MUSI 112: Listening to Music

Lecture 14

 - Ostinato Form in the Music of Purcell, Pachelbel, Elton John and Vitamin C


This lecture begins with a review of all the musical forms previously discussed in class: sonata-allegro, rondo, theme and variations, and fugue. Professor Wright then moves on to discuss the final form that will be taught before the students’ next exam: ostinato. With the aid of music by Pachelbel, Purcell, and a few popular artists, Professor Wright shows the multitude of ways in which the ostinato bass has been used throughout the past several centuries.

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MUSI 112 - Lecture 14 - Ostinato Form in the Music of Purcell, Pachelbel, Elton John and Vitamin C

Chapter 1. Review of Musical Forms [00:00:00]

Professor Craig Wright: All right. Let us begin, please. We’re going to get started to stay on track for this morning. Don’t forget, of course, that we have this exciting event next Tuesday, which is our second test. There will be — I know. Curb your enthusiasm. There will be a review section for that, indeed three of them, next Monday night as we did last time. They’ll be in room 207 of WLH again this Monday: seven, eight and nine respectively, and yours truly will be there. We’ll also have Monday afternoon. If you want individual help, you can come to my office and one of the TAs will be covering a run of about four or five hours there Monday afternoon probably starting around one o’clock, and of course I’ll be sending you a prep sheet on this so that you will know how to prepare for this test just as we prepared for the last test. The test itself will be very similar to the first test except we — when we get to the listening pieces, then we will not be so much concentrating on individual isolated aspects of melody, rhythm and harmony but these broader questions of form. What is the form? Where are we in the form? That’s the essence of the assignment there.

We’re working here with form and it’s very important. It brings, I think — my guess is in all of the listening that you’ve been doing, pop music, classical, whatever it is, how many when you were listening ever thought about form? Did you ever think about it, any of you? Okay. One person I see raised their hand, and maybe Roger raises his hand but not too enthusiastically. Yeah, it’s the kind of thing that you could do a lot of playing and listening to music. You could take as my seventeen-year-old, maybe seventeen-year-old, maybe twelve, thirteen years of cello and I could ask him, “What form do we have? Where are we in the form?” and he wouldn’t really know because he hasn’t been exposed to that sort of thing. Well, it does help us. It’s a whole dimension of listening that we can plug into, whether it’s pop music and you’re dealing with verse and chorus and bridge. or even as we’ll see today, ostinato — in pop music or in classical music you plug in the form. Now what are the six forms that we are going to be plugging in here? Hm? Somebody run us through our checklist. Roger, get us started, please.

Student: — say one or —

Professor Craig Wright: Yeah, you can say one and then you might pass the baton. [laughs]

Student: Sonata-allegro.

Professor Craig Wright: Okay. Sonata-allegro, the most difficult, the biggest one. We spent the most time with that. What else? Chris.

Student: Fugue.

Professor Craig Wright: Fugue. We spent a lot of time with that, fairly difficult. Daniel.

Student: Rondo.

Professor Craig Wright: Rondo, a little bit easier in the sense that you’ve got this one theme that kind of bludgeons you to — if you get a theme and then you get something else, and that theme comes back and then probably something else yet again. Then that theme comes back and then something else again and again, and then theme and so on, so you get the object and then a lot of contrast but the object keeps coming back. What else? Have we mentioned — Chelsea.

Student: Ternary.

Professor Craig Wright: I’m sorry.

Student: Ternary form.

Professor Craig Wright: Ternary form. Yeah. That may be the easiest, kind of just the A, B, A idea. And we’re missing one, I think. Yeah.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Theme and variations. Your name, please.

Student: Kristin.

Professor Craig Wright: I’m sorry?

Student: Kristin.

Professor Craig Wright: Kristin. Okay. Thanks very much, Kristin. So theme and variations is the last one. When you go to a concert, sometimes you can pick up the program, and here is a cover of a program that’s going to serve as the make-up for our — the make-up concert for our class. It’s next Saturday — yes, yeah, a week from Saturday. The Jonathan Edwards Orchestra is going to be performing at Battell and they’ll be doing the Beethoven Eighth Symphony and when you go there you’re going to have four movements in the Beethoven Eighth Symphony. What’s a good guess as to what form the first movement’s going to be in?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Sonata-allegro. Okay. Sonata-allegro. The second movement — Well, it could be in a number of different forms. What’s a good guess for what the form of the third movement will be? Ternary form. It’s going to be some kind of minuet or perhaps scherzo — I think in this case scherzo, trio, scherzo, that idea. Ternary form usually is the third movement of these four-movement symphony — and then the last movement — well, we’ll have to sort of come to terms with that — figure that one out on the fly, and that’s what we’ll be doing in our test on Tuesday, although it will be a slow, sort of lento fly there. We’ll be going through it much more slowly than just one pass.

