Time and Space from Beethoven to 1913

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(Variation V m. 30 from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, op. 111.)

In 1913, an art exhibit was mounted at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York City (around the corner from where Hunter College is now located). This exhibit, which came to be known as the Armory Show, was the first introduction to American audiences of Modernist art. One of the most notorious and vilified paintings in the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

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The artist spreads out every moment of a motion that takes place over time —  a woman walking down stairs — on one plane.

The artist Man Ray did something similar a few years later with his painting The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself With Her Shadows.

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The painting shows every moment of a dance, flattened out on one canvas, all at once.

It has been theorized that the perception of time changed with the birth of Modernism. Certainly technology had something to do with this: the invention of the automobile and innovations in railroads made it possible for distances to be breached more quickly than anyone would have imagined even a few years earlier. 1913 was also the year that Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had its premiere:

What does Stravinsky do with the concept of time in this ballet?

Do you think that Henry Ford’s assembly line, also rolled out in 1913, contributed to the changed idea of time? How?

Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity three years later, in 1916, in which he declared that gravitation is a principle of space and time, or spacetime. 

Nevertheless, let us think back to the year 1822, when Beethoven wrote his last piano sonata, no. 32 in C minor (op. 111). In it, Beethoven (who was by then profoundly deaf) begins to experiment with space and time, predating Einstein’s theory by decades. In a sense, it’s not even a sonata, but rather a searching meditation on time itself.

If you look at the second movement (out of only two!) in your course packet — which Beethoven calls an “Arietta” — you will see that it starts with a sixteen-bar theme in 9/16 time. Why do you think Beethoven used such an unusual time signature?

The movement takes the form of a theme and variations. Notice that, as the variations succeed one another, Beethoven is further subdividing the beat and the time signature. Notice, for instance, that by variation III, the pianist is playing 64th notes against 32nd notes. And notice that Beethoven takes the meter from 9/16 to 6/16 to 12/32 and back. 12/32! Why does he do this?

Note that tiny note values does NOT mean fast playing. What does it mean?

And it’s not just time Beethoven is playing with: it’s also space. Space on the page, and distance on the keyboard. By the time we get to variation V, there are only eight measures per page, which is necessary because of the infinitesimal divisions of the beat. And notice that in variation V, m. 30, the pianist is asked to play virtually as high as possible on the keyboard, while in variation VI, m. 8-10 the right and left hands are outlining an enormous space across the piano from high to low.

Beethoven is expanding and compressing time and space in this late work in a way that foreshadows Einstein. Why? What do you think he means?

Is it Composed? Is it Improvised?

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George Crumb (1929 – ) wrote Apparition, a song cycle for soprano and amplified piano, in 1979. The text is taken from Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” considered one of the greatest of all American poems.

Crumb used the following excerpts from the poem:

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, 
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, 
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. 
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
University of Colorado music professor Steven Bruns has noted:

 

One of the things that’s really interesting and attractive about the poem . . . is that Whitman at several points seems to say, “I don’t know how I can find words that are adequate to express the depth of my grief” . . . Crumb intensifies the sonorous qualities of the words, helping us to hear how Whitman is “musicalizing” the language . . . It’s Whitman’s way of saying that mere words can’t express a sense of loss—only music can do that.

Interspersed among the Whitman song settings are vocalises, i.e. melodies without words. This vocalise comes right before the song “Approach, strong deliveress!”

It may sound absolutely wild, free, and improvisatory, but it is not, as you will see when you look at Crumb’s score in the classroom.

On the other hand, John Cage’s Aria (1957) is improvised, with guidance from the score:

As is Cage’s Water Music (1952):

 

And his Water Walk (1960), a revised version of Water Music:

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Here is Cage performing Water Walk on the game show “I’ve Got A Secret”:

 

From the Village to the Concert Hall

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Bartók recording folk music. His subject sings into the horn of an Edison phonograph, which incised a cylinder disk with a needle.

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Bela Bartók was one of the earliest ethnomusicologists.

Here is a field recording he made of Romanian folk dances.

Here is his piano composition entitle Romanian Folk Dances.

Here is a folk song he recorded:

The same piece, transcribed for two violins:

A piece by Bartók, based on a folk song he transcribed in Slovakia:

 

Clair de lune

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Nuit du carnaval (Henri Rousseau, 1886).

In an art song, there are many layers of meaning.

There is the meaning of the sounds of the music.

There is the meaning of the words of the text.

There is also the meaning of the sounds of the words themselves.

Listen to the sounds of the text read in French.

Another reading, with a poetic translation into English in the subtitles.

