Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Manuscript of the Musical Offering. Wikimedia. Public Domain

Ashish, the Geek Wrestler, once asked me for a sort of introduction to Western music. The reason I’m writing this is to save him from metal rock. But the topic is immense and greater than my knowledge, so I guess I can write brief notes on specific aspects, like this one.

One of the characteristics of Western music is polyphony, e.g. music made of melodies that travel independently throughout the composition though harmoniously combined with one another. This whole thing, of combining different melodies together, began in the Middle Ages, possibly by chance, and progressed in the subsequent centuries.

Western music can also be monodic, the opposite of polyphonic, whenever there is either just one melody (monophony) or when a melody prevails over other sounds that serve as mere accompaniment to the main star, the melody itself.

In this nocturne for piano solo by Frédéric Chopin (op. 27 no. 2) we have a cantabile melody, sometimes doubled and with ornaments, accompanied by arpeggios and bass sounds. It is evident here that the melody is the main protagonist, despite the surrounding notes and some voice layering here and there.

Let us first listen to the real thing (we chose Maurizio Pollini for his unromantic interpretation of this romantic work) and we’ll then listen to and view a computer graphical representation of the same work, which favours analysis.

In the computerized version below (by Stephen Malinowski) we notice that the double notes of the melody are not always parallel, which creates like a secondary voice. At the end of the piece there is some slight hint of polyphony. But on the whole this is not a polyphonic piece. Chopin is mainly monodic. Only at the end of his life he inserted some polyphony in his most mature works.

Let us now plunge into the great polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No.4, iii, Presto.) This music – whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear – is such hard stuff I prefer to propose a computerized version first (also by Stephen Malinowski.)

Different colours and timbers help to mentally separate the different voices. The exercise of following the voices separately is highly educating and can result in great pleasure. No easy thing at first though. I should have chosen a music with less voices (2 or 3 maximum,) but I couldn’t find a Midi music as satisfying as this one, although being able to identify 3 voices (hard already) or  just 2 can be all right at first. The representation is what one usually gets on a Midi sequencer, i.e. a computer software, such as Steinberg Cubase.

Now a version with real players (the performers being unknown to me).

The music of Bach here presented is a fugue (or fugato). In a fugue voices (parts) are not all equal. There is a subject or theme (like a main melody) that is repeated many times at different levels of pitch. It is good exercise as well trying to identify, among the bunch of voices, the subject of a fugue whenever it pops up here and there, which is pretty often.

The study and practice of “the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm” is called counterpoint. It was highly developed during the Renaissance and was common practice later, during the Baroque period (Wikipedia).
Independent in contour and rhythm. Very important in polyphony. If played or sung separately, voices or melodies still make sense!

One last music by this great German composer: the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 – iii, Allegro, rich with tremendous energy and beauty.

Music, Politics and History

Dimitri Shostakovich birth house. Wikipedia. GNU Free Documentation License

20th-century Music? Eastern Europe

The Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) is not boring or academic. He is profound. It took me decades to really appreciate his music. It is hard to understand why sometimes beauty requires a long path to be fully grasped while other times it is so easily attainable. Shostakovich is a master in everything he does, symphonic & vocal music, piano-solo music, chamber music (the quartets etc.). His polytonal solutions and the sense of dislocation they produce seem much more interesting to me than Russian Prokofiev’s (1891-1953). Prokofiev is more brilliant but I definitely prefer Shostakovich. One can really get so much peace from his depths. Great music – like great literature and thought – can provide inner peace and education of the soul (listen to this “unedited live performance by Wendy Warner – cello – and Irina Nuzova – piano – of Shostakovich’s Sonata Op. 40 for Cello and Piano, 4th movement, at the Phillips Collection” – Youtube).

Russian contribution to 20th-century music – and eastern Europe’s contribution- is immense. Many eastern European musicians (take for example composers like Arvo Pärt and György Ligeti) are perfect musical craftsmen, are very inspired and really capable of going beyond Romanticism without destroying musical beauty. One of the reasons of this success is due, in my opinion, to the fact that greatest music regions such as Austria and Germany got lost for years in hopeless, neurotic experimentation (serialism etc.). This decadence does not include Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), a very interesting composer I am so eager to know better, while Richard Strauss (1864–1949), being a late Romantic, belongs to the 19th century. This is my personal view, I’ll repeat it, and surely many people will not agree.

