Roland' takes a simple folk melody and expands it to a 228 measure length.  During the process (which involves many ingenious types of variation) the original tune seems to vanish, only to reappear unexpectedly. 

Listen to O Nachbar Roland:

Beethoven appreciated the power of context.  When asked to compose a ballet called The Creatures of Prometheus in 1801, he stole (borrowed?) Beethovenfrom himself a simple contradance tune, no. 7 of the set of twelve composed earlier which now became part of a larger work of theater music.  He then ‘borrowed’ this again to form a theme for a set of variations that constitutes the last movement of his path-breaking “Eroica” Symphony no. 3, composed in 1803.  In this final incarnation, the theme is deconstructed and reconstructed in astonishing ways to form a suitably grand and profound finale to this revolutionary symphonic work.  Clearly the variations are inseparable from the movement, which is (or should be) inseparable from the other three movements of the symphony.

Here is the Contredanse:


and here is the last movement of the Eroïca Symphony:


Having stretched my time-frame (and possibly my readers’ patience) beyond the realm of “early music” it is necessary to break off; the topic is endless, and I will look to my fellow WF-EMW bloggers to explore further facets of this fascinating subject.

Recent posts:

EMW 2019:
Dances of Love and War, by Ken Pierce

EMW 2018:
Transformative Dance, by Ken Pierce

Transformation, by Larry Wallach

Music: A Transformative Art, by Pamela Dellal

EMW 2017:
Music and nature, by Larry Wallach

Images of Nature in Dance, by Ken Pierce

EMW 2016:
Dancing to music, by Ken Pierce

Playing for historical dance, by Jane Hershey

EMW 2015:
Language, by Pamela Dellal

Genre, by Larry Wallach

Legacy, by Larry Wallach

EMW 2014:
The Spanish Golden Age in the Netherlands,
by Anne Legêne

Sephardic Music, by Jay Rosenberg

Ensalada by Salomé Sandoval