“Clair de lune” (Paul Verlaine, 1869)

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

In translation:

Your soul is a delicate landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques*
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
While singing in a minor key
Of victorious love and easy life
They don’t seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
Which makes the birds in the trees dream
And sob with ecstasy the water streams,
The great slim water streams among the marbles.

*Masks = masked players; bergamasques = dancers of a rustic peasant dance called the bergamasque or bergamask, supposedly derived from Bergamo in northern Italy (you can see here a reference to the migration of commedia dell’arte from Italy to France). The bergamasque is supposed to be an awkward, clumsy, buffoonish dance.

Debussy’s first version of the song, written in 1882.

A live performance by South African soprano Pretty Yende.

Debussy’s second version, written in 1891.

Debussy also wrote a piano piece called “Clair de lune” as part of his Suite bergamasque (bergamasques again!) in 1891 (he revised it for publication in 1905).

The piece has been orchestrated many times. This version was cut from Disney’s classic 1940 film Fantasia.

Here is Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the Verlaine poem, written in 1887, in between Debussy’s two versions.

“Au clair de la lune” is an old French folk song in which the protagonist takes advantage of an opportunity that presents itself unexpectedly (talk about “la vie opportune”!)

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“By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no light left.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.”

By the light of the moon,
Pierrot replied:
“I don’t have any pens,
I am in my bed
Go to the neighbor’s,
I think she’s there
Because in her kitchen
Someone is lighting the fire.”

By the light of the moon
Likeable Lubin
Knocks on the brunette’s door.
She suddenly responds:
– Who’s knocking like that?
He then replies:
– Open your door
for the God of Love!

By the light of the moon
One could barely see.
The pen was looked for,
The light was looked for.
With all that looking
I don’t know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Shut itself on them.

Debussy quotes the melody throughout his 1881 song “Pierrot”:

The text is a poem by Theodore de Banville.

In translation:

The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.

 

Pierrot

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Pierrot and Harlequin (Pablo Picasso, 1920).

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Pierrot is one of the stock characters of commedia dell’arte, an improvised form of theater that was performed by traveling players throughout Italy and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is a sad clown, in love with the stock heroine of commedia, Colombina (Columbine), who in turn is in love with the more virile and aggressive Arlecchino (Harlequin).

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Pierrot and Harlequin (Paul Cézanne, 1888).

While Harlequin is identifiable by his trademark checked leotards, Pierrot usually appears in a loose white suit, as shown here by the French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

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By the nineteenth century, whiteface makeup would become a trademark of the character as well, an innovation of the famous mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846), who added depth and nuance to the stock figure of Pierrot. Debureau’s portrayal of Pierrot even earned him comparisons to Shakespeare. The classic 1945 French film Les enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) is a fictionalized account of Deburau’s life.

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Claude Debussy wrote a song called “Pierrot” in 1881, a setting of a poem by Theodore de Banville which references the great Deburau:

The text, in translation:

The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Pierrot became the idealized image of the suffering, alienated, and melancholy artist. His white costume suggested innocence; his white face, with its corpse-like pallor, suggested death. He became a favorite subject of modernist painting.

Georges Seurat

By Georges Seurat.

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By Georges Rouault.

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By Pablo Picasso (who painted many images of Pierrot).

Elaine Haxton

By Elaine Haxton.

A very early animated French film of Pierrot.

In 1912, the German actress Albertine Zehme commissioned Arnold Schoenberg to write a song-cycle for her, based on German translations of the poem-cycle Pierrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot) by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud. Giraud’s poems begin in a dreamlike, surrealistic manner, and gradually become more and more nightmarish.

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Albertine Zehm.

Schoenberg pioneered the extended vocal technique of sprechstimme (speech-song), and used an ensemble consisting of flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet in A (doubling on clarinet in B-flat and bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), cello, and piano. This particular amalgamation of forces — flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano — is still known as a “pierrot ensemble.” The piece was first performed on October 16, 1912, with Zehme dressed as Columbine.

The German critic Theodor Adorno said that Pierrot Lunaire is about “the homelessness of our souls.”

Langston Hughes wrote a poem called “Black Pierrot,”
which was set music by William Grant Still, 1895-1978):

I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So I crept away into the night 
And the night was black, too. 
I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So I wept until the red dawn
Dripped blood over the eastern hills 
And my heart was bleeding, too. 
I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So with my once gay-colored soul
Shrunken like a balloon without air, 
I went forth in the morning
To seek a new brown love.

Pierrot has continued to haunt the music of our own time. David Bowie told an interviewer in the 1970s:

I’m Pierrot. I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is theatre, and only theatre. . . . It’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976.

Later, Bowie appeared as Pierrot in the video for his 1980 song “Ashes to Ashes.”

In 1996 and again in 2015, Björk sang Pierrot Lunaire in live performance.

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