One of the greatest appeals of music is its ability to evoke moods and images. Composers in every age and of every rank — amateurs as well as the masters — have taken advantage of the evocative power of music to suggest associations with words, pictures, and gestures.
The range of this associative power is vast. The composer can project deep feeling over an entire piece, as Handel did in the jubilation of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from his Messiah. The composer can imitate a specific action, as Saint-Saens did when he used swooping, sliding figures to pinpoint the braying of asses in his Carnival of Animals. You may find it helpful to think of musical associations as topics, subjects for presentation and discussion in a piece of music. In this way, topics serve much the same purpose in music as an idea or theme does in a literary presentation. They can be signals that direct your attention to specific points in the music or they can furnish material for the composer’s discussion throughout a piece. Moreover, topics add color and interest to your listening experience. Knowing and recognizing them can bring you closer to the music and enhance your enjoyment of it.
Topics as Signals
Cue music — a short, characteristic, easily recognizable motive — is the most obvious kind of musical signal. The brilliance of the “Masterpiece Theater” theme, the excitement of the William Tell Overture fragment that introduced “The Lone Ranger,” the short tunes that characterize the players in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf — these are striking, cleverly wrought musical signals to which we quickly respond. However brief signals may be, they set up certain expectations. They are attractive fragments, disembodied yet evocative.
Composers frequently incorporate signals into complete works. Beethoven heralded the rescue of the hero, Florestan, in his opera Fidelia with a bold trumpet call. The excitement of the hunt is graphically depicted by the imitation of dogs barking in fourteenth-century hunting songs. Haydn must have had a wonderful time writing pictorial effects in his great oratorio The Creation. The work abounds with tiny bits of description — mountains, rivers, birds, and beasts of all kinds.
Topics for Discussion
Throughout the centuries dances have been composers’ most fruitful source for musical topics. Their distinctive patterns are easily recognized whenever they appear and their qualities of movement suggest moods or expressive attitudes. When we hear dance and march rhythms today, independently or in a larger work, we respond to their general manner, their pace, their rhythm, their sense of movement. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people read these motions also as indications of dignity and social status. For example, the sarabande, the court minuet, the gavotte, and the pavane were identified with royal and aristocratic status. The bourree, the quicker minuet, the gigue, the ballroom waltz, and others had middle-level status; while the contredanse, the Ländler, and the Swabian allemande were signs of the lower class.
Operagoers in the eighteenth century were familiar with these topics. When they heard a solemn march, they knew that a priest or king was about to take center stage. When they heard a simple tune in waltz time supported by a drone (a sustained note in the bass), they knew it introduced some low-born character, a servant or a peasant. Instrumental music took the cue from opera and imitated this characteristic use of topic, often with greater flexibility and humor.
In addition to dances, many other topics found their way into concert and operatic music. Most of these came into prominence during the eighteenth century and were still used as part of the musical vocabulary of the nineteenth century. Of these topics, the one at the top of the scale of dignity was music identified with the church. In its purest form this music maintained a slow and deliberate pace, using mostly whole notes and half notes. For this reason, it was sometimes called the alla breve, meaning “in the manner of the breve” (whole note). Since it kept a steady, connected motion with no breaks or sharp turns it was also called the stile legato, the bound style. Any chorale or solemn hymn tune draws upon this style, whether named so or not. Martin Luther used it for his well-known chorale, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Mozart borrowed it and quickened its pace to begin the finale of his Jupiter Symphony. Bach used the alla breve style in a deeply tragic statement, the “Crucifixus” from his Mass in B Minor.
In another topic ranking high in dignity, the learned style, the composer exercises his skill in counterpoint. We hear the learned style at its most dignified when the melodic material draws on the alla breve. However, it can also raise the dignity of other topics — dances, marches, even songlike melodies — by treating them contrapuntally, as in Example 2 from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3. The lower line is the symphony’s familiar waltz theme; the upper line is a sprightly figure with a rhythm suggesting the polonaise. Alone, each is rather ordinary in effect. Together, they make a delightful and subtle bit of musical wit — a touch of the high style.
Popular topics (polonaise and waltz) in learned setting. Beethoven: Symphony no. 3, first movement.
Still another topic of serious import is the ombra. The term means “shadow” or “shade,” and refers to supernatural manifestations: ghosts, spirits, gods, and devils. These are frequently introduced into serious theater, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in the opening scene to set the whole wheel of action in motion. Generally, the sightlines of ombra are turned downward to Limbo and Hell. Ombra uses much the same techniques as the alla breve — slow, deliberate, regular motion — but it colors the action with instabilities, shifting harmonies, and chiaroscuro effects of scoring to project a mood of dread, chaos, even terror. Mozart paints an overwhelming air of supernatural retribution and doom in the climactic “supper scene” of Don Giovanni as he brings the statue of the murdered commandant on stage with magnificent, bone-chilling ombra music. Haydn depicts the shadowy vagueness of “Chaos” by beginning The Creation with elusive ombra sounds and figures. Beethoven evokes much the same mood at the beginning of his Symphony no. 4— and shortly thereafter builds a brilliant contrast with a buoyant dancelike tune.
The fanfare, lower on the scale of dignity, turns up very often in concert and theater music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These are trumpet, horn, and bugle calls, often played by the brass themselves or imitated by other instruments. Chopin’s Polonaise Militaire has the fanfare as well as the drum rhythm of a military scene. Hunting calls also suggest a military/cavalier topic. Ex. 3 illustrates a typical hunting call pattern, one that Haydn uses with great variety and ingenuity as a prominent theme in the finale of his Symphony no. 103 in Eb Major.
Hunting call figure.
