Brahms’s Beat Science: Alex Ross’s “Blessed Are the Sad” – by Alan Tormey

December 19, 2011

Last time, I touched on some of the musical connections between Mozart and the Insane Clown Posse.  Today, I look a slightly less intuitive combination –  Mozart and  Brahms.

“Brahms’s secret weapon is rhythm. Nineteenth century classical music is not prized for its rhythmic invention…but Brahms paid close attention to the science of the beat.”
-Alex Ross

In “Blessed Are The Sad” – Alex Ross’s Brahms essay from the Listen to This collection, Ross points to the composer’s middle-period as a time of deepening rhythmic sensibility and prowess.  In large part, Ross posits, this is due to Brahms’s engagement with Gypsy music and German folk songs.  This is undoubtedly true.  His engagement with non-classical European music is, to me, one of the reasons he is so clearly a Romantic rather than a retrograde classicist. However, I would suggest that, alongside his Romantic-era nationalist interests, his immersion in pre-Beethovenian classical music also helped to shape his specific rhythmic sensibility. Mozart, for example, is well known as one Brahms’s favorite composers and, as such, is very likely a strong influence on his rhythmic sensibility. With that in mind, I would like to take a short look at the opening of Mozart’s concert aria “Bella Mia Fiamma…” to examine how the work of a Classical composer, such as Mozart, is rhythmically different from (Ross’s description of) the Romantic style of rhythm in which “composers would generally put a 4/4 time signature at the outset of a piece, set a pulse in motion, and attempt to sustain large structures through harmonic means.” In this Mozart example, harmony and rhythm work together to create slippery, mercurial phrases that tease the listener’s expectations of musical place and time.

The score for Bella Mia Fiamma can be downloaded from IMSLP

The aria’s opening utilizes six-beat gestures that serve to swap the perceived downbeat between beats 1 and 3 of the measure. In effecting these swaps, Mozart composes a fourteen-measure (plus a downbeat) opening section without allowing the music to feel asymmetrical and/or markedly unbalanced in the way that a later composer like Prokofiev might.

The main shift in metric emphasis appears at m.8, beat 3 (from here on measures and beats will be indicated with a decimal: m. 8.3).  At 8.3, the voice reenters with an altered statement of its original material from m. 2.3. However, because of the way in which Mozart manipulates his harmonic rhythm (that is, the placement and pacing of his chord changes), the entrance at m. 8.3 feels like a downbeat, while m. 2.3 feels, as expected, like a mid-measure entrance. Juliane Banse’s performance with the Munich Chamber Orchestra (streamable on Spotify) emphasizes this by entering her voice slightly later than the strings at 2.3, but with the strings at 8.3.

Through the aria’s first six measures, harmonies basically change at the rate of the half note despite a touch of filigree here or there. Beginning with m. 7, the chords are changing every quarter note. In e minor, the progression from mm.7 – 8.3 is: |i – V/V – V7 – VI – | iv – V – i. However, not all chords in this progression are created equal. In m. 7, it is, of course, the i and V7 chords that fall on the strong beats. Following that, the VI and iv chords that come after the V7 are more of a chordal embellishment of m. 7.3’s dominant harmony than they are independent chords in their own right. If you didn’t quite follow that last bit, look at the bass line between 7.3 and 8.2 and notice how, without the rests, it looks exactly like a double neighbor figure of the sort you’d find as an ornamentation in Bach.

Following this prolonged dominant, m. 8.3 marks that first time in the piece that the voice enters at the same time as a cadence.  The combination of an authentic cadence, pseudo-repetition of melodic material, and a re-normalization of the harmonic rhythm following the speeding up of m.7 – 8.3 creates the sense that the next musical cycle is beginning. That is, in every way but the notation, m. 8.3 is the downbeat. Mm. 9 – 14 work in almost the exact same way, so that when the next substantial section of the piece begins at m. 15, the perceptual and notated downbeats have re-aligned.

So, while music of the classical era may often look somewhat rhythmically stilted from beat-to-beat, it can often contain a wealth of subtlety and sophistication from measure-to-measure. A musician of Brahms’s character would have surely internalized the lessons of Mozart and brought them to bear wherever they might be beneficial to his vision.

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