Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Form is Important

This week I have been thinking a great deal about form.  Specifically musical form, but form in general as well. I teach a Western Music History course at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics where we cover the history of music from the Baroque era through the Romantic era. This week I am introducing the Classical or Viennese era of music history. Two primary ideas come to light when I am introducing this era between 1750 and 1825. First, I try to get the students to understand that this is a prosaic age. Music, speech and literature have many parallels during the era. Second, I want students to walk away from the course knowing that FORM really dictates all music composition of this era as well. This is the case not only for music but for all the arts during the Viennese era.

In the class, we have been discussing Sonata Allegro form which is used throughout the Viennese era in much of music composition. I have explained how the Sonata Allegro form can be related to the introduction of characters and development of plot in prose writing. We have covered the three major parts of Sonata Allegro form including the exposition, development, and recapitulation. I have drawn the following parallels: the exposition can be considered the introduction of two characters (theme A and theme B). The development can be considered the development of the plot. This is where the characters are involved in some kind of transition or conflict as the composers take small fragments of themes A and B and manipulate them , changing key and showing off their skills in variation. Finally, the recapitulation in many ways is like the resolution of the conflict. It represents the wrapping up of the plot of the story and the reintroduction of the themes in their original form. I find that this type of parallel really brings Sonata Allegro form to life for my music history students.

We also cover concepts of phrasing in the Viennese era. The concept of an antecedent/consequent relationship between phrases and small portions of phrases in the Viennese era is vital to understanding the music of the age. This notion of question and answer in prose writing and drawing that similarity to the phrasing in the Viennese era, I think,  is very important. I love introducing the concept of antecedent consequent to my bright students at NCSSM.

In my experience much of the general public really doesn't understand how to listen to Viennese era music. So often, folks find it to be light and whimsical and perhaps even thin. When my students begin to understand the values of the era and the importance of fitting the music in to this strong Sonata Allegro form or other forms and the value placed on these antecedent consequent musical relationships in phrasing, they begin to understand the depth of the writing during this era.
It is always my goal that students listen to and understand the music with a strong appreciation of the values of the age. If one listens to Mozart or Haydn without understanding this high value on form and prose style musical phrases, they really can't begin to fully understand and appreciate the compositions.

Within the context of the course we also cover other important forms of the age. We cover Theme and Variations as they are found in many slow movements. We cover Rondo form and Minuet and Trio form as well. My goal is that students have a strong understanding of each of these forms of the era so that if they happen to attend a concert that includes music of the Viennese era when they go away to school or following their schooling, they will approach music of this era with a foundational understanding of what they will be hearing.

Finally, I love to then make strong points about how we as human beings are drawn to strong form. One concept that I am always reminded of when we cover this material is the way human beings are drawn to the form of the human face. I talk about how the front of a car looks like a human face with the two headlights as eyes and the bumper as a mouth or nose. I remember when my now 15 year old son was a baby he would look at the cabinet doors in our home and run around the house singing "two eyes and a face, two eyes and a face." This draw to the human form is strong in all of us.  Another example that I always use is that of a baseball game. When we go to a baseball game we have certain expectations of form. We expect the visiting team to bat first. We expect 9 innings. We expect a seventh-inning stretch. We expect a hot dog to be available to eat.  Those who don't understand the form, don't enjoy the game nearly as much. Form is very important in baseball design, literature, and music. We all want form in our lives. We desire structure and familiarity. The music of the Viennese era provides us this structure in our musical consumption. We really just need to understand it as we approach this music. With that understanding, comes greater appreciation.

Currently in my Orchestra, we are preparing for a performance of Carl Maria von Weber's Concerto for Clarinet. Weber, a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, also demonstrated strong prosaic leanings. Noted for his compositions in the field of opera, Weber depicts a variety of characters and scenes with in much of his instrumental music. Last night in rehearsal, there were big laughs and lots of smiles when I suggested that one of the themes might represent the "Damsel in Distress" and another of the themes might represent the "Heroic Young Prince." This provided yet another opportunity to drive home the points of form and prose writing for the music of this era.

So today is a day that I am thinking about form. As you move throughout your day, I wish you much  predictability, form, and ultimately, great satisfaction.