MUSI 112: Listening to Music

Lecture 6

 - Melody: Mozart and Wagner


This lecture discusses melody and aesthetics; Professor Wright raises the question of what makes a melody beautiful, and uses excerpts from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro to explore this issue. Throughout the discussion, the foundations of classical phrase-structure and harmonic progressions are used to explain some of the choices these three composers made.

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MUSI 112 - Lecture 6 - Melody: Mozart and Wagner

Chapter 1. What Makes a Melody Beautiful? [00:00:00]

Professor Craig Wright: All right, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s get started. We are going to continue our discussion of melody, and last Thursday we were talking about melody in terms of scales: major scales, minor scales, chromatic scales. Then we went on to talk a little bit about what it is in a melody that makes us feel the way we do about that particular melody — the major and minor quality of them, and the fact that that quality shows up rather early on in the scale, the third step of the scale. Then we talked about conjunct melodies, and disjunct melodies, and we ended up talking about Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which he incorporated in the last movement of his last symphony, Symphony no. nine. And we said that that had a particular quality of phrase construction — antecedent and consequent phrase structure. [plays piano]

Opening it up — [plays piano] — and closing it back down. And I was thinking over the weekend of all the pieces that operate that way. [plays piano] Antecedent — [plays piano] — consequent. And then it goes on with an extension the way Beethoven went on with an extension — [plays piano] Antecedent — [plays piano] — consequent. I was a thinking of a piece of Mozart — [plays piano]

Was that really Mozart? Well let’s listen here to just a little bit of what that really is. Okay. [music]

All right. That’s enough of that. Dumb pet trick. All I did was take the theme of the Macarena and strip away all the rhythmic stuff underneath, and put an eighteenth-century Alberti bass with it, that Mozart would have used — [plays piano] — and so on.

But the point here is that even the Macarena is using this antecedent and consequent phrase structure — something as basic as that. So it’s sort of endemic to how melodies are constructed. Now I was thinking — and I always like to try to come up with new, however albeit lame-brained, ideas — for teaching this class. Supposing I got a student up here, I mean melody — what makes a melody beautiful? What makes a great melody? Anybody know? Well, if you do, let me know, because I don’t know, and nobody really knows. It’s sort of like the definition of pornography: you know it when you see it, or you know it when you hear it.

So in pursuit of this, I was trying to think, “Well, maybe I’ll have a student come up and try to craft a melody right here on the spot.” And I supposed we could play with that, but then I said, “That’s probably not a good idea, because a) No student would really want to do this, and b) It would probably take too long to work through all the aspects of it.” So what I did — and this was about four o’clock yesterday afternoon — and I thought, “Craig, you think up a melody.” So I started thinking up a melody, and I hope I can remember how it went. [plays piano]

Something like that. So what would you give me as a grade for that melody? Come on, now. Daniel, what do I get for that melody? B minus? C plus?

Student: B.

Professor Craig Wright: B? Well, this is the days of grade inflation. I’ve been inflated up to a B. It was kind of C, C minus. It wasn’t particularly inspired. But in crafting that, it made me think of “Why do I do this at this particular point and not that?” Well, there are certain confines that we’re operating with. We’ve got to be in a scale. [plays piano]

Certain kinds of phrases — [plays piano] — something ending like that in a piece that’s going to end here — [plays piano] — tells me that’s got to be in the middle; that can’t come at the end. So there’s a syntax here also. We’ve talked about that before, that musical phrases have to come in a particular order for them to make sense.

Chapter 2. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi: Cadences and Sequences [00:05:39]

So instead of working with my lame-brained melody, let’s work with a great one. We’re going to work a melody by Giacomo Puccini here, and you can see his name on the board up there, and get a sense of the melody in question. It’s an aria — and we’ll talk about what an aria is later — but it’s an aria from his opera Gianni Schicchi. Now, that’s not a well-known opera by Puccini; can anybody tell me the name of a better-known opera by Puccini?