So sometimes when listening you’ve got to hear the music and make some kind of educated determination as to what the form is and then you kind, as I say, drop this template of that particular form down in your mind and then filter the music thereafter through that model, be it the model of sonata-allegro or the model of fugue or the model of rondo. You kind of hear the piece in that form thereafter. Questions about that? All right.

Chapter 2. Multiple Themes within Beethoven’s Third Symphony [00:05:19]

If not, let’s proceed with one final form today, which is ostinato. That’s our sixth form. We haven’t been introduced to that. We’re going to do ostinato, but before we get to that, I want to recap one thing having to do with theme and variation form because it allows us to bring in some other things that we have been talking about. So it’s a good culminating listening experience, and that is the finale of Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony.” Anybody know what — why it’s called the “Eroica Symphony”? Who is the hero that’s referenced there? Caroline.

Student: Napoleon.

Professor Craig Wright: Napoleon, right. So Beethoven was working on this symphony. Napoleon was the hero. Then he gets word from Paris that Napoleon has had himself crowned emperor. He thinks: “Oh, my God, Napoleon’s just a tyrant like all the rest of them,” so he’s furious and he scratches out on his score — and I — when you get to the Beethoven chapter of your textbook, look there. There’s a photograph of the cover of the “Eroica Symphony” and you can see the big hole where Beethoven with his knife scratched out Napoleon’s name. And then later on he goes on to simply identify that as “Symphony for a Hero,” the “Eroica Symphony.” So that’s what we mean by that particular — the hero originally was to be Napoleon.

So when we finish this exercise, when you finish this course, you will have actually been exposed to a number of Beethoven’s symphonies. We’re talking about No. 3 here. We opened with No. 5. On the concert a week from Saturday, you’ll have Beethoven [No.] 8 and those of you that went to the preceding concert are not barred from attending the one on the first of November. You too can get in the door there, so you might want to go to that — 7:30 in Battell Chapel November1st, and the concert the other night we had Beethoven’s Sixth so you will have been exposed to four Beethoven symphonies here in this course and that — that’s pretty good for a beginning course, great.

All right. So let’s talk about the finale here and it’s based on — and it’s kind of fun. It’s actually more complex than we would ever do on a test but it’s fun to work through it. It’s based on two themes, so this is a set of variations using two themes. Beethoven liked to do this. He did this — actually, he did this in a slow movement of [plays piano]. What’s that? What symphony is that? Anybody remember? Yeah. It was the Beethoven Sixth that we had at the concert the other night with the woodwinds and all [sings] [plays piano] and so on. [plays piano] That was the second theme. That was kind of the second, the B idea if you will, of the two themes. So there in the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Sixth Symphony” we had a double variation, and what we mean by double variation is simply that there are two themes in play. So here we have the two themes. One, the way he’s constructed here, is in the treble. [sings] That’s theme number one. Here is theme number two. [sings] So those are the two themes.

So let’s listen to some of this. It’s going to start out with just a little bit of a curtain raiser so I have a curtain raiser and then one of the themes will come in. Which one does Beethoven start with? [music playing] Okay. Up goes the curtain. [music playing] Repeat. [music playing] Continue. [music playing] Repeat. Okay. We’re going to stop it there. So which theme did he choose to work with here at the outset? Anybody know? Daniel?

Student: The bass theme.

Professor Craig Wright: Yeah, the bass theme, [sings] and how is it being played? Wasn’t it a pizzicato? [sings] So that’s the bass theme. All right. So that’s in a sense — we’ll say — call it variation one. Let’s go on to variation two here. Which theme does he choose to use at this point? [music playing] Repeat. [music playing] And repeat. [music playing] Okay. So which theme is he using there? One or two? Yeah. Evgeny says two and it was still the bass theme and it was a little bit harder to hear this time because it was being covered up above by some counterpoint. So we’ve got the theme. We’ve got counterpoint against it. Let’s go on into variation number three and we’ll see what happens. [music playing] Which one here? [music playing] Repeat, going on, [music playing] and repeat. [music playing] So which theme this time? One or two?

