Happy Birthday, Johann!

Happy Bach birthday, everyone!

If I’m going to promulgate “What Would Johann Do?” as a musical parlor game, I can’t very well ignore the significance of March 21st, can I?

(If you’re curious–maybe you might even decide to play, it’s never too late–just check out ‘WWJD’ in the archives in the left sidebar.)

Leipzieg honors JS Bach, by making him look as stern as possible.  Photo courtesy zarafa and wikimedia commons.

Leipzieg honors JS Bach, by making him look as stern as possible. Photo courtesy zarafa and wikimedia commons.

Anyway, I’m celebrating with a favorite and a poll.

First, the favorite:  my favorite Bach composition is the second Brandenburg concerto, BWV 1047, in F major.  (Hey, I’m a trumpet player–I have obligations to keep up here.)

It’s the second in a series of 6 concerti gross which Bach used, essentially, as an (unsuccessful) job application.  On March 24, 1721, Bach wrote to the Margrave of Brandenburg:

As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

(The rather fawning tone is characteristic of the time, not of Bach’s personality.)

But the Margrave apparently lacked the requisite instrumentation; at any rate, the indications are that the pieces were never performed at his Court.  In 1734, following the Margrave’s death, the manuscripts were sold for the equivalent of a few dollars.  Thus, these concertos, perhaps the finest of all concerti gross, remained almost completely without contemporary influence. (It is possible that they were heard at Cothen, where Bach was employed; it has been shown that the available forces there did match the scoring.)

The manuscripts were rediscovered in 1849 by musician and Bach scholar Siegried Dehn, and were published the following year–the first known performance with something like the original orchestration came in 1898 with trumpeter Theo Charlier.  Since then ‘the Brandenburgs’ have been recorded very often, with at least 75 recordings listed on the “J.S. Bach home page.”

The Second Brandenburg is a cheerful, even ebullient, work.  It follows the normal 3-movement pattern, in which a central slow movement is flanked by quick outer movements.  Like any normal concerto grosso, the Second Brandenburg features musical forces divided into two groups:  the orchestra (‘ripieno’) and a group of ‘solo’ instruments (‘concertino.’)  The concertino here consists of four contrasting treble instruments:  recorder, oboe, natural trumpet in F, and violin.

The first movement makes much use of lively chordal ‘fanfare’ figuration of the sort eminently suited to the trumpet.  But one of the movement’s pleasures is hearing how this figuration’s character is transformed when played by the more pastoral oboe, or the softer violin.  The movement is relatively long, brilliant, and for the trumpeter, strenuous.  (It is said that various prominent trumpeters have had contractual protection against being forced to perform this work!  Having had a crack at it myself on one occasion, I can sympathize.)

Incidentally, the “piccolo trumpet in F” seems never to have been used previous to this work–and may not have appeared again until the late 19th century, when versions of it were constructed specifically to use in playing Bach trumpet parts, most emphatically including this one!

A modern piccolo trumpet.  Image courtesy Christopher Roberts and Wikimedia Commons.

A modern piccolo trumpet. Image courtesy Christopher Roberts and Wikimedia Commons.

The second movement–again, following the normal pattern–has a very different tone.  Set in the relative minor key, D minor, a gentle rocking rhythm underpins a yearning three-way conversation among the violin, oboe and recorder.  The trumpet remains silent throughout, which was not unexpected–Baroque trumpet concertos usually featured a slow movement in a minor key in which the solo instrument was silent.  (The Baroque trumpet was quite limited when playing music in minor keys–so much so that it is often incorrectly said to have been unable to play in minor keys.  There are numerous counterexamples in the outer movements of the Brandenburg, however.)

This hypnotic movement ends, as abruptly yet gently as falling asleep, on a D major triad–the ‘tierce de Picardy.’

The third movement then breaks in like a flash of sunlight in a dim room with the solo trumpet cavorting in a triumphant, unprepared F major, as if impatient at its enforced silence.  (“As if–,” since in many cases the player will have been cherishing his or her opportunity to rest and regroup.)  The overall tone is somewhat similar to the first movement, but lighter and more relaxed overall, with the quadruple meter of the opening superseded by duple.

It’s a wonderful, substantive and uplifting piece–all in less than a quarter hour.  I must not be the first to think so, either: the first movement is now to be found outside of this solar system.  It is the first musical selection of the famous “golden record” included aboard both Voyager probes.  “Out of this world”–literally.

Check it out, if you don’t know it already!


What’s your favorite Bach?  And why?  Vote in the poll below, or make a comment.

And again–happy Bach birthday!

Great Beginnings 2

“Great Beginnings” is one of the musical parlor games here at snowonmusic.  In this game, the challenge is to identify a well-known piece or movement in the ‘classical’ repertory–given only the first note or chord!

