Ballade Blogging, Part 5: Right and Wrong

[posted March 13, 2012, at 11:57pm] ~ Series Archive

My son (almost five) has only recently taken an interest in our Wii video-game system. He especially loves playing Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympics, even though he knows next-to-nothing about winter sports, and, since his reading skills are quite primitive, he navigates the various menus and instructions with the same level of comprehension that I'd exhibit playing video cricket in India. In other words, he really has almost no idea what he's doing, but that doesn't stop him from running up excitedly to tell me he's just opened "Dream Curling" on his account - meaning he somehow did well enough in regular curling to earn this gift from the Wii gods.

Frankly, I don't understand how regular curling works (brooms?), and I certainly don't know what's going on in this fantasy version - so, I can assure you that Son of MMmusing has, at best, only an intuitive/imaginative interpretation of what's happening on screen, but he has the time of his life shaking the controller, pushing buttons semi-randomly, and somehow doing OK. My point is that there are a lot of ways to comprehend an experience aside from the "right way." Clearly, the Nintendo folks have set their games up to be easily playable and even winnable (on the Easy levels), so that the barrier to having a good time isn't so high.

The various ways in which people might listen to and comprehend music are even more varied since, when you listen, you don't even have to push buttons or shake a controller to "win" - although people sometimes choose to shake things. I don't just mean that some will hear a "storm" where others hear "anger" or "my mother." I mean the way in which our minds organize the sounds (parallel to the way my son's mind organizes curling events) are open to all sorts of possibilities, many of which might be seen as "wrong," but interesting and pleasurable nevertheless.

Sometimes, I find that looking back through my own musical life is like looking through geological layers defined by what I understood at a given time. For example, this little Schumann march:

I realize now that, as a young piano student, I heard that dotted figure as an upbeat, so that beat 2 of the first measure becomes the downbeat. In fact, it becomes kind of a diverting way to hear this piece; because Schumann's cadences resolve on beat 2 (m.4, m.8, m.12, etc.), it makes perfect musical sense to re-organize the notes in my youthful way, with cadences on downbeats. (Cadences like downbeats.) The only problem is that, in the original version, the final phrase ends not on 2 but on a downbeat, providing a nice sense of closure. So, if you play it all as I used to hear it, it pretty much works until...the final cadence comes early, landing with a comical thud on the 2nd beat. (Well, I think it's funny.)


Not such a big deal - maybe Schumann even intended this to be ambiguous, but the current "me" would never look at that first version and think of stressing the second beats, because the notation clearly indicates otherwise. Back in the day, though, I had much less concept of what a given meter implied about stresses, and I can remember being confused by the ending. I could easily drag up many other examples of pieces I used to hear differently than intended. (I have a vague memory of trying to work out this 6/8 Schumann piece in 3 beats per bar. Wild Rider, indeed - might have even inspired this.) In some cases, the mis-hearing actually provides a sense of freedom, not to be so constrained by a meter.

In high school, I learned Debussy's colorful showpiece L'isle joyeuse. My fingers could handle it fine, but I was reading through it the other day and remembering that a passage like this left me completely befuddled rhythmically.

What happens in the third bar isn't really all that complicated - the music is in 4, but the sextuplets group melodically into six sets (as shown by the upward facing brackets), so there's a delightful cross-rhythm. Yet what I remember is a feeling of total freedom in that measure - I could sense (probably from listening to Horowitz's recording a thousand times) that something had "happened" to the pulse, but since I couldn't process it, it became a wonderful invitation to just let those bell-like notes toll away. Because I was doing my best to copy Horowitz, I'd guess my tempo wasn't so far off, but I can still almost feel the sensation I had then of free floating. I kind of miss that.

Probably the most famous music that people often hear "wrong" is the opening motif of Beethoven's 5th symphony. Everyone knows it's three shorts and a long ("V" in Morse Code), but it's quite common for people to think of the three shorts as a triplet, implying a slight stress on the first one, when in fact Beethoven wrote an 8th rest followed by three 8ths that lead into the downbeat. Should be " ---buh-buh-buh-BUH," not "Duh-duh-duh-DUH." (The latter rhythmic pattern is featured in the 3rd movement.)
So far I've just shown examples of distorted metrical perception, but shortly after I started relearning Chopin's 4th ballade, I remembered that he notates the main tune (which I referred to as lonely and "searching" in the previous post) differently than I tend to hear it. I'm fairly certain my mis-hearing goes back well more than twenty years, before I'd ever looked at the score. You can see below 1) Chopin's notation, and 2) my own conception:
#1

#2

When I say it's my own conception, I don't mean that I want to argue with Chopin about it or that I think he made a mistake. It's just that, on a more subconscious level, if you asked me to sing the tune (and I hadn't spent all this time thinking about it), I'm sure that version #2 is what would come to mind.

I wondered if this was a common hearing, so I polled my Twitter followers and actually got six replies (from NYC, Virginia, Arizona, LA, the UK, and Australia!) and they all voted against me! Even more curiously, I asked my wife to sing the tune as she heard it, knowing that she only knew the piece through my practicing of it in the past week. She ALSO chose Chopin's version, so I guess it was seeping through in my own playing.

Again, it's important to note that I don't really disagree with Chopin. Probably the best way of looking at this tune is understanding both that the E-natural winds down to the B-flat and back up to the D-flat, and yet our ears also hear a slightly longer range connection from the E to the D-flat. Part of me wonders if Chopin avoided notating it this second way to steer clear of the melodic augmented 2nd, an interval that's frowned upon in counterpoint exercises.

Anyway, that's the connection I find myself most drawn to, which I think explains why I would naturally sing the tune my way. I understand that Chopin's disjunct melody (E-Bb-Db) has a lovely wandering/searching character, but to be really honest, I just find the second version to be more beautiful (not that mere beauty has to be the only goal), and I even think that lingering E-natural is part of what attracted me to the ballade in the first place, twenty-plus years ago. As I hope to discuss tomorrow, one of the great things about living with music is being able to connect with one's own past. Silly as it sounds, that E-Db is an important part of my past, or at least of my relationship to this ballade. And, sometimes (often) the "right" way isn't the only or even best way. (That's a topic for another day as well.)

By the way, hearing it "my way" also turns that poignant E-natural into an appoggiatura (could also be called an "accented passing tone" because it's approached from above); you may recall that the appoggiatura is the musical device credited by the Wall Street Journal with helping Adele make people cry. I don't know if I ever cried hearing this melody, but I'm sure it's given me chills. And, in an uncanny coincidence, the very same Son of MMmusing who opened this post was walking around the house today with an iPod, listening to his sister's Adele album. He probably understands her music about as much as he understands curling, but that's not stopping him from having a good time.