Sunday, October 28, 2012

Avoiding The Music Box Effect in Schubert

One listener noted what she found to be the very troubling music box effect of some of the repeated passages in Schubert's E-flat Sonata, Op. 122.  She brought up a central problem in these sonatas.  Another listener confessed that he never played them because he could not make sense of the structure, largely because of the repetitive passages.

Despite pressure from academics, I never engage in formal analysis of the works I play.  I assume that the composer has taken care of the structure and that my job is to make it come to life--to inhabit its drama.

If, as I firmly believe, the subject matter of the sonata is the key itself, then the drama emerges as the degree of stability or instability of the key is altered by accidentals or by finding oneself,whether prepared or not, in a strange key.

For this reason I track carefully the order of entrance of the scale tones and of the accidentals.  The beginning of this sonata, as pointed out earlier, is the utter instability of its beginning.  The first long note, G, is also the first pronounced downbeat.  Before many measures pass we have the following accidentals: B-natural, E-natural, A-natural and G-flat (enharmonic F-sharp but without the leading tone implication).  Before the missing link appears, completing the 12-tone system, B-natural has to become C-flat and only then does D-flat make its appearance.  All of this is tremendously significant: G is, after all a sharp key; to involve it increasingly in flats is a measure of the work's fascination with instability.  This is further shown as the first movement progresses, culminating in the last accidental to be introduced, F-flat.

The music box effect, i.e., when a melody or a rhythm repeats again and again without variation, makes us keenly aware of the slightest change.  I liken it to the atmosphere in an Impressionist landscape.  To get interested in the effect one must first respond to the notion that sharps are fundamentally different from flats in that they point in opposite directions.  Then the challenge is to let oneself be at the mercy of sound pure and simple.

When thus immersed the player risks being thrown off-balance by shifts in the prevailing tonal condition.  Therein lies the drama.  It is calm until it is no longer calm, predictable until an accidental points in the wrong direction and all hell breaks loose.