Friday, September 11, 2009

Another Way of Listening to "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

There are several ways to listen to a piece of music: you can listen to it because you like it (or because you were told to...); you can listen to it to hear what you like about it (“oh, that's the hee-haw bit”) or you can listen to it critically as a performance (“they didn't play that very well, there” or “I like how they got a little more dramatic here”); you can listen for the enjoyment you get out of it (“this part makes me sad; that part makes me smile”) or you can listen to it recognizing which section of the music represents which characters in the story (“there's the 'fairy music' again”). Or you could make up your own story using it as a sound-track for your imagination (“I hear the space aliens scattering as the space-ship lands here and they're cautious about approaching it when the door suddenly opens – at 1:15 – and out come the astronauts...”).

You can also listen to it “technically.” A music student might listen more technically than a non-music student (I hate that term, like you're majoring in non-music...) so you might call the technical details different things, depending on your familiarity with the jargon (“sounds like it's getting ready for something new here at 2:06” as opposed to “yes, the transition between the closing idea as it modulates to the dominant key”).

Let's listen to it, now, with these pointers, thinking of it more abstractly (but using the “character references” as tags). Think also how Mendelssohn gives each of his musical ideas a kind of “personality profile” so you can recognize them when you hear them again.

0:00 Opening chords – sustained in woodwinds, suspended animation? The mood shifts between one chord (in winds at 0:20) and when the strings play it (at 0:27). For music students, this is a shift between an E Major chord (winds) and an E Minor chord (strings).

0:27 – First “Theme” - the fairy music - more a sound and texture than a melody – strings scurrying...
0:49 – again
0:56 – a chord interrupts (“looking around”?), a sound associated with the opening chords
1:06 – after pausing, the 1st Theme resumes, as if starting over but now expands...
1:15 – suddenly we hear a 2nd Idea (will it be the 2nd Theme?) - what contrast do you hear here – volume, rhythm, shape of the melody? Sounds like the two mortal couples have burst in on the fairy's scene...
1:29 – a new rhythmic idea (or “word”) that gives it new energy
1:46 – it's the fairy music from the 1st Theme but how is it different, now?
2:06 – it begins to fragment and sounds like it's going somewhere...
2:13 – and arrives here – it's a more lyrical theme, associated with the two mortal couples who are having relationship issues: perhaps the mood of the music represents their love? Technically, this is the “real” 2nd Theme (not the 2nd musical idea, though, we've had several of those, like “words” in a sentence; this is a new paragraph). But it's only the first part of it: the woodwinds ask a question which...
2:20 – is answered by the strings (remember this, we'll hear it often as an independent idea or “word”) So the 2nd Theme is made up of two distinct short “phrases”
2:34 – it begins again but instead of doing it the same way, things start to expand in length
2:44 – a fanfare figure is added that interrupts the original lyrical mood of 2nd Theme (from 2:13-2:34) – there is a variation on the “phrase” from 2:20 added here (a little variety out of a little unity)
3:02 – sounds like it's going to start going somewhere... then arrives here, suddenly:
3:09 – the thumping bass notes begin the theme associated with the comic actors who will try to put on a play of their own. While they're strutting about, rehearsing, they are “attacked” by Puck who gives their leader, Bottom by name, the head of a donkey (a play on the old expression, “making an ass out of him”) – embedded in this theme are musical gestures that reflect the hee-haws, the braying of donkey!
3:20 – this rowdy theme is countered by a rising gesture
3:32 – we hear the fanfares we'd heard back at 2:44 – do they sound different here?
3:40 – the 2nd Theme returns but with more of the fanfares – which increases the tension and arrives at...
3:57 – the return of 1st Theme or the Fairy Music – it starts off sounding very similar but then starts going off in different directions... where's it headed, after 4:03?
4:13 – it becomes more unstable: how is Mendelssohn making it less stable? What does something like the low sounds you hear at 4:18 do for the stability?
4:20 – more fanfares with the 1st Theme Fairy Music in the background – what do the isolated sustained tones in the horn do for the music's stability at 4:32... 4:39 and 4:45?
4:56 – sounds like something new: a pattern in the winds (rising up by one note, then falling back) with rumblings in the lower strings
5:06 to 5:25 – things have gotten kind of hushed – one voice is moving downward while another voice is moving gradually upwards... where's it going? Stable or unstable?
5:25 – it becomes a little smoother but still sounds questioning...
5:40 – the music is interrupted by a “pleading” line, as if one of the lovers is on his or her knees asking for understanding or forgiveness – where does it come from? It's actually a variation on the “answer” part of the 2nd Theme (check out the music at 2:20).

At this point, the first video ends before this resolves. Is it a satisfying ending if you stopped the piece right here?

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Well, that's a lot of stuff going on but it's how Mendelssohn builds six minutes of music out of a few different musical ideas – some are themes, others are just “gestures” like the little fanfares – and the most important (main) theme is really just a scurrying texture of strings representing the mysterious magical world of the fairy sprites who live in these woods.

So far we've had several musical ideas that can be grouped into those basic sections of a SONATA FORM – from the opening's introductory chords to 3:57 is the EXPOSITION... the reworking and fragmenting of some of the material, all mixed up, from 3:57 to the end of the first clip (actually the beginning of the second clip) is the DEVELOPMENT Section. So we'd expect, now, a RECAPITULATION, going back to the opening again to bring everything back together again.

So, let's listen to the 2nd half of the piece in this video clip which picks up just about where the first clip broke off.

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Here, the “pleading” music ends at 0:13 with the sustained chords from the very opening (that “once upon a time” sound) beginning at 0:14. This is what we'd expect: this is what will become the RECAPITULATION (the final “A” in the A-B-A-like form).

0:39 – the 1st theme's fairy music continues as expected but it begins to expand...
1:17 – the 2nd theme comes back – the mortals' love theme – but wait a minute, what happened to the lively “barging-in” music from the mortals we originally heard at 1:16 in the first video clip? It's not here!

There are some other subtle differences here, too: it's not just a run-through of everything we've heard before. But we do hear familiar music – the fanfares, the Comedians' music with hee-haws. And at that point, Mendelssohn could give it a lively ending at 3:40, probably what most composers would've done – it would make people applaud more, after all. Yay! But wait, there's more!

3:40 – instead of wrapping it up, here, he brings back the 1st theme's fairy music again
3:59 – the first time around, those hesitant “looking around” chords are now expanding into something more like the opening's “once-upon-a-time” chords
4:39 – but here's something that sounds familiar: what is it? It's actually the musical idea we heard at 1:16 in the first video which we associate with the mortals barging into the woods: remember how loud and energetic it sounded? How does it sound here?

Remember, the piece if called “A Midsummer Night's DREAM” – are they falling asleep here? Then at 5:24, those magical opening chords come back as if to say “and that's how it ends: was it really just a dream?”

Technically, this is like an added bonus track that composers often use to wrap things up a little more neatly. It's not what we expect so it adds to the enjoyment by being a little more unpredictable: maybe it puts a different “spin” on what we've heard. It's called a “CODA” which is the Italian word for tail, as in the “tail-end.”

When you were children, ever have somebody read you a bed-time story to send you off to sleep? And you fell asleep before it was over? Maybe that's what's happening here: Mendelssohn has finished the story and carefully closes the book so as not to wake you.

- Dr. Dick