phrasing, phrasing at the piano, piano

Phrase relationships: Questions and Answers

At my alma mater, Oberlin Conservatory, through a four year Theory course regimen, students were saturated with Antecedent and Consequent relationships. The pairing was readily explained as 4 measures of “Question” followed by 4 measures of “Answer.” And lending support to such indoctrinated phrase SYMMETRY were harmonic underpinnings that bundled in a Half cadence of an “unresolved” character, followed by a satisfying, home-centered FINAL cadence.

Naturally, a Theory program that braved a learning curve from Baroque through Contemporary eras, could not stay rigidly affixed to such an unshakable phrase bound paradigm. Yet for purposes of this discussion, I applied the very primitive relationships of “conversation” or question/answer dialog in my study of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E minor, BWW 900.

Tossing asunder a 4 plus 4, forced symmetry, I observed half-measure relationships with strong harmonic support that created their own dialog. As the treble voice announced the basic Subject of broken chords and intervals, weaving a conspicuous harmonic rhythm, the bass line reinforced it through a two-measure advancement. Yet the subdivision of each measure created its own sub-dialog that begged for realization. Besides “feeling” and “knowing” (cognitively) what was on the page, there was a need to capture “waves” of broken chords and intervals in the opening that included an Imitative contrapuntal dimension between the hands.

How to create a seamless “weaving” interaction of voices invited hand “rotations” and “leanings” on certain notes to clarify contoured line choices. Of additional interest, was the direction of broken chords and intervals and how the composer shifted them in imitative sequences. (This could be easily overlooked) In the measure 2 Bass line, for example, Bach INVERTS the Subject–commencing with an ascending broken chord, E, G, C and continues with opposing movement to the broken intervals that were announced in the Treble, measure 1. These juxtaposed Inversions are intrinsic to measures that reconnect with Bach’s opening.

As the Prelude progresses, it is marked off in sections, often preserving the initial half-measure conversations. Longer threads of sixteenths are spun in measures 3-5, as Bach embraces intra-measure sequences that flow out of his well-stated introduction. The voicing, however, thins down to two, which evokes a Two-Part Invention setting, while a talking back and forth dynamic continues to permeate the music with some “unexpected” moments, and unfolding modulations. (Note the last F natural in measure 3, creates a surprise “tritone” instead of an expected perfect 4th that would land on F-sharp) My decision to render the surprising F Natural with a slight delay seemed to make musical sense.

Bach’s ingenious spin out of what feels like an improvised spree of scale-like 32nds in measure 6, provides a welcome offset to the more structured half-measure dialog he had previously imbued. In a liberating gesture, J.S. challenges the player to preserve a sense of abandon, while still adhering to a relentless Left Hand eighth-note, rhythmic underpinning. How to phrase this measure without sounding robotic is a significant challenge.

In my own decision-making, I chose to find sub-destinations in the 32nd note outflow that I could contour or “shape” based on what was intrinsic to the E minor Harmonic form scale thread, along with consideration of the harmonic underpinning of tonic/Dominant/tonic/Sub-Dominant spilling into measures 7 with a Dominant (under a passing Treble dissonance) then flowing back to the opening spin of broken intervals and chords. (The Half-measure Question and Answer returns)

The more freedom-bound 32nds are not limited to one measure. Bach recaps his scale-filled catharsis through measures 42, 43, 44, (sharing these rapid notes between hands) and ultimately he threads a stepwise sigh down in E minor to conclude the work.

In a Lesson-in-Progress conducted with a student in the early stages of learning (myself included), we touched on ways to render this Prelude with an ear toward the very Question/Answer relationships that crystallized and evolved over time in our individual and collective self-discoveries.

Inevitably, we realize that the creative process of growing and developing a work will be never-ending.

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