Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bias on melody?

Today's class was on Webern's Op. 24, a very pointillistic work with very few melodic lines. Several students did not like the work because of this fact, though many also agreed when I suggested that it is another example of farbenmelodie, where the emphasis is on timbre rather than pitch. Almost every melodic interval in the first movement is either a major seventh or a major third, so while pitches do change (it is a 12-tone work), there isn't much traditional melodic variety in the small fragments (most instruments play only three notes at a time before resting). How do you feel about music that focuses on timbre or rhythm instead of melody?

3 comments:

Daniel Wolf said...

Scott, I don't think that I can agree that Op. 24 "focuses on timbre...instead of melody".

First of all, "timbre" in the more-or-less French tradition is something quite different from "Klangfarben" in the more-or-less German-Viennese tradition. In the former, instrumentation can itself be an immediate means of expression. But in the latter, the functional role of instrumentation remains supreme, albeit with a transition from a classical, functional orchestration (with scoring patterns distinguishing formal sections of a work, and a close connection to harmonic structure, i.e. through use of the natural horns, trumpets, and tympani) to an orchestration which carries melodic-contrapuntal lines. You can usefully trace this tradition from the first to the second Viennese schools via Wagner's "Netz" technique.*

Second, in the case of Op. 24, while lengthy melodic lines are rare, I doubt that length-of-line is critical to identifying a melody. In fact, in such an imitative contrapuntal context, as in a fugue, the brevity of the melody is critical to its recognition, and indeed, the intimate association of instruments and melodic materials is central to establishing coherence in the Webern. (Perhaps it's useful to contrast the 1st movement of Op. 21 (Symphonie) with the third of Schönberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, with a similar canonic technique, but in the case of the Schoenberg the lines are of such length and the canon so dense, that both melodies and counterpoint are probably lost to the listener in favor of a practically French "timbre" complex).

Finally, there is almost always something to be found in Webern of a distinctly harmonic character, in particular the association of particular pitches with fixed registers, strongly articulating a static harmonic space. But, in every case, Webern priveleges these pitch associations over instrumental associations, thus eb''' is not the sole territory of one instrument, but can pass from one to another as demanded by melodic imitation.

Reading through the score this afternoon, I was struck again by the contrast between strict elements and the devices Webern uses to loosen them up, for example in stating his little melodies in contrasting durations, 16th, 8ths, and two magnitudes of triplets, precisely (and perhaps paradoxically) writing out a tempo rubato.


* See Schoenberg's own definition of Klangfarbenmelodie as a series of Klangenfarben "in which the relationship to one another works with a kind of logic, completely equivalent to that logic which satisfies us in a melody of pitches."

Michael J. West said...

Well, I feel that there has to be some semblance of melody to draw in a listener, even the most scholarly one; hooks, if you like. But I also think that if you are a dedicated and close listener, the brain tends to organize pitches into melodic structures, even if they're unintended.

That said, my intellectual interest in music tends to be focused on neither melody, rhythm, OR timbre, but on harmony. Which is why I'm not a fan of 12-tone music, even in theory.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Daniel, your distinction between "timbre" and "klangfarben" is a fair and interesting one. I was thinking of timbre in the most generic sense, not specifically of the French school. I do think length is important in identifying melody. In fugues the subject is always more than three notes. In Op. 24, because of the overlap of parts the main emphasis is on isolated intervals, either major thirds or major sevenths. I still think these isolated intervals do not make a traditional pitch-based melody. I do agree about the harmonic character, particularly in this piece with the heavy emphasis on (014).

Michael, the "unintended" melody is a good point. We are natural pattern finders.