Student: Two.

Professor Craig Wright: Still two, but he’s moved it up into the first violins, moved it up higher and he’s got more sort of fast-running counterpoint against it. Let’s go on to the next. We’ve got to get number one at some point. [music playing] Hooray. [music playing] All right. What was the solo instrument there, and how did he orchestrate this? Well, the first statement of this first theme, he assigned it to a solo instrument. Then in the repeat he had the strings take it over. Then that solo instrument came back and then on the repeat the strings took it over again. So it’s an interesting use of orchestration here. Let’s listen to this variation again and what is the solo instrument up on top? [music playing] Okay. Let’s pause it there just for a second. So what’s the solo instrument?

Student: Oboe.

Professor Craig Wright: Oboe, yeah. So there’s an oboe penetrating up on high. Question up there, Roger?

Student: Can we think of this kind of like the [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Yeah. I wouldn’t want to take that too far though. This is sort of an isolated event here where you do have a call and a response. And it does happen just in this one variation but it’s going to be limited to this one variation, whereas in a Bessie Smith blues tune you would have that call and response idea carried on throughout the entire composition. It’s a good point though. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but that’s it exactly. You got a call by the oboe and then a repeat of that idea maybe elaborated by the strings. So here we are up here, the solo oboe, and then we are going to have the response now by the strings, so let’s listen to that. [music playing] Here we go, strings. [music playing]

Okay. We’re going to pause it here just for a second. Now something interesting happens. When we were dealing with sonata-allegro form we said that there were four functional types and this really isn’t just limited to sonata-allegro form. There are functional types in all kinds of music. When you go to a movie, a cinema, a film for example, oftentimes at the end of the scene, they will have a fade-out, and listen to the fade-out music. There’s kind of transition music in film music a lot of times. Then maybe we get a new scene and it’s very prominently displayed — well, maybe we get thematic music at that particular point. So this idea of theme and transition, even development, can occur in all different kinds of music in all different kinds of context, but just to review that idea: we have thematic music, we have transitional music, we have developmental music, and again it doesn’t have to be limited to sonata-allegro form. We saw developmental music in a section of a — of the fugue called what? Does anybody remember what we called that section of the fugue that was so developmental? Thaddeus.

Student: The episode.

Professor Craig Wright: The episode, so there we — in the episode of the fugue we have developmental activity and we get ending, cadential, stuff virtually in every kind of music so it’s not limited just to sonata-allegro form. But the question here is what is Beethoven writing at this particular point? Here we are in theme and variations but I think we’re referencing one of the four functional types of music in this next section. So what functional type is it? [music playing] Okay. So what was that that we just heard? What would you guess? Daniel. A transition. Yeah, he’s just taking us very simply from point A to point B [sings] and maybe just a little bit idea of a cadence. Transitions usually end with a couple of final-sounding chords there at the end, so that’s a transition and we’ve moved and we’ve moved from here [plays piano], a major key. What would you imagine we’re going to move to? A minor key and it’s probably, again, although we don’t hear it — I don’t hear it — we don’t hear it, it’s probably going to be the relative minor because it’s just simpler structurally to operate that way.

So let’s listen now to the next variation here, but something very interesting happens. He’s referencing another form. He’s incorporating another form in the composition as a variation, so what is the other form now? [music playing] [sings] Okay. Let’s stop it right there. So what form is he referencing? Michael?

Student: Yes.

Professor Craig Wright: Got it right today. Okay.

Student: A fugue.

Professor Craig Wright: A fugue, yeah, and we — in just one hearing is — was a little — it’d be hard to really know what voices would bring it in but I’ll just tell you. Generally what he was doing there was starting up on the top [plays piano], okay, and then [plays piano] and gradually coming down in terms of range. So it was soprano, alto, tenor and then bass. And the bass did something interesting which sort of reinforces a point we had the other day. The fugue subject that he’s working with, [plays piano] which by the way — [plays piano] So he’s kind of varying that melody number one, [plays piano] kind of varying that melody, but when it gets to the bass it does something interesting. [plays piano] Why is that interesting? [plays piano] What process do we have at work there that we talked about last time with regard to fugue? Does anybody remember that? Daniel?

Student: Inversion.

