Wednesday, 27 January 2016

A walk through the use of the "Zen of Musical Reasoning" as a tool to analysis. 

The music chosen to illustrate the use of the mind map is the third section of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.  The blog is written more or less in real time and models my way of thinking about a composition in the process of analysis.  It would be useful to have a copy of the mind map to follow my train of thought, but it isn't vital.

The music, if it has a single intention, seems to be artistic in that it is a song of praise, based on Psalm 133 verse 1, and the whole of Psalm 131.
As my Hebrew is nonexistent I went to my copy of the RSV for translations.131 reads:
O Lord my heart is not lifted up,
My eyes are not raised too high,
I do not occupy myself with things
Too great and too marvelous for me
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a child quieted at its mother's breast....

133 reads:
behold, how good and pleasant it is
When brothers dwell in unity.

So we have a meditative and humble attitude (which some might see as contrary to the flamboyant figure in Bernstein) and a coda about reconciliation and accord.

As this seems to have covered the top boxes on the artistic side the third criteria should be dealt with, does the music engage the emotions?  Clearly the answer is yes, but there is mixed emotions here, the opening is quite severe but each of the alternating phrases has a different character.  The opening 19 bars are like a dialogue where the fourths based opening phrase is adamant and the stepwise phrase gradually yields to the main body of the music from 20.  It seems we have a self-portrait preparing us for the Psalm.

Working the technical side it seems that the main intention is to explore a pair of fourths as a motive, C/G with F/B flat, taken from the opening phrase. This is reworked in the Adonai section which opens with a pentatonic figure D,E, A,G,B, itself rich in fourths,/fifths. The answering phrase is chromatic though the placing of the fifths in the bass resolves the tension at the close of the phrase.  This call and respond like arrangement continues until bar 27 when the phrases overlap and the calming effect of long pedal notes brings increased calm to the music. 

With a work that is dominated by artistic intention (Bernstein describes how he had turned his back on serialsim in a poem written about the Chichester Psalms) it is not surprising to find that the design is in part determined by the text with word painting.  At bar 35 with "my soul is as a weaned child" we have a stream of sixths on D/B and C'/A' suggesting a gentle rocking motion, such as in a lullaby, so satisfying the concept of a clich√© in the music.  Why 6ths when the main material is based on fifths?  Sixths are more gentle and appropriate; the pitches B/D open the answering phrase at the opening of the movement leading to a chain of third's in the upper part against a chain of fourths in the lower.

The history of Chichester Psalms is easy enough to research so I shall save time and avoid comment on that.

I’ll  express a personal point of view and say that Bernstein is exploring a love of sound based on studies of composers close to his own heart.  There is an element of homage to Stravinsky both in technique and pure sound. 
One can never really know another person's religious views but there is great empathy with the text and the sound of the words (no English translation in the score).  There are several references to church music in the score, particularly in the harmonies for and placement of the voices.

Having generated the main body of my commentary my intention would be to concentrate further on the technical side and resolve some of the following questions:

Is the music bitonal in sections? If not what is the logic behind the progression of the chords particularly in the opening 20 bars.
There appears to be a continual progression towards G particularly from 45 onwards, is this prepared for throughout the movement.
Does the movement stand alone in the progression or are the three movements linked by motifs and design.

When Nurtan read through this commentary he became quite enthusiastic about the matter of bitonality, so I’ll enclose his reply:

Is the music bitonal in sections? if not what is the logic behind the progression of the chords particularly in the opening 20 bars. I think it
is. Minor third or sixth bitonal arrangements provide for natural
pentatonic relationship - like the pentatonic chords in the Fabric of
Sounds. Also bitonal arrangements will transfer between the tonic and the
dominant seamlessly. Following this logic if G is the primary tonic any
operation on its dominant D (for that matter on subdominant C the will be
seamlessly transferred to G. D/B bitonal fits this picture pretty well.

There appears to be a continual progression towards G particularly from 45
onwards, is this prepared for throughout the movement. If G is the principal
tonality then this may not be prepared for throughout the movement. Without
saying that it is not a continual progression towards G, the bitonality will
make the progression very natural so that it will feel like a continual
progression towards this center.

With bitonal writing, the relationships and the chords are naturally developed or suggested, 
so even if it is an unintentional or deliberate progression, the combinations generated with the bitonality, D may suggest one.

Does the movement stand alone in the progression or are the three movements linked by motifs and design?
I think it is a continuous piece with respect to both motives and design. I am not sure at this point; I haven't listened to the Psalms for some time.