If you’d like to play, do not wait, do not pass go, click on the link below to navigate back to Great Beginnings 1.

Great Beginnings

OK–are we alone?  Good…

GB #1

Here’s the clue:

Great Beginnings 1-1

It’s the first chord of Beethoven’s Symphony #1 in C.  At the time, this beginning was the focus of some critical disapprobation; “My dear, it begins with a perfect cadence upon the subdominant!” complained one aristocratic musical amateur.  (Or so, at least, I seem to recall reading sometime in the distant personal past.)  Famously, one critic–no-one ever seems to say who, and perhaps the name has been lost over the years–called the symphony “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity.”  It’s easy to laugh at that now, but in fact the comment is not without insight:  Haydn had in fact enjoyed the musical joke of beginning with a cadence–the musical equivalent of starting a sentence with a period.  But it took Beethoven to ‘push’ the joke that bit further by placing that cadence in the ‘wrong key.’

Here’s how the whole phrase makes its way to the dominant–and in the correct key:


GB #2

This ‘great beginning’:

Great Beginnings 1-2

How many symphonic works begin with an unaccompanied flute solo?  (That could be a parlor game of its own, but perhaps one better suited to a blog where flutists hang out.)

I don’t know the answer to that–off-hand, I can’t think of another example, though I’m reasonably sure that there must be some others–but I am sure that this is the most famous example.  Despite the popularity of many of Debussy’s other orchestral works (most notably La Mer), historians have called the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune “Debussy’s most celebrated orchestral work”  (1894.)  Though not uncontroversial, it was a popular success from its premiere.

Here’s how the flute solo continues:


Blogger James Roe comments:  “The melody begins on a sustained c-sharp, a note played on the flute with all the fingers raised, no keys depressed. Debussy, the musical colorist, knew the gauzy diffuseness the flute could produce on this note and used it to great effect, subtly blending the beginning of the piece with the silence preceding it.”


GB #3

Here’s the clue:

Great Beginnings 1-3This is another famous chord:  one of the first prominent examples of the use of a dominant ninth chord.  It comes from the Violin Sonata in A by Franck (1884.)

It’s quietly ironic:  the chordal sonority is a dissonance, quite unusual in its time, yet the musical idea is serenely simple.  Here’s a little bit more of the introductory piano ‘vamp’:


GB #4

And the clue:

Great Beginnings 1-4

This is the beginning of one of the great music dramas of Richard Wagner–Tristan und Isolde.


The first chord has become known as the ‘Tristan chord’, though from a technical point of view it is really an unusually prolonged appoggiatura to a French augmented sixth.  (And if memory serves, enterprising historians have found a very similar precedent somewhere in the work of Spohr.)

Even that first cello note–it is to be played on the open ‘A’ string–attracted admiration.  Lalo–again I write from memory here–said that it was a sound he had been awaiting for years.  Years later the famous conductor Bruno Walter would write about his first hearing of this work in 1889:

So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically…

GB #5

Clue #5:

Great Beginnings 1-5This is perhaps the least ‘famous’ of the great beginnings, though it’s drawn from a very-well known, well-loved and respected work by a major composer–Johannes Brahms.  Like the Beethoven (and for that matter, the Franck) it’s an example of a non-tonic opening sonority–here, the subdominant chord.  The continuation:

GB II-5It’s the passacaglia theme which forms the basis of the fourth movement of the Symphony 4 in E minor.  (This would be Brahms’ final symphony, which I suppose that makes it a fitting bookend to the Beethoven, which opens his very first symphonic movement.)

The Symphony is nicknamed “the Tragic” for its extremely passionate and serious character.

“Satin Doll”: Soup Cans And Turnarounds

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) knew something about elegance in the social sense. But one of his signature tunes, Satin Doll—perhaps partly (or even entirely) the work of long-time Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn—also exhibits great musical elegance in the economy and ingenuity of its musical structure. Let’s take a closer look at an eight-bar excerpt. Here it is, notated somewhat schematically:

Satin Doll Excerpt

It’s not hard to see that the first two measures are repeated, transposed up a whole step, in measures three and four, nor that the harmonic rhythm—the rate at which chords change—speeds up in the second line.

Or does it? Looking again, the chords continue to change every two beats, so at the surface level, the harmonic rhythm does not actually change. Yet the harmonic rhythm feels as though it accelerates. Tabulating the changes can make the reason for this perception clearer. Let’s make our table in two-measure segments:

Mm 1-2: Dm7 G7 (2x)
Mm 3-4: Em7 A7 (2x)
Mm 5-6: Am7b5 G7 Abm7 Db7
Mm. 7-8: C (plus turnaround, not shown)

In bars 5 and 6, there is twice as much harmonic information, since the repetition of the first two chords is eliminated and two new chords substituted.

