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Musical Beginnings

Raising exactly the sort of question that familiarity makes too easy to overlook, Michael Beckerman asks why slow movements should have found their way into the middles of pieces of music. Middles, he concludes, are places of ‘psychoacoustic weakness’ where we can ‘hide those things that are again too troubling, too sexy, or too weird to touch the rest of the world’. They are places for ‘what a composer really wants to do after figuring out the somewhat hefty task of beginning and ending’. But is the beginning really the stable site we think it is?


The literary theorist Charles Altieri wonders whether there might be correlations between certain qualities and the ‘outer’ (daylight, logic, discursive thought) and others with the ‘inner’ (the nocturnal, fantasy, lyricism). Like façades of buildings, musical beginnings are the ‘public-facing’ areas of their pieces: think of the table of contents in volumes of piano sonatas which display the first few bars of the right-hand part of each work. Musical beginnings can attempt to entice us through brazen overstatement or cryptic understatement. These beginnings feel it is their job to make an impression on us, like the foyers of certain office buildings and hotels which are so much grander (or more fashionably minimalist) than the drab limited-access floors above. Composers, too, must decide how to allocate their budget – but theirs is an economy of attention. Loud beginnings can summon images of authority, multitude or power: Jean-Baptiste Lully and other French composers of the late seventeenth century dedicate their overtures to displaying the splendour and precision of the orchestra itself, showing off their royal patron’s wealth in doing so. (Early eighteenth-century overtures from across Europe continued to evoke the splendour of the French court through the characteristic rhythms and gestures of ‘French overtures’). Negating this tendency is an expressive statement in itself: Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony begins and ends with sombre, inward statements. The symphony’s governing idea, a shattered psyche unable to face up to the demands of a cruel reality, is supported by turning inside out the familiar relationship of structure and content. The triumphant march, often mistaken for a finale by first-time listeners, is swapped from its usual concluding position with a tragic slow movement.


Another reason why beginnings might tend towards public, simple statements is perceptual. We are vulnerable at beginnings, even in musical territories that are easily navigated. Listening to unfamiliar pieces of music, we might not mentally latch on to even a straightforward metre until a few bars in, or we might not immediately understand an opening feature of harmony or voice-leading as part of a conventional pattern. So it makes sense for beginnings to give us our bearings, like films that open with a wide establishing shot, perhaps an aerial view of a city, with a subtitle giving us the location, date, and other context. In music, beginnings can achieve this through their generality, like the familiar repeated tonic chord pillars that illuminate in a flash the contours of our tonal, metrical and textural topography, before introducing more individual, unrepeatable qualities. The beginning of the Eroica symphony is the most concentrated possible version of this idea: two fortissimo chords, the minimum required to give any sense of pulse or metre. Beginnings like these recall Aristotle’s prescription for literary beginnings in the Poetics: ‘something from which anything naturally follows’. We can also notice this tendency in baroque contrapuntal music that opens either with a simple figure or a simple ground. Purcell’s ground bass movements cycle through their harmonic progression once alone before the upper voices enter. Fugues or ricercars are the mirror image of this, opening by stating the monophonic subject in a single upper voice. These kinds of beginnings might invoke an abstract mode of listening: this is going to be music about the possibilities of this fugue subject, or the harmonic reinterpretations of a ground bass.


Whatever happens at the beginning seems to be invested with ‘beginningness’, a unique importance, by virtue of its position. This becomes particularly clear in pieces with a literary source. Tchaikovsky’s ‘overture-fantasy’ Romeo and Juliet begins with a sombre, modal chorale in the clarinets and bassoons, representing the character of Friar Lawrence. He is just one of many features of the drama evoked by the music, but because his music comes first, his musical token seems to wander free from his character and functions as a unifying thread for the entire piece. Tchaikovsky realises our tendency to valorise whatever happens at the beginning, and feeds it back into his compositional choices: the chorale is more important for the overall tone of tragic foreboding it gives the beginning of the piece than its evocation of the friar. Beginnings are thus natural places for music we can subjectively identify with. Brahms often begins first movements of sonatas with a shapely, lyrical strain with a wide range, somewhat irregular in its phrase length. These openings invite hearings of empathy, understanding this melodic type as a character whose fortunes we can trace through the ensuing developments. But composers, just like writers, can undermine this convention. A 1940s film noir can surprise us with a revelation of the character presented first as an eventual antagonist. In a more abstract sense, the opening themes of some late Beethoven variation movements often turn out not to be the fertile source of material we expected, but a mere skeleton that only finds fullness through taking on features of variations it encounters on the way. Beethoven adopts this strategy in a genre - the variation set - usually associated with simple pleasures, not ingenious compositional manipulation. Was what we heard at the beginning really the theme at all? Beethoven’s grandest statement in this form, the Diabelli Variations, stages this idea in a particularly theatrical way. The piece is about Beethoven’s ability to exert his compositional mastery over the unpromising waltz theme written by a lesser composer, Anton Diabelli. The 33 variations devour the theme, seizing on every aspect of it and dressing it up in every costume imaginable – noble procession, Handelian fugue, concertante fireworks. By the time we reach the finale, the naïve waltz is transfigured into a worldly minuet, as if looking back with nostalgia at its humble beginnings. Like the protagonist of a nineteenth-century Bildungsroman, here we have a beginning that unknowingly contains multitudes.


Other beginnings claim to stand outside the works that they are a part of. Overtures, especially in German Romantic opera and twentieth-century musicals, often function as conspectuses of important musical ideas. Like shop-window displays or movie trailers, we perceive these as incomplete and future-oriented in themselves. Each theme is undeveloped and unintegrated into its musical surroundings; distinctive, static objects that seem to demand a future explanation – like the wordless foreshadowings of vocal texts to be heard later in the last movements of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Mahler's Second. In late eighteenth-century symphonic first movements, slow introductions have a ‘before-the-beginning’ quality, as James Hepokoski puts it; a feature which in the nineteenth century evolved into more explicit framing devices. Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony, inspired by the (fake) ancient poetry of Ossian, sublime views of ruins and mythic stories of a heroic golden age, starts with a slow introduction that seems to evoke a bard introducing an ancient tale. This introduction returns at the end of the movement, bringing us back to the moment of the telling of the story. These sorts of beginnings purport to speak to us directly, to announce themselves as a guide, or send some sort of message about how to understand whatever follows. They are paradoxical; beginnings that try to negate themselves and introduce the real beginning. Chopin’s self-contained sets of Preludes, as Robert Schumann noted, are preludes to nothing – like the ancient ruins that inspired their Romantic generation to exalt anything fragmentary and incomplete.


These examples have mainly been drawn from the long nineteenth century, which might be called the era of musical narrative – when musical structure was thought of as akin in some sense to literature and drama. But other examples can remind us of just how wide the possibilities are. Morton Feldman, for instance, aimed to do away with beginnings altogether; he was interested in music’s ability to represent space, not time. When composing, he wrote ten additional bars of music before the ‘real’ start of the piece, and then erased those ten bars. He aimed at music that was just ‘there’, as if the listener begins to eavesdrop on something of indefinite duration. And to take another example from outside the canonical era, in sixteenth-century sacred polyphony, the beginning of a mass movement is not a particularly privileged location: the service flows into the music as a single metaphysical event.


We think beginnings behave responsibly, as befits their privileged position, but often they do not. The apparently stable site of beginning is beset by uncertainty, not just in terms of common strategies employed there but in the very nature of the site itself.

© Joel Sandelson 2023

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