Thursday 26 July 2018

Dialectic and multiple description in Haydn

The slow movement of Haydn's piano sonata in C major, no. 50 is full of gestures which articulate a simple tonality, but which are so varied in their rhythm, range of the keyboard, dynamics, texture and lyricism maintain interest in what would otherwise be rather uninteresting music. But what Haydn actually does is anything but uninteresting: it is full of surprise, and is highly expressive. Where does the expression come from? This is Lang Lang playing it:

The contrast with the Bach sinfonia no 9 (which I looked at a couple of posts ago) couldn't be greater. Yet, I think the principle is the same. Haydn, like Bach, creates overlapping redundancies. But where Bach takes a chromatic harmonic structure and weaves motifs all the way through it, Haydn takes a relatively simple harmonic structure (I-V-I-IV-I-V-I...) Played as straight chords, these are not nearly as interesting as the Bach chorale chords with their diminished chords and exotic chromaticism. Which means that the reduction of the Haydn is even more unsurprising than the Bach - a very low entropy.

Haydn seems to add disorder through contrasting ideas: this is, after all, the composer who wrote a "representation of chaos" at the beginning of "The Creation", which does a similar thing. But like Bach, this is not disorder, it is redundancy. Basically, rhythm, articulation, range, figuration and dynamics are used to articulate the same basic simple tonality of the piece: one way of describing it follows another in often contrasting juxtaposition.

Each way of describing the tonality is not arbitrary, but unlike Bach, the redundancy of the added patterns does not run through the whole thing: it is episodic, frequently punctuated by silence, from which Haydn then surprises us again.

Silence is important in this process. Silence is when all the parameters of overlapping redundancies all tend towards the same thing. I suggested in my analysis of Bach, that this shared movement of entropy between different parts was an indication of a new idea: a new countable thing. And indeed so it is in Haydn. It's just that the ideas are layered sequentially rather than layered on top of one another.

Each closure to silence creates uncertainty as to what is coming next. Something seems to have been defined that is stable - will it be continued, or will something different follow? Haydn plays with this uncertainty, and when we do get a lyrical melody (the falling melody over an undulating accompaniment) it feels like a relief.

In dialectical theory, the succession of musical ideas might be considered to be like a "thesis", "antithesis", "synthesis" triad. But really, those three elements are different descriptions of the same thing, their juxtaposition a way of accumulating redundancies on a journey to creating a relationship between different descriptions whose interactions reveal the inner structure of the music, and which can close to silence without feeling the need for more. The tension that is established between different descriptions isn't "resolved" as such. It creates the conditions for the emergence of another description which is more fundamental than those which precede it. This new description coexists with its predecessors.

Such moments are felt emotionally.  Emotion and meaning in music is like a light-house which guides the generation of a set of redundant but never arbitrary descriptions which eventually together reveal some kind of insight into what underpins the whole thing.  

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