Professor Craig Wright: Inversion, and I don’t think I made that point clearly enough the other day, but any time you have [plays piano] or you could have [plays piano] it’s going up a minor third and then down a second. You could go down a minor third and then up a second. So you’re just turning the intervals and then kind of a mirror image there. So here Beethoven uses a little bit of inversion. So in the middle of this theme and variation movement he inserts a fugue, and a fugue inserted inside another form is called a fugato. So here as the fourth, I think fifth variation of this last movement he inserts a fugato. We’re going to listen to one final variation here and we — at this point we want to concentrate on the duration of the melody. We were starting out [sings], one, two, one, two, in that fashion.

What’s Beethoven doing here? [music playing] Here we go. Okay. Let’s pause it there just for a second. So what’s he done here to his melody, to the duration within his melody? Hm? It’s now — can you express it? If we were coming — [sings] and now we’re going [sings], what’s he doing?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Well, come on. I just hear small, little words out there. I — somebody — let’s choose somebody who’s pretty confident and that person will yell it out. Marcos?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: I’m sorry. I didn’t hear that.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: That’s the psychological effect of ritardando, slowing it down, giving you a sense you’re getting to the end, but once again, technically, that’s not exactly what he’s doing. He’s giving that effect by doing something. Thaddeus.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Right. He’s changing the note values. He’s simply doubling the note values, and when we do that in music we call that augmentation. Sometime, when we get to Hector Berlioz, we’ll see diminution. To give a sense of urgency to the music, you can chop them all in half. Well, here he’s getting toward the end. He wants this grand, broad effect. He’s brought in the brasses. It’s show time so what does he do? He doubles all of the note values in theme number one so let’s continue, please. [music playing]

Okay, and then he sort of fades out and adds a little coda at that point. But that’s the way we end the Third Symphony, the “Eroica Symphony” of Beethoven. So it’s an interesting piece because he’s got a fugato in there, he’s got sections that sound like transition out of sonata-allegro form, and he’s working with two themes. Questions about that before we move on?

Chapter 3. The Ostinato Form in Purcell’s Opera [00:22:58]

All right. So let’s put that behind us now and go on to talk about ostinato form. Once again — we’ve been through this many times — but what is an ostinato? Okay. I know it’s embarrassing. It’s something that happens again and again and again, just sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder applied to music, okay, obsessive-compulsive disorder applied to music. The most famous example of this is probably the [plays piano] the Bolero of Maurice Ravel, so we’ve put that up on the board here as our first ostinato piece, 1928, a piece in the twentieth century. It’s ostinato in every way in the sense that the melody keeps repeating over and over again for fourteen minutes. The rhythm [plays drum], that keeps going for fourteen minutes and change, depending on the tempo of the conductor. And when we did this, remember, you guys were providing the bass harmony [sings] and that’s all you do for fourteen minutes and thirty seconds.

So every aspect of that — melody, rhythm and harmony — is controlled by this ostinato procedure. And then this example, as mentioned, from the twentieth century. But the heyday of ostinato form, well, really, in two periods in the history of music: one, in the Baroque period; and two, right now. Because when you start listening to your pop music — go out there and listen to those basses and start charting those basses and see how repetitious they are. When Frederick Evans brought in that piece of ‘N Sync or whatever it was that he brought in and I started listening to that I thought: “My God, he’s got a descending tetrachord bass, ostinato, embedded in that.” Now I’m sure Frederick didn’t sit there scratching: “Oh, yes, there is my descending tetrachord — chromatic descending tetrachord bass there,” but it’s in there. It’s embedded in so much of this popular music and that’s kind of what we’re going to track here a little bit, but we’re going to start with the Baroque.

So we can start with — who is the best or the — yeah, we could even say the best composer of the Baroque. Well, J.S. Bach, so let’s start with an organ piece of Bach, and we’ll listen to an ostinato bass. Generally speaking in music, when you get an ostinato it’s applied to the bass. It sets up a repeating harmony so that’s what we’ve got here so here is a passacaglia, just a little bit of it, by Bach. [music playing] So let’s pause it there, and you can see what he’s doing once he gets his bass in there, and it’s a typical eight-bar pattern. It’s odd how many of these ostinato basses are in eight-bar units. So it’s an eight-bar pattern here with Bach. Then all he does is keep throwing over top of that different rhythmic patterns and slightly different melodic patterns as well, but that bass [sings] keeps churning away over and over underneath in that piece for what instrument, by Bach? Organ, big, powerful pipe organ, that wonderful, wonderful sound. All right. So that’s an introduction to the basso ostinato, the ostinato bass, by Bach.