Student: Tosca.

Professor Craig Wright: Tosca, yes.

Student: Madame Butterfly.

Professor Craig Wright: Madame Butterfly. You haven’t hit the most obvious yet — La Bohème, for example. Rent was based on La Bohème. So he has written a lot of well-known operas; this happens to be a lesser-known opera. But it has one sort of drop-dead beautiful melody in the thing, “O mio babbino caro,” where a young lady is trying, in effect, to con some money out of her father. And it’s an odd thing, this thing so beautiful — trying to separate her father from money is an odd thought. And it occurs rather early on in the opera, too. And dramatically, it’s not of any particular significance. It just happens to be an absolutely gorgeous melody that you’ve all heard many, many times. One day — you’ll recognize it as soon as I start to play it — one day I was playing this at home; my then-thirteen-year-old son came in and said, “I know that. That’s beautiful.” I said, “Ah, that’s my boy. He’s going to be a music lover.” “Yes, that’s the background music for Grand Theft Auto.” “What’s Grand Theft Auto, Chris?” Well, I found out. But it shows you that this particular aria has legs. It’s kind of everywhere. So let’s listen to a little bit of Puccini’s “O mio bambino caro.” [music]

Okay, let’s pause it right there. Let’s pause it. [plays piano] What’s kind of neat about that, right, at the outset there — [plays piano] What’s that? Why, again, do our spirits soar at that particular point? We’ve got a large leap there. It’s the leap of a —

Student: An octave.

Professor Craig Wright: Of an octave. We wouldn’t expect you to recognize that, but it’s interesting to fold that in, because we were talking about octaves last time. So we have this opening phrase, and it’s about to be coupled — we’re going to continue now — with the next phrase that will complete the antecedent phrase. [music]

So we’re sitting here — can you see the tonic? That’s where we want to go, that’s where we want to go. So we’re going to step right above the tonic. So that’s the end of the antecedent phrase, the opening-up phrase, but we’re not on the tonic. Okay? So now we’re going to continue, and you can imagine we’re going to hear some of that same music. But ultimately, it’s going to come back to the tonic; we hadn’t gone away from it. Okay. [music]

Starting again. [music] Here’s our octave. [music] Now, something interesting happened there. [plays piano] Ah, there’s our tonic. We should be back to our tonic. But that’s not exactly what happened. [plays piano]

We went to the tonic melody note, but underneath he harmonized it with an unexpected harmony. We expected to hear: [plays piano] We got: [plays piano]

So we were deceived there a little bit. And musicians call this a deceptive cadence. When the whole thing has been set up to come back to the tonic with the tonic chord underneath — [plays piano] — we get something other than the tonic chord. So in music, we have to kinds of really broad categories of cadence. We have this kind of thing called — [plays piano] Or: [music piano] — where we come back to the expected tonic. We call those authentic cadences. We also have another class of, as mentioned, deceptive cadences where we do things such as: [plays piano]

Where you’re expecting to go: [plays piano] But we go: [plays piano] Or we go even more bizarre: [plays piano] Something like that. You keep the same tonic note in the melody, but you change the harmony underneath. So that’s what Puccini has done here. [plays piano]

Instead of going there, he goes: [plays piano] — there. Here is a silly analogy. One time I was flying into the city of Minneapolis. “Fasten your seat belts, trays up,” etc., etc., etc.; we’re coming right in there, you can see the tarmac there and suddenly the plane goes “Zoom.” It doesn’t land, it does a barrel roll almost off to the right, circles all the way around, announces there was some piece of equipment on the landing strip, and he was doing a flyover. In music, you have to do the same kind of thing. If a composer has set this up so that you’re expecting to go: [plays piano] And you don’t, you go here — [plays piano]

We can’t end that way. We just can’t end that way. We need our daily supply of tonic. So what we’ve got to do is a musical flyover. He’s going to fly all around this thing again, and then come back in and this time land on the tonic. So let’s listen to the flyover: [music]

Here’s our tonic. But it’s so lovely, he can’t stop. So he’s going to give you a little reminiscence of the beginning — [music] There’s our octave. [music]

So there’s just a little reminiscence of the beginning, but again coming back and just then, of course, ending on the tonic. So that’s the structure of an aria by Puccini, and it is highly structured.

