Monday, June 14, 2010

Music as heard by an Outsider: Another Augustinian Conflict

In yesterday's posting I reflected on music that does not match the mindframe of the listener. I called this an Augustinian Conflict.

One of the classic ways of to create Augustinian Conflict is by thwarting dance music. A great example is the music of the second theme group in the opening movement of Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony."

The passage we will focus on is the second theme group, at time marker [1:20]:



Motion is suspended briefly at this point of transition while the D held by the horns gets reinterpreted from the third of B minor to the fifth of G major. This reinterpretation happens with two quick chords as the horns move out of unison--more shift than transition. The way B minor and G major rub against one another is characteristic of the Schubert style.

The tune that emerges in G major could be cheerful dance music but it is thwarted by Schubert through a dynamic marking of pianissimo. Very few orchestras can suppress the desire to play louder and normalize this passage. Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic do better than many, but when the violins enter they are much louder than the pianissimo dynamic that Schubert marked.

The sounding of music that would normally be festive and joyous at an unnaturally quiet volume creates disconnect. It is like music heard outside of a ballroom where everyone but you is having a great time. It is music that represents one attitude being overheard by a listener with a different attitude. Schubert has written music as overheard by an outsider; a wanderer. This is Augustinian Conflict at work.

Isolate the bass. It pulses the downbeats of this dance; one pulse per measure. If you group those pulses into larger groupings (sometimes called hypermeter) it reveals another stretching that shows unrest. The pattern can be summarized like this:

2+(4+5) (4+5)

The "2" is the vamp before the cellos play the tune. Listen for how the "5" feels stretched and almost ready to burst before the entrance of the violins. This sense is even more apparent during the second "5" then......silence.

The intense and conflicted passage that follows is a realization of tensions already present. It is of interest, and seems part of the charm of this recording, that a relatively quiet audience suddenly begins coughing and becomes quite restless during this turbulence. Coincidence probably but it sounds, at least in this recording, like a sympathetic vibration.

Hypermetric pulses are still present during the turbulence but they are harder to feel. The dance music is finally restored at [2:54] but with two consecutive phrases of "5." Contrapuntal echo and stretched hypermeter show that resolution has not yet taken place.

Schubert went out of his way to create delightful strangeness throughout the second theme group of this movement. He framed it in Augustinian Conflict.

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