Friday, January 25, 2013

Tone Transformed: A New Way of Thinking about Classical Music

I have often asked musicians whether there is a piece they can't begin.  The question raises eyebrows among music theorists who cannot imagine such an event and who admit that such a question would never occur to them.  But, not infrequently, musicians will acknowledge specific compositions the first sounds of which are difficult to find.

It is no trouble to begin my own list: Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano, Schumann's Waldszenen, Schubert's big B-flat Sonata, and Mozart's G minor Piano Quartet.  So troublesome are these beginnings that they have led me to a new way of thinking about classical music.

Composers work out tonal scenarios that transform the tones from generic to entirely specific to the composition at hand, demanding more than the technical wherewithal to put your fingers on the right keys.  It is not enough that I know where G is on the piano; I am never sure exactly what G will satisfy the demands Debussy and Mozart make of that tone.  Similarly with the B-flat triad, so radically different in the Schumann than in the Schubert, each in turn so unlike the B-flat triad I expect to hear.

Curious that the four examples on my list are split between two tones: G and B-flat.