Let’s turn to some music now of Henry Purcell. Henry Purcell was an English composer working in London at the end of the seventeenth century. He was employed by — it must have been James the Second, and then, I think, William and Mary for a little bit. So he wrote for the court and he also wrote for the theater. And in one instance, and it turned out to be his most famous composition, he wrote an opera for an all-girls boarding school in the London suburb of Chelsea. I guess it’s now part of downtown London. There’s a famous soccer team, Chelsea something. I don’t know. You see them on TV.

So there is Henry Purcell out at this all-girl boarding school and annually they put on a drama, so it was kind of like the senior class play and all of the roles were sung by women except in this case one role was sung by a male and that was the role of Aeneas. So we’ve got the famous story of Dido and Aeneas. You’ve probably read it in literature classes and you’ve probably read parts of it in Latin. It’s from Book IV and it used to be in a really good secondary-type education. When you were doing Latin and you’ve had maybe six or seven years of Latin you would read the — Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin. Anybody do that in your — wow. Holy shmoly. Latin is making a serious comeback here. Because it’s not easy. It’s not easy stuff. It’s traditional classical Latin where the syntax is radically different than medieval Latin or any kind of modern language. Okay. Well, good for you guys. So you know the story. Somebody tell me the story then. Michael, what’s the story?

Student: [inaudible] and Aeneas has to leave [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Okay. So Aeneas has to leave for another country. It happens to be what country?

Student: Rome.

Professor Craig Wright: Yeah. He’s got to follow his destiny and go off and found the city of Rome and, in the vernacular, having ditched Dido back in Carthage. She’s not happy about this. She dies. Depending upon the theatrical version or the original, she either stabs herself, falls on a burning funeral pyre or dies of a broken heart, but this is opera so you know that at the end of it the soprano’s got to die. Right?

This is the way operas die. Operas end — die, dead. So anyway you could do Violetta, in Traviata — you could do Tosca. In Tosca — we’ve even seen here the Liebestod at the end of Wagner’s Tristan. Isolde dies after singing the Liebestod — expires there — so it’s a convention of opera.

And in this particular opera we have a famous aria. It’s called “Dido’s Lament” where she is lamenting the fact that she has been abandoned by Aeneas, and it’s interesting because it’s built on an ostinato bass line and it’s built on an ostinato bass line that descends, and this is important because it became a convention for lamentation. So this is the bass line for “Dido’s Lament” here [sings] and it just keeps recycling over and over and over again. That’s the ostinato.

And then up above that we have the lamentation, “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.” So that’s what she’s singing, so let’s listen to a bit of this and before we do that we have the term on the board up there, “ground bass.” All that is is the English term for ostinato bass — ground bass, ostinato bass, the same thing, but it gives us the sense at least that the bass grounds; it kind of holds together. It’s the foundation for the entire composition. So let’s listen and we’ll start with the ground bass and — and then the singer will come in. [music playing] Okay. Let’s stop it there. So that’s how this plays out and that bass keeps cycling through the duration of this particular aria.

Listening to this recording gives us the opportunity to think about approaches to music. This is a piece written at the end of the seventeenth century and actually in this particular recording they’re playing this and singing in a way that would be rather similar to the way the would have done it in the seventeenth century. They have reproductions of seventeenth-century instruments, and the singer here is trying to create a particular approach, vocally, to the music. So as we listen to this recording one more time we’re going to hear just a little bit more of it and then we’re going to ask you to compare this recording to another recording. This would be the kind of thing that a reviewer would do, so let’s listen to a bit more of this recording, A we’ll call it, and then we’ll move on. [music playing]

All right. Let’s pause it there, and now we’re going to go on to recording B. So what’s the difference here in approach in terms of orchestra — everything — voice, and how does recording B differ from recording A? Got to get a new track up here. [music playing] So maybe we’ll pause it there. What’s your reaction to that? How do those two differ? Hands, please. Caroline.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Okay. The first singer had a much more youthful approach and you could see that as an attempt to maybe duplicate the performance context of the original performance in a high school — a girls’ school there in late seventeenth-century London. More specifically, what about the quality of that voice? Any thoughts? Roger.

