05 December 2010

Second of Three

On Suspension Bridge (In Dave’s Shed),
second movement of the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 102:

Karl has pointed out two of the building blocks of this bridge movement. The first is a scale (see e.g. bar 85 in the piano) spanning two octaves, allowing both dissonance and a pentatonic warmth. The second block is a “periodic rhythmic pattern which needs 73 measures of 3/2 to play out.” The listener certainly does not need to recognize either of these, but the composer sets such limits for himself as guideposts toward continual inspiration.

Ever since hearing the opening to Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (on the violas!), and the long chant-like phrases in the Tenth of Shostakovich, I am a sucker for long, lonely, unaccompanied themes! So you can predict that the unadorned 20-bar Viola theme at the start of Suspension Bridge, the Second Movement of the Viola Sonata, is something which would appeal to me. The theme almost has a hymn-like character, and is in G with only a few, but very delicious, chromatic wanderings (e.g. the Ab-Abb in bar 5, carrying forward the minor-second motif from the previous movement).

The piano offers an ascent from a “G” abyss in bar 20, with notes often rising in 6ths (e.g. bars 20-33) until the end of the section, where some leaps of a 7th occur. The 6ths can be heard as inversions of the 3rds in the Viola theme (e.g. from the half-note in bar 32 to 38), providing thematic-harmonic unity in a section where the long, Adagio-Largo line needs stabilizing. The section ends with an open fifth D-A to which A an octave lower and then a deep B octave are added. We then hear our 5:4 friend (in assorted guises) from the First Movement, while the piano revisits (again beneath various masks) the 7th and 9th chords (e.g. bars 50-54). The piano’s music recalls bars 83-94 from the First Movement. Of interest are the insistent duplets and triplets in the Viola, which link the music rhythmically to similar insistent figures found throughout the First Movement (bars 42-43, 56, 72, and the final bar).

Of course, these figures are also presaging similar things in the last movement, which makes one wonder if the first two movements are not elaborately inventive variations on elements from the Tango in Boston. As befits a middle movement named Suspension Bridge the music connects itself most impressively to both of the outer movements.

To return: the piano attempts to raise the bridge with the help of the 5:4 figure going up eccentric scales, but things fall apart by bar 64, where the piano reminds us that the minor-second motif has not disappeared! And speaking of insistent figures, there is a nearly constant F/E 7th in the bass between bars 64 and 78, while our friends (the major and minor seconds in 66-67 and 75-76, the 5:4 figure) frolic back and forth, ending with the return of a variation in Eb minor of the Viola’s opening statement.

Then in bar 80, starting on G in the bass (the key of the Viola’s opening), the piano starts charging upward, while the Viola also rises up a D major-minor scale played in octaves. The section leads to a Maestoso with a series of (mostly) hexachords in the piano, wherein one picks up open and diminished fifths, 7ths, and 9ths, (e.g. bar 95 C/G/B/A#/C#/G#). These point backward (e.g. bars 83-94 in Fair Warning) and forward (e.g. bars 105-113 in the Finale).

Bars 101-120 present an enigmatic dialogue with the Viola speaking pizzicatoly and the piano playing 5 8th notes against 4 (cf. the 5:4 motif), with an emphasis on our motivic intervals of 2nds, 5ths, 7ths, and 9ths. And a cadenza for the Viola – starting on G – parallels both the heaven-storming of the piano in bars 80-92 and the preceding dialogue: note how the louder triplets form one voice contrasting with a second voice of soft 16ths.

Punctuated by the piano (fortissimo) with a hexachord (Db/Ab/C in the bass, Eb/F/Cb in the treble), the cadenza continues now with large chords on the Viola, harkening back to the piano’s Maestoso section: check bar 142-143, where the minor second (C#/D) “resolves” into a F#/C/E 7th chord. The chords also presage a similar section in the Finale (e.g. bars 105-114 in the Tango in Boston), which even occasionally uses the same chordal sequences (cf. the two chords at the beginning of bar 147 with bars 105-106 in the Tango in Boston. A repeated chord (D/B/F#/E) ends the cadenza, and brings us to another dialogue between the two instruments, even more antiphonal than before, with an exotic array of rhythmic figures repeating the same notes, as if a Martian Morse code were being transmitted. In fact, however, one tastes here some of the “tango-ish” aspects of the last movement.

From this exotic soundscape we plunge downward on the piano – starting on (a high) G – while the 5:4 motif is heard in the Viola, and is soon echoed in the piano. After the ff climax, the Viola plays a Largo version of the opening Adagio, again in a kind of key of G, with which the piano quietly and sweetly (dolce) disagrees in the final bar with a D#/C# 7th in the bass, which we easily understand, since a 7th has been heard in the bass before (on F/E in bars 64-78). We have gone full circle, but discover that circle is actually a Möbius strip, so that we are no longer back at the beginning but somewhere else...maybe we are in Boston and ready to tango!

— Leo Schulte

Here reproduced with the author’s permission.

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