Classical Connections: Once upon a time

Tchaikovsky in the late 1880s.
Tchaikovsky in the late 1880s.

Last week I was chatting with a couple of friends at a local coffee house and the subject turned, as it so often does, to music.  To be more specific, it turned to time signatures – those two numbers which look like a fraction and appear at the beginning of almost every piece of printed music.  The top number tells you the number of beats in every measure or “bar”, to use the British term.  Most western music falls naturally into groups of two, three or four beats and printed music nearly always uses vertical lines to divide the music visually into separate measures which reflect these natural groupings.  It simply makes it easier to read.  Most western pop songs have four beats per measure.  Waltzes and minuets have three beats in every measure, polkas have two and marches have either two or four.

But of course, there’s more to music than pop songs, waltzes, minuets, polkas and marches.  You may for example, recall that jazz number Take Five made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  It was written in 5/4 time with five beats in each measure, hence the title of the song.  Although irregular meters are unusual in Western music, they’re often found in the traditional music of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Greece and Turkey where five, eleven, thirteen or fifteen beats per measure are not unusual.  In fact, Dave Brubeck got the idea of using irregular meters after hearing Turkish street musicians and went on to record many jazz pieces that used irregular meters.  You might also recall the old television series Mission Impossible in which the pounding theme music, composed by Lalo Schifrin, was also in 5/4 time.

As early as 1828 Chopin used 5/4 time for the third movement of his first piano sonata and irregular meters appeared more frequently towards the end of the nineteenth century.  During the twentieth century, irregular meters became increasingly popular among composers and Igor Stravinsky used them often, sometimes changing the time signature many times during the course of a piece.  The heroic closing section of The Firebird has seven beats per measure and so has Khachaturian’s famous Sabre Dance.  In Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the second movement first sounds like a waltz, but listen closely and you can hear distinctly that the meter falls into groups of five.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Symphony No.6 (Pathétique) 2nd movement. Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Duration: 08:55; Video: 480p)

This work dates from the last year of the composer’s life and was given its first performance to an enthusiastic audience in October 1893 with the composer himself conducting.  The symphony is a powerful and emotional statement which, uncharacteristically for Tchaikovsky, ends extremely quietly in a minor key.

The composer, then at the peak of his career, died only nine days after the first performance giving rise to rumours that the work contained some kind of hidden messages.  Rimsky-Korsakov had evidently asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a hidden meaning behind the work and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but preferred to keep it to himself. The slow movement, a romantic sweeping sort of waltz with a haunting middle section, is given an odd twist by writing it with five beats in each measure rather than three.  It must have puzzled the audience and given rise to even further speculation as to what the symphony was all about.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9. Brazilian Symphony Orchestra cond. Roberto Minczuk (Duration: 09:30; Video: 720p)

Stravinsky once asked, “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like, it’s always by Villa Lobos?”  The colourful, cigar-smoking Heitor Villa-Lobos was once described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century.”  Stravinsky would no doubt have disagreed, but Villa-Lobos remains Brazil’s best known and most cherished composer.  He was largely self-taught and composed over two thousand works which draw heavily on elements of Brazilian folk music.

Bachianas Brasileiras consists of nine suites for various combinations of instruments and voices.  The final suite is for string orchestra and takes the form of a Prelude and Fugue.  The prelude, with sustained strings and haunting viola solo leads into a lively rhythmic fugue with eleven beats per measure and a time signature 11/8.  This is not as daunting as it appears, because irregular meters nearly always sub-divide into smaller groups of beats. Take Five for example, subdivides into three plus two beats throughout and Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer or War which is also mostly in 5/4 time does the same.

Incidentally, at the local market last week, a lively instrumental piece from Issan was played over the loudspeakers.  I couldn’t help noticing that if someone had the time and the inclination to write it all out, the correct time signature would have been a rather scary-looking 24/16.