To write about music is a lot more challenging than to write about literature. Not just because music has no need for words, but also because most people were confronted with language for their whole life, not with classical music.
That’s why I’m planning to go into more detail in the following posts, to introduce you to the history and theory of classical music. For now, however, I would like to move from one piece to the next, so you get a feeling for music and how you can learn to understand it by just listening.
The method I am going to use will be similar to toddlers who learn to speak. No, we don’t bore our little ones with language theory or test them for learned vocabularies. Instead, we talk and sing to them, and just by doing this they begin to decipher our language in a natural way.
Music is also a language with certain rules and formative principles anyone can learn. But instead of doing it like schools – from chapter to chapter and boring exercises, the best approach would be to learn directly from different songs and how to decipher them.
For the beginning, the most important step is to get yourself acquainted with this type of music. Get moved by it, see what it has to say and – most of all – learn to love it.
I would like to start with some compositions by Schubert. At the beginning, I will tell you a little about the musical theory and then I will try to explain the respective piece of music.
In general, Music moves forward in time without taking us, the listeners, into consideration. If you start reading a book, you can do it slower or faster, you can reread certain parts, or, if you failed to understand something, you can put the book aside and get back to it at a later time.
When performing music, however, all this is not possible. As soon as the musical piece begins, it plays from start to finish in one go. And if you’re not able to follow the pace, the music turns into a mix of sounds we consider boring.
One of the formative principles of music includes a wholeness in itself, so the piece can be understood immediately when you listen to it for the very first time. There are different ways on how to achieve this. The simplest way is to say the same thing twice – to repeat it. But since a simple repetition becomes boring in the long run, composers usually make use of numerous variations.
If we compare music with our everyday language, it can be understood more easily.
So let’s take simple sentence like “Today I will walk in the rain,” as an example.
If we have the feeling we did not understand it properly, or we would like to confirm that we understood it, we repeat it.
“Today I will walk in the rain. Today I will walk in the rain.” That way, anyone who speaks our language, knows what we are trying to say.
But just as I mentioned before, a simple repetition becomes boring in the long run. Besides, maybe you would like to emphasize a certain word, such as “I” walk, or I will walk in the “rain”, and so on. Or maybe someone wants to start telling a whole story with this sentence and has to think of a transition.
Our language provides many different approaches, and so does music:
the short way: “I walk in the rain.”
the extended way: “This forenoon, I will walk and dance in the rain.”
or the alteration: “I’m going to stroll around in the rain now.”
As you can see, we do these things quite automatically when we speak. And so do composers by playing with themes, melodies, rhythm, and so on.
For the beginning, however, it’s just important to know about this. The next step would be to look for it in all kinds of musical works. Of course, it takes some practice to memorize a melody or a rhythm in order to recognize a variation, but once you do, it’s really not difficult.
A good example forliteral repetition would be the so-called strophic song. Yes, the text changes, but all verses have the same melody, and the piano keeps playing the same notes over and over. The most beautiful example for this is “Heidenröslein” (lit. “Rose on the Health”) by Franz Schubert.
A little more complex would be the variation of a strophic song. The first example for today is the song “Die Forelle” (lit. The Trout)by Franz Schubert.
Here, it’s important to listen to the musical piece one or two times without thinking about the formative structure or the musical context. Allow yourself to get involved with the songand give your thoughts and feelings achance to wander off.
Since it’s going to be difficult to post the notes with annotations in here, I decided to share a recording with time stamps to navigate the song. The recording I decided to use is by Fischer-Dieskau.
Let’s get to the song.
“Die Forelle” starts with a brief introduction of the piano, followed by the first stanza.
At 0:34, an almost exact repetition of the beginning begins, followed by the second stanza. This is the same form of the literal repetition as we have already learned in Heidenröslein.
The interesting part starts at 1:07. Schubert begins with the same transition as he did with the second stanza before, but at 1:11, the piano moves further into the bass to indicate a change.
And at 1:14, there is something new. The third verse starts with a new pitch and the rhythm of “Dochendlich ward demDiebe” matches the “in einemBächleinhelle”.
“Ermacht das Bächleintückischtrübe, …,” then really introduces something new. The melody is different and the bass always ends with the same accompaniment (starting at 1:14 with shorter intervals, becoming even shorterat 1:20, and then the first chords set in).
Starting from 1:33, the end of the song is coming closer. “Und ich mit regem Blute” is another variation of “In einem Bächlein helle”. If you listen carefully, you will notice that the rhythm is not exactly changing, but rather adapting to the text. The second time of “und ichmit…” is simply varied.
And in order to close the form of the song, at the end, starting from 1:45, the introduction is repeated once more.
I hope that my explanation was understandable and that you were able to better understand and delve deeper into the musical piece.
Maybe you are interested to tell me how exactly the music changed for you before and after my explanation. Or if you could feel a change at all.