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Mozart clarinet concerto, arranged for piano solo (image)
Mozart clarinet concerto 2nd Movt, arranged for piano. Click to download the score

Mozart and the malleability of musical meaning

This piece has a strange place in my affections. I disliked it for many years – I’m only a fairweather clarinet enthusiast, I’m not a huge Mozart fan, I don’t like slow music, and I’d always this piece too sentimental for my liking (those descending motifs in the second phrase tug too hard at the heart strings). But in the late autumn of 1998, my sister Kathy, aged 42, was dying of cancer, in a room in the Cromwell Hospital, and this was one the things she was listening to on her Walkman. It would not have been her usual taste in music, but she’d been given only weeks to live since her diagnosis, and nothing was usual any more. As she was coming to terms—that’s surely not the right word—with her impending departure from the world, this was what gave her peace and comfort—and I’m not sure those are the right words either. Once I’d heard the music through her ears as it accompanied her in her final days,  could only ever think of it that way, and only think of her in that situation, and it has changed the way I hear that music forever. 

I couldn’t put it better than Francis Spufford has in Unapologetic. He describes hearing it in a café after a terrible night of traumatic arguing and tears. Here’s just a sample: 

It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. . . .It said: Everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. (Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, pp. 15-16) 

At the moment I’m reading Tia DeNora’s Musical Asylums, and I was really taken with the bit where she says how it’s  precisely because music is so indefinite and malleable in its meanings, that it is so useful as a medium for change and personal use: it defies meaning, but it can also acquire all kinds of meanings according to people and context. That’s what happened here: the same musical material changed its meaning for me. The music offered me an insight into someone else’s feelings through a transformative connection with my own, and that is an extraordinary achievement of music, isn’t it? – though the whole point of what DeNora is saying is that music on its own does not have this “power,” it’s what we do with it, the way we appropriate it, and give it meanings and uses that is extraordinary. Nonetheless, it’s not all our perspective and feelings: there is something in the music that enables us to do that with it. It’s an endless, unsolvable, marvellous conundrum. 

Adage and metrical issues: the case of the Mozart clarinet concerto

At times, I have wondered whether I should never have created the “Spades” category for myself – that is, the kind of adage music where you don’t care whether it’s in three or four or 12 or whatever, it’s just “slow” (see the “about the year of cards” page if you don’t know what I’m talking about).  In the cold light of empirical day, is there actually such a thing? This is the danger of creating categories before you start work on a project.

Yet just when I was going to give it up as a bad idea, I remembered this piece, the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet concerto. It’s a perfect example of what I mean by the “spades” category, since for almost a week a couple of years ago, I was sure it was in four, not three.  I had chosen it for a plié exercise, and even tested it out by plié-ing in my head while listening to it. If i could notate or explain how I came to hear it in four rather than three, I’d talk myself out of it, but I’ll do my best.

With this music, at least on this occasion, I didn’t feel subdivisions, I just heard the “1s” – the slow pulses marking the beginning of each bar. The beats in between were like rubber ducks floating in a bath, with no metre or pattern, no rhythmical parsing. Just a kind of flow or feeling.  It’s at times like this when I feel the most affinity with my dance colleagues when they don’t have any perception of or interest in time signature: they’re being mindful (in the Buddhist, meditative sense) of the music, but in a different way. I’ve tried to mentally notate what I thought the music was doing, but I can’t, because whatever I was hearing was “pre-notational.”

 

Mozart and phrase structure

There is something so perfect about a Mozart phrase. If you read Joseph Riepel’s 1752 primer on how to write a minuet in Fundamentals of Musical Composition ,  you get an insight into the craft of phrase structure: it’s not genius, it’s about knowing when to go up, when to go down, how to go there, for how long, and in what proportion and so on. As Riepel illustrates, this is something you can teach and learn, and the minuet is a good way to start. I once got a group of first year students to act out Riepel’s master-and-pupil-style dialog, providing the musical examples myself at the piano. I don’t know whether those students really learned much from it, but it was quite a fun way of spending a music lesson.

This piece could be wonderful for class, but the potential for problems are in its tempo. It needs to be slow, and that’s how I managed to mishear it (i.e. because it was so slow, the elapsed time of a single bar was about twice the length of a normal 3/4 plié bar).  Wait til someone wants a really slow three, and save it for that. So even though I’m saying that this piece is perhaps neither “particularly” three or particularly four, you might need to wait for a “particularly three” moment to play it, even if you don’t feel its threeness on the surface.

About this arrangement of the Mozart clarinet concerto

In transcribing this for piano, it’s been hard to leave a single note out (hence the rather awkward arrangement).  It sounds simple until you try to reproduce it on the piano: the transparency of the writing makes it surprisingly difficult.  You can’t just chuck a chord in the left hand and a solo in the right, because the light won’t shine through it.  The writing is thin: no bass in the solo sections, and only two notes to hold the harmony together: not an ounce of surplus anywhere.  And when the tutti come in, you want richness, not sludge, so chord voicing is a problem.  I’ve done my best, though I know I’ll be trying to perfect a sound for this for a long time to come.

Postscript: (if you like your adage with a bit of Wittgenstein)

Now by coincidence, I’d just been reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and had just got to No. 78 as I was doing this blog entry:

“78. Compare knowing and saying:

how many metres high Mont Blanc is –
how the word “game” is used –
how a clarinet sounds

Someone who is surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it is perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.”  

Now, it’s pure coincidence that he happens to be talking about the clarinet here and this is a clarinet concerto, but the issue is the same as “knowing” a piece of music without being able to say what it “is” or what it’s “in” in terms of metre and structure. I know what this music sounds like, and I could probably play some of it by ear, but initially, I couldn’t say what it was in terms of metre (even though I’d known the music for years).  That’s not something you hear much with regard to metre, because metre is so often spoken about in terms of number, as if that’s all it was.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist