Ballade Blogging, Part 4: Morphing Magic

[posted March 12, 2012, at 10:23pm] ~ Series Archive

A week or so ago, Performance Today's Fred Child gave a nice little lead-in to Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, suggesting that we'd be hearing the musical equivalent of one of those morphing animations. Well, it was sort of a nice analogy except, as often happens when people try to compare music and just about anything, the analogy breaks down a lot. The morphing effects Child mentioned (he even gave an off-hand example of an airplane turning into something completely differently in a manner of seconds) don't really resemble much the way in which Hindemith treats Weber's themes - at any rate, I don't recall any passage where a Weber tune suddenly becomes something totally different in a few seconds; metamorphosis suggests a more gradual unfolding of change, and that's the way I think of Hindemith's contrapuntal explorations of Weber material. (Admittedly, it's not a work I know well.)

But last week, when I first read through the Chopin F Minor ballade with the thought of re-learning it, I experienced something much closer to a sudden shape-shifting. As I've said, I'd last performed the ballade more than twenty years ago, and hadn't really even thought about it very often since, so I was reading at a conservative tempo and meeting some resistance - sort of like cutting through an overgrown thicket to revisit a place from long ago. "Oh yeah, that part." "Oh right, I remember dreading that passage!" Then, maybe in part because I was playing a bit clumsily, the music morphed into something that caught me completely by surprise.

First, it's worth mentioning that this ballade has one of the greatest openings of all-times (though the opening of Chopin's own Barcarolle is even better!) - one of those out-of-nothingness, magical entryways that immediately transports us to another world. Most of the magic comes by way of the beautifully unfolding texture, since the melody and harmony are quite unremarkable. [hear/see below.] The spell that these seven bars cast turns out to be a deceptive sort of enchantment, though; after settling warmly into a C major cadence, a single C pivots us into a lonely, searching tune in F Minor, and the magic is gone. As I recall, this opening didn't quite make sense to me all those years ago; it seemed too unconnected to what follows. But, that's not my morphing story.

So the searching tune searches here and there, gets varied some, meets up with some contrasting material. Now, skip ahead to about 5:34. We've been in the relative major of A-flat for awhile, but chromaticisms intrude, remnants of the "searching motif" return, leading to a defiant A-flat Major outburst at 5:50, and then - well, as I experienced it that day last week, I realized with surprise that we were back in the enchanted passage from the opening, though now in A Major and with darker undertones. (We're not falling for that again!)

I don't know why I'd forgotten that the opening is reprised here, but I do think Chopin sneaks it in awfully well. I'm pretty sure I was at the end of the final bar shown above before it dawned on me what happened. It's certainly possible I'd added an extra layer of obscurity with some chromaticisms Chopin hadn't thought of (although those R.H. F#'s against the L.H. Fx's in the ritard bar are something else!), but the reprise does come out of the blue.

The deception is helped by the sudden shift from A-flat to A Major (4 flats to 3 sharps!), those odd little chromaticisms in the ritard bar, and the fact that the opening material is so simple melodically (it just begins with repeated eighth notes) that we don't really notice it's being anticipated at 5:50. Also, the first note of the tune is left out when it sneaks back in at 6:04. So, like any good morphing animation, the return happens both gradually and instantaneously. The fact that the opening section doesn't really "go with" the rest of the piece is also part of the effect - morphing between two closely related ideas would be no great trick. Yes, there's a ritard leading into the reprise, but I don't think it's a "hey look, we're back" kind of thing - it's more about being uncertain, turning around slowly and backing into something half-remembered. Pure magic.

Unfortunately, the enchanted music does not usher us safely back home...