Other topics of moderate dignity, the brilliant and the singing styles, generally aim to entertain the listener rather than to instruct or move deeply. The brilliant style shows off the performer’s skill with rapid passages and glittering figuration. Any solo concerto has many such passages. Bach provides a beautiful illustration of several voices meshing in a clockwork of brilliant-style figures in Ex. 4. He gives each of the four voices its own rhythmic pattern — truly an exuberant exercise!
Brilliant style. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 2, first movement. Trumpet (actual pitch)
The singing style provides an effective foil to the brilliant style. In the singing style we hear lyrical, tuneful music suitable for vocal performance. The song “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” represents the singing style par excellence. “Dido’s Lament” from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (Example 5) is a magnificent example of the singing style. In its deep, poignant pathos this lament brings the singing style to the highest level. Note how the poignancy of the broadly arched alla breve melody is intensified by dissonances that it forms with the bass.
Singing style. Purcell: Dido and Aeneas, “Dido’s Lament.”
Finally, we arrive at the lowest level on the scale of dignity: topics associated with low-born persons — shepherds, peasants, and servants. Music that depicts such characters is typically simple and tuneful, tends to repeat figures, has very little elaboration, and often is set to a quick patter in the text. At the beginning of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Leporello enters with a simple march tune that identifies his low station as Don Giovanni’s servant.
The most characteristic music for low-born persons is the musette. In this style the bass holds a note for some time while a single upper voice intones a simple melody or a set of flourishes. Examples of the musette topic abound in music. Beethoven sets the pastoral mood of his Symphony no. 6 with a simple drone bass. Schubert’s song “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” Example 6) derives its heartbreaking pathos from the reiterated drone and the fragment of plaintive melody that alternates with the short-breathed declamation of the singer.
Low-style musette. Schubert: “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”).
In the 20th century, the drone-musette topic appears as a gentle bucolic effect in Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’Été, and as a hectic preparation for a wild dance in the opening measures of the finale of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Composers sometimes take the musette up into the higher styles as well. In the first movements of Mozart’s Quintet in C Major, and in Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, no. 1, musette style contributes significantly to the breadth of gesture that marks these movements as among the greatest works of either composer.
Chapiteaux des cinq Ordres.
To invoke colorful, exotic moods, various composers have drawn on Moorish and Chinese dances (Tchaikovsky, Nutcracker Suite), Scottish melodic style (Mendelssohn, Scotch Symphony), Spanish flamenco (Rimsky-Korsakov, Capriccio Espagnol), and Oriental scales (Mahler, The Song of the Earth, and Ravel, Mother Goose Suite).
Composers have drawn even more often on Turkish music, a sign of the military and political involvement that western Europe has had with the Turks since the Middle Ages. Turkish music consists principally of marches scored with colorful instruments: oboes, triangles, tambourines, various kinds of drums, and cymbals. Beethoven, in his image of universal brotherhood, uses a Turkish march style — complete with piccolo, triangle, cymbal, and bass drum — for one setting of his “Ode to Joy” in his Symphony no. 9. Mozart concludes his Sonata in A Major with a delightful rondo, Alla Turca.
Zebras by Vasarely.
Nuances are shadings in musical expression. They give special accent or color to both single tones and longer passages. They may be obvious and pictorial, subtle, powerful, or gentle. Nuances, more than any other facet of musical composition, represent the ultimate refinement and eloquence of musical expression.
Schubert was a master of nuance, as shown in his superb song “The Erlking,” set to a poem by Goethe. The poet tells the story of a father riding home through a storm with his child in his arms. The child, suffering from the cold and wind, sees an apparition, the Erlking, whom we will discover to be the embodiment of death. The Erlking first tempts the child with pretty games, but the child cries out in fear. The father tries to reassure the child, but finally the Erlking takes the child by force in death.
Schubert sets the mood immediately by a furiously driving rhythm in the piano. The hollow sound of repeated octaves in the right hand and rumbling figures in the bass suggest the various elements we see at first — wind, darkness, the rush of the father. There is a strong hint of the traditional ombra music here.
By subtle changes in the music Schubert manages to give the solo voice the appearance of singing four different parts: the narrator, the father, the child, and the Erlking. He mirrors the emotional values of the poetry in subtle yet telling fashion. Here are samples of each part:
Schubert: “The Erlking.” The narrator.
First, the narrator tells of the father hurrying home through the storm and wind. The music begins in a somewhat level, matter-of-fact manner, although the agitation of the storm music in the piano tells us that this quiet manner is but a foreboding. As the narrator continues to sing, his melodic line grows active, to signify greater tension.
Schubert: “The Erlking.” The father.
The father’s music is generally placed low throughout the piece, with the exception of his last phrase, when the terror of the situation seems to communicate itself to him. The sturdy interval of the perfect fourth, rising from dominant to tonic, characterizes the father’s music; traditionally, it has a connotation of authority (as in a trumpet call).
Schubert: “The Erlking.” The son.
The child, in contrast, is given a high-pitched melodic part, of which the example above is the most characteristic excerpt. Three times we hear this outcry, each time a step higher, and each time as a refrain that answers the Erlking’s persuasions. Schubert has assigned to the child’s music the most unstable harmony in the piece; the pleas of the child are sung over dissonant, disturbing harmonies.
Schubert: “The Erlking.” The Erlking.
The two melodies of Example 12 represent the Erlking’s music. Notice how sweet and ingratiating they are, like candy offered to a child. This is a master touch in composition, to coat the deadly intent of the Erlking with cloying sweetness. Schubert also lightens the driving accompaniment figure whenever the Erlking sings. At the very end comes the finest touch of all, as the momentum that carried throughout the piece is broken and the narrator announces in halting tones that the child is dead. Nothing could portray so well the absolute horror of the tragedy as this bare final statement.
Schubert: “The Erlking.”-The narrator; final measures.