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Okay. Now, so we have the two recordings. Which of the two had more vibrato? One or two?

Student: Two.

Professor Craig Wright: Two had a lot more vibrato so that’s really the big difference here, that one was a very well-focused voice with very little vibrato and maybe that’s what gave it this youthful appeal. It’s almost like the voice of a choir boy or a choir girl for heaven’s sakes, a pre-adolescent child, but intending to make it very pure and very clean and very well-focused. The second recording — what — that might be a recording that you would expect to hear — a performance you would expect to hear where? Maybe in a modern opera theater or an opera hall, a hall designed for opera where they’ve got this huge expanse that we have to fill. What about the orchestra? Frederick.

Student: It seems like the second piece the bass line was more tenor, slightly higher ostinato than the other one, and it seemed like the repetition was a little bit higher —

Professor Craig Wright: You mean higher in terms of pitch?

Student: Yes.

Professor Craig Wright: Frederick, you have a very good ear. Actually, that’s true. There’s — I don’t want to get into this, but the first recording is pitched in F-sharp, in the old Baroque tuning. They’re trying really to be so authentic. Pitch in the Baroque era was actually lower than it is today. We know that because there are tuning forks that survived from that period. They got labeled on it A — you play that A and it turns out to be our G-sharp, so aficionados of this particular repertoire when they go to perform Baroque music they’re going to use reproductions of authentic instruments, they’re going to use non-vibrato singing, and they’re going to use the lower pitch. I didn’t plan on getting into that but since you picked up on it, good for you. No, we don’t have to get into that, and to be honest with you, the only reason I remembered that was I went to duplicate — before coming in here today, I went to duplicate those pitches on the piano so I’d be up to speed with this and I realized geez, that I’d have to do this in F-sharp and that’s going to require some quick transposition up here because I can do it quickly in G with only two flats but F-sharp, how many sharps that I’ve got there, and I had to figure all of this out, so — but that is going on there. That’s an interesting development, yeah. Anything else? What about the tempo of the two? Size of the orchestra always determines to some degree the tempo. Oscar.

Student: Slower.

Professor Craig Wright: Yeah. The second recording was much slower. You — I was intentionally trying to beat it up here to — and it was a very labored beat pattern. It was much slower because they had many more instruments, a lot more people playing, axiomatic — the more people you have, the longer it takes for sound to clear, the slower your tempo will go unless you have a maniacally dictatorial type of conductor that will really push you. So it leads to — the more people, the slower the tempo is going to go. So what we have here is a reproduction — an attempt to reproduce an authentic seventeenth-century performance as opposed to a modern performance, big sound, metropolitan opera type of sound.

All right. Let’s move on here. One of the interesting aspect of this — I discovered this driving down Whitney Avenue — this is true — driving down Whitney Avenue one day, I must have been fishing for ninety-one point five on my FM dial and suddenly had a seizure or something and I didn’t quite make it, and I was listening to Elton John. Okay, listening to Elton John, and what did I hear but the craziest thing. What I heard was this text: It’s sad, it’s sad, it’s a sad, sad situation, and then I heard [sings]. I said, “Whoa. Wait a minute there. That’s the Purcell bass line. Elton John has stolen the Purcell bass line. Arrest that man!” No. We don’t do this because, as we say, these bass lines are in the common domain. As we have said before, we can’t sue anybody for the theft of a bass line and indeed it was all over the place in the Baroque. This is a type of — it became a kind of musical icon. Any time an audience would hear [plays piano] they would think death or bad news, and actually, we still do today.

Isn’t “Hit the Road, Jack” based on that same kind of ostinato bass? But in the Baroque you could go back to Monteverdi’s “Lamento della Ninfa.” You could go to Bach’s cantata, “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen,” to whine, kvetch, and you could go to the “Crucifixus” in the Bach B Minor Mass. What could be more painful or dispiriting than a crucifixion? So this was a moniker. It was a kind of emblem of lamentation, whether it’s in Purcell, whether it’s in Bach or whether it’s in Elton John.

So then Elton John was to take this and he used it not at the beginning of this piece, “Sorry is the Saddest” — or “Sorry is the Hardest Word to Say.” He didn’t use it at the beginning. He used it in the chorus. So here we are in the chorus of Elton John’s — I think it’s “Sorry is the Saddest Thing to Say” or something like that. [music playing] [sings] And then he goes on with the next verse. Okay. So that’s just one example of the use of that particular ostinato bass. We actually call that a lament bass and many — and Mozart even did it. He wrote a violin sonata on the occasion of his mother’s death in E minor and he has that thing just going down and descending. Basically, it’s this descending tetrachord chord here that gets filled in chromatically.