I remember I was a youth in Rome between the 1960s and the 1970s and while trying to study musical composition privately I became more and more disillusioned (and disgusted) when I realised that no other music would have been accepted outside the Neue-Wiener-Schule type of music (Second Viennese School), i.e. twelve-tone or serial-technique music. I wouldn’t be surprised if women somewhere in the world had abortion while listening to it (I have to check, it MUST have happened somewhere!).

This feeling of oppression we felt (some of my fellow music students shared my view though not all of them) may be due to the Roman musical provincialism of that time, but I assure you that those days, for wannabe composers, were really dull and depressing in many other Italian and European places as well…

Dimitri Shostakovich on a postal stamp. From Wikipedia. Fair use

Two things should be noted here I believe.

1) The crisis of Germany in the last century – political, cultural, psychological – after each world war: it has been discussed a bit in this blog and it implies many tragedies, although tragedy seems to befit the Germans (follies of the Nibelungs, the Italian journalist and historian Indro Montanelli used to say: he tho loved the Germans). This crisis seems however to be fully overcome. The German-speaking people of the southern regions are less tragic, or they are a bit, though attenuated by Latin measure and taste. As far as very recent German contemporary music goes, we know very little about it.

2) To this German crisis it has to be added the end of the Austrian Empire (Kaiserreich Österreich) occurred at the end of WW1. Such empire was a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, a direct remnant in its turn of the Roman Empire. The great Austrian writer Joseph Roth gives us a refined though melancholic account of finis Austriae, ie the end of Big (enchanting) Austria.

Both the German & the Austrian crisis in various phases of the 20th-century created (among excellent contributions) waves of pessimism in many cultural fields – to make it simple. This greatly influenced the European Continent’s 20th-century Zeitgeist (‘spirit of the age’), it influenced my generation (take Freud, or Adorno, a bit gloomy, to cite only thinkers etc.; of music we’ve already spoken) and all Italy as well, a neighbour of the German-speaking areas, an intense relationship occurring between the 2 poles.

To-and-fro influence mechanisms, history is so fascinating! Germanization of Italy during my generation (during 1800 and 1900 to be more correct, although French influence was strong too) and much earlier romanization of the southern German-speaking folks at the times of the ancient Romans and also much later until the apex of our decadence (1700s-1800s.) We already mentioned Bavaria and Regensburg (ancient-Roman fortress Castra Regina along the Roman-Empire Limes or borderline) in a previous post, which correspond to parts of the Ancient-Roman province of Raetia, while to the east we had the Roman province of Noricum, coinciding more or less to modern German-speaking Austria.

Cultured Italians (few are left) realise how close these South German-speaking people are to us. I personally feel this encounter between Roma and Germania so special and sacred.

This is why I now feel like talking about one of the most sublime outcomes of this encounter. It is a splendid musical fruit – this post is dedicated to music, after all – whose apparent simplicity hides a really hard-to-get beauty – since it is one of the most perfect beauties ever produced by man. The outstanding composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni (half Italian and half German btw) was able to grasp this beauty only at a later stage of his life.

Germans & Italians Meet.
Taste and Knowledge

Mozart in 1780, portrayed by Johann Nepomuk della Croce. Detail. Wikipedia. Public domain

Speaking of the infancy and of the first adolescence of Mozart, the American musicologist Donald Jay Grout (History of Western Music) argues (not having the original text, I am translating from the Italian 1993 Feltrinelli 7th edition, Storia della Musica in Occidente, pp. 509-510):

“After 1760, the two principal national idioms [i.e. musical idioms, MoR] were the Italian and the German. Italy still remained the fatherland of music and the mecca for any student who aimed at becoming a composer … Which were at that time the differences between Italian and German music?”

Jay Grout answers at the end of the paragraph with the words of appreciation the Austrian composer Haydn – composition teacher of both Mozart and Beethoven – had addressed to Mozart’s father:

“In front of God and as an honest man, I’m telling you that your son is the greatest composer I have ever known, either personally or by name. He has taste and, what counts more, he has the deepest knowledge of composition.”

“These – Jay Grout argues – were the two essential elements: taste, instinct for what is appropriate, awareness of limits; and knowledge plus technique in order to say what one has to say in a complete, clear and persuasive manner. Generally speaking, it can be said that taste was the speciality of the Italians, while knowledge was that of the Germans; Mozart in his style combines both.”

Italian version

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Related posts:

Permanences I
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

See also:

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?
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