Friday, February 18, 2011

Education of a musician

Riding over to the opera, I was talking about some incomprehensible musical abstraction to my friends, both not musicians, who were sitting in the front seat, when D said (suddenly realize that both of their initials are D, but never mind) that he had no idea what I was talking about.

This made me think. When I started college as a music major, my only musical experiences had all been singing. A singer doesn’t actually need to know anything. If you can accurately repeat what you are taught by the coaches, that fills the minimum requirement. I’ve never forgotten the German mezzo who didn’t know which end of the keyboard had the low notes. Ignorant though I was when I started, I think I had already figured that part out. Maybe she was dyslexic.

As a music major, five days a week for two years we came every morning to study music theory. Our text book was McHose, an unusual book which is based entirely on statistics. Someone (undoubtedly Dr. McHose’s graduate students) had analyzed all of the harmonized Bach chorales and compiled statistical tables on what each chord resolved to.

If I determine that this is a tonic chord, 52% of the time it resolves to a subdominant, 22% to a submediant, etc. [Editorial comment—these numbers are made up. It’s just an illustration. I don’t see McHose on my shelf anywhere. I do see something called Beyond Midi which I must remember to read some time.] It is the standardization of expectation that is the main factor in creating tonality.

We practiced sight-reading, writing music from dictation, analysis, voice-leading, etc. Then in the third year we went on to form and analysis, counterpoint, and ultimately composition.

It changes a person. I hear immediately the presence or absence of tonality, for instance: present for much of Dowland, but little of Schuetz, absent completely from Froberger, but coming along in Purcell. Bach is the high point of tonal sophistication, actually, one of the reasons for the reverence paid to him. Mozart simply takes it for granted.

Once you have been through all this, you can never go back. I’m writing this while listening to the new recording Ercole sul Termodonte by Vivaldi, and am surprised to hear how much slower his harmonic rhythm is than Bach’s, who generally gets in at least two different chords per measure. Never mind. It’s a wonderful recording, incidentally, with a number of excellent artists.

I deliberately abandoned music for personal reasons, but all this blogging about opera keeps it stirred up, much like remembering how to speak German. My friends are to be commended and thanked for not abandoning me when I go off on a tangent. D turns up the radio occasionally, though.

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