Chapter 4. The Pachelbel Canon and Conclusion [00:42:12]

All right. So we’ve got that as an ostinatobass.

What’s the most famous ostinato bass of all time, Baroque or modern? The Pachelbel bass. Okay? And we’ve got this thing called the “Pachelbel Canon.” Do you have the Xerox for today? What’s the “Pachelbel Canon”? Well, we’ve worked a little bit with this. I think it was Listening Exercise eight, I believe, early on in the course where we were trying to have you focus on changing harmonies, and these harmonies are just generated by this repeating bass line. There’s an irony with the “Pachelbel Canon” and that is that you never hear the canon in the “Pachelbel Canon.”

Why is that the case? It’s because if you look he’s got these three canonic lines — the three staves up above — all in the same register, and when people record this they always do it with the same instrument, usually just with a violin, so we have the violins up above, three violins all playing in the same register. You can’t pick out the canon. It just sounds like this unfolding jumble. It’s a very beautiful jumble but it’s indistinctive in that sense. Maybe if they orchestrated oboe, flute and clarinet, maybe we could hear the canon better. What we hear, of course, grinding away underneath is the ostinato bass so let’s listen to just a bit of this.

And I was struck the other day when I went back and listened to this recording on your CDs. They have put in this something that’s actually Pachelbel didn’t write. When this starts out they just start with a [plays piano]. What’s that? [plays piano] It’s a descending major scale so they’ve just said, “All right. Here’s your basic tonality. Here’s your tonal grid or whatever.” So let’s listen to the bass start out. Then we’ll have this descending scale that Pachelbel didn’t write and then his canon will start, and you can see how this works here. I’ve indicated A. A gets repeated as B comes in and so on. It’s pretty straightforward how the canon operates. [music playing] Okay.

Here comes the scale now. [music playing] And now the canon starts: A one, [music playing] the second voice comes in, [music playing] the first voice goes on to present something new, B. [music playing] [sings] Okay. So we’ll pause it here now. We’re going to pause it here, and it goes about four minutes. It is very beautiful. It’s lovely — lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely. But you know this bass line. Right? [sings] Okay. So there’s our D. Let’s all sing it together. Ready, sing. [sings] Okay. So once you get that in your ear, you have a sense, oh, it’s really in there and that you may have heard that many different times before.

Now lots of people made use of the “Pachelbel Canon” and I know of at least three and maybe four that I’ve put up on the board up there and you may know of more. Marcos sent me a YouTube clip of a comedian. Maybe you guys have seen this. What was the comedian’s name who was made sort of so sick of the “Pachelbel Canon” because every piece he picks up has got the bass line of the “Pachelbel Canon” in it? Who — what comedian was that? It doesn’t matter. Okay. So those are my four. Anybody else know where else they show up? All right. Well, let’s review, but keep in the — oh, Thaddeus, good.

Student: Britney Spears.

Professor Craig Wright: Britney Spears has the “Pachelbel Canon”? What a time to be alive. Wow. [laughter] All right. Thaddeus, go get that for me. I need this one. This is gold. Thank you very much, but so — but check it. For example, one of the students, Daniel in here, sent me — or gave me — and we talked about it, and let’s go to that one. The — it’s — He said this may be a knockoff of the “Pachelbel Canon.” It’s called the “Taco Bell Canon.” So let’s see if the “Pachelbel Canon” is in fact embedded in the “Taco Bell Canon” here. [music playing] [sings]

Okay. So is that the Pachelbel bass? [plays piano] Is that the pattern you were singing? Yes or no? How many think yes? Raise your right hand. How many think no? Raise your left hand. No, it ain’t the “Pachelbel Canon.” Is it an ostinato bass? Yes, it’s an ostinato bass. So we could keep playing with that. I could play you Coolio, Blues Traveler, Vitamin C. Just for laughs let’s do Vitamin C. You’ve — and I’m sorry about this but it’s too good to pass up. Okay. So out you go. Thanks for your attention. [music playing] Appropriately enough, it’s in the key of C, Vitamin C, see. [laughter] [music playing]

[end of transcript]

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