Friday, November 15, 2013

Words Inside of Tone

It was from Bach cantatas that I learned that tones are inseparable from words.  Even where there are no literal words there are nameable affects underlying tone, without which tone becomes barren.  This connection is nowhere more apparent than in the four-part chorales taught, alas, without their texts in theory classes.  Without text these startlingly piercing illustrations of verbal/tonal synergy become mere exercises in ingenuity.  Whose bad idea was it to separate the two?

In composition for instrument without voice, as happened after the piano was invented--logical, since the piano could sing as well as do what previous keyboard instruments also did--words began to assume a different function.  Beginning, I believe, with Clementi words that we now think of as expression markings actually described how the tones behaved on the new instrument if only you would really listen to them and not treat them as just notes.

This link was carried to further extremes by Robert Schumann who, interestingly, might be said to have worked within the Clementi tradition, as he studied with Ferdinand Wieck (Clara's father) who had, in turn, studied with Clementi.  The titles that we are told are programmatic, like the titles of so many pieces in the Album for the Young, the Waldszenen, and many other cycles of Schumann, are not references to extra-musical events but are themselves part of the very sounds of the compositions interwoven with the tonal events.

This simple observation utterly transforms playing these works.  Try playing the Scheherezade in Album for the Young, as if your life depended on stringing out the story and each of its sequels so that the listener can't bring himself to order your head cut off.