Moreover, there’s a clear logic governing the specific chords chosen. To understand it, we need to understand the concept of the “ii-V” progression in jazz. (For readers who don’t know this numerical terminology for chords, the “ii” denotes a chord built upon the second degree of a scale and the “V” a chord built upon the fifth degree. For example, in A major “ii” would be a B minor chord, “B” forming the second degree of the A major scale, and “V” would be an E major chord, since “E” is the fifth scale degree.)

The “ii-V” progression is very common in all “common-practice” music, as easy to find in Bach as in Ellington. But in jazz it is particularly useful because it so clearly defines a key center, and creates such a strong sense of harmonic motion. In fact, it has become a stock element, used ad lib, for example, as an insertion at the end of a repeated section to lead back to the beginning of that section—a “turnaround.” This ‘stock element’ becomes the basic unit used to construct Satin Doll. Here’s our table of chords, redone in terms of the key to which each of the “ii-V” progressions belongs:

Mm 1-2: ii-V, key of C (2x)
Mm 3-4: ii-V, key of D (2x)
Mm 5-6: ii-V, key of G(minor); ii-V, key of Gb
Mm. 7-8: NA (cadence chord in C)

Ellington—or Strayhorn—begins with a “ii-V” that defines the key as C major. We aren’t given the tonic triad, C major, which helps to sustain the harmonic energy at the beginning of the phrase—a tonic chord always tends to act as a ‘ground’ for that energy when heard, and we don’t want the phrase ‘short-circuited.’

The upward transposition in mm. 3-4—we noted that above—then suggests a secondary key area of D. (Tonicization of “ii” (or “II”) is a strategy that Franz Schubert was rather fond of, by the way; it can be observed in the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, among other works.) Again, there is no tonic function actually heard.

Measures 5-6 give us a new implied tonality, G. Notice that this makes a larger scale “ii-V?” The implied “D” of mm. 3-4 would be “ii’’ in the home key of C, while the “G” of 5-6 would be “V.”

The “minor seven flat five” chord at the beginning of measure 5—also known as a half-diminished seventh—suggests a minor, not major key, since it fits naturally into the minor mode, unlike the minor seventh chords which heard in previous versions of the “ii-V.” I suspect, though, that the chord quality has more to do with preparing what we hear next than with the niceties of chordal implication.

For what we get next is tonally surprising. As the table shows, the final “ii-V” seems to belong to the tonally remote key of Gb major. Following the established tonal logic, we might have expected a “ii-V” in the tonic key. It would have made a logical, convincing cadence. Indeed, it’s not hard to rewrite the tune to do that:

Satin Doll Excerpt (Rewritten)

But it would be a disappointing ending, at least in comparison with the ‘real thing.’

It’s easy to understand why this is a musical ‘plot twist’—suddenly we find ourselves in a distant tonal area. It’s perhaps a bit less obvious why it still makes sense.

Jazz, as an art for which improvisation is highly important, and in which individual expression is prized, has developed many techniques by which common (as in ‘shared’) melodies and lines can be expressively inflected by improvisors and arrangers. One is the concept of chord “substitution.” As I’ve explained elsewhere, a common form of substitution involves using third-related chords—for example, an A minor triad might be used in place of a C major triad. This has a certain logic in that two of three tones are common to both chords, yet the effect can be surprisingly fresh.

A bit more exotic is the “tritone substitution.” It, too, goes back to earlier antecedents—it can be found, for example, in Chopin. It consists of substituting for a dominant seventh chord—say, G7—the dominant seventh a tritone away—say, Db7. This may seem arbitrary at first blush, but makes sense upon reflection: the two most active tones in the chord, the third and seventh, are actually common to both chords (if we neglect a little enharmonic respelling.) For example, G7 has for a third “B” and for seventh, “F.” For Db7, the tones switch: “F” is now the third, while “B”—respelled as Cb—becomes the seventh.

In Satin Doll, then, Ellington has applied the tritone substitution to the entire “ii-V” progression, not just the dominant seventh itself. It’s the perfect musical plot twist, as logical as it is unexpected.

The ‘modular construction’ we’ve been looking at also reminds me in a way of Andy Warhol’s pop-art work: everyday objects—for the “ii-V” is as everyday as a soup can—arranged artfully enough become art themselves once again, momentarily liberated from the banal patina of overexposure.

But Ellington did it first, did it less obviously, and for my money had more fun with it—with Ellington, it’s ingenuity, not irony.

Update: The text above has been reflected to correct an error–originally, the last ii-V was identified as being in Db. But, of course, Db7 can’t be its own dominant, and the correct key is Gb–a tritone from the home key of C. That’s the error I should have caught and corrected in my original reply to Jaypee, below!