Chapter 3. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde: Exploring Melodic Ascents and Descents [00:13:27]

Now I want to talk about another aria that’s structured in a different way, and that’s by Richard Wagner. But before we do that, we need to talk about one other process in music, and that has to do with something called melodic sequence. And oddly, students over the years have had difficulty understanding and hearing melodic sequence. But it’s a pretty simple idea. Melodic sequence is simply the repetition of a musical motive at a successively higher or lower degree of the scale. So I could take a motive — anybody want to sing a motive for me here? Daniel do you want to sing a motive? Give me four notes. [plays piano]

So we’ve set up a descending melodic sequence. Now, supposing we did this? [plays piano]

That’s obviously an ascending melodic sequence. So that’s what’s involved here, and generally speaking, going down introduces relaxation; going up, perhaps, tension. All right. So that’s a little bit of the set up with regard to that. So now we’re going to work through this — we’ll call it an aria for the moment — of Wagner, in which, rather than structured units, he’s going to continually evolve new music, but using a motive that he presses up continually through melodic sequence. So it’s a slightly different process of melodic structure here. Richard Wagner — not a very nice man, needless to say. But he was a spectacular composer, and wrote many great things. And one of them, arguably the best that he wrote, is his opera Tristan. Tristan and Isolde, written in 1865, as you can see on the board here.

And we should know about it because we here at Yale own the piano on which Wagner wrote Tristan, or it was at least involved in part of Tristan. Next time you are walking past DUH over there, you know, the Health Center, at seventeen Hillhouse Avenue, there’s a building there, a rather foreboding looking building. Inside is a wonderful collection of keyboard instruments. So go in there and look at the Bechstein piano, this German piano, Bechstein, that Wagner used when working on Tristan.

So we have the opera, and we’re going to start here with a little bit of the plot. It’s a story of this English knight, Tristan, and this Irish princess, Isolde, and it’s Tristan’s job to go over to Ireland and pick her up and deliver her back to Cornwall where she is supposed to marry King Mark. But en route, they inadvertently consume a love potion, so she is passionately in love with him, and he with her. So we’re going to listen to a little bit of the overture here now. Wagner actually called it a prelude — that doesn’t matter — opening music here, to Tristan. And I have two questions for you as we listen here. What instruments are playing? And what musical process is Wagner using at this point? [music]

Okay, we’re going to stop it there, now. So what instruments were playing there in that little dialogue — the dialogue between families of instruments? Strings, and? Woodwinds. Okay, alternating back and forth. The strings were at the lower point — [plays piano] — and the woodwinds would answer — [plays piano] — then strings — [plays piano] And so on. So what melodic process were they using there? Rising melodic sequence. All right, it sort of chugged along until we got to — [plays piano]

What’s this? We talked about this before in regard to Richard Strauss. That sound? It’s a dissonant sound resolving to consonant. So it uses this sequence to work up to a climax, hits a dissonance, resolves it into consonance. Let’s listen to a little bit further along here in the prelude. [music]

Now he’s churning his way up here through sequence; each level gets higher and higher in the violins. [music] Dissonance.  Okay, let’s stop it there. And you heard the trumpets come in there — [plays piano] — with that chromatic figure, almost kind of like a snake rising through it. So it’s not only the rising melodic sequence. This is highly chromatic music, and that also produces tension. How do you make love in music? Well, you’ve got rising dynamic volume, we’ve got rising sequence that works up to a climax where there is dissonance and then release. So if I’m using rather suggestive language here, it’s done intentionally. This ain’t Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; this is the passionate story of Tristan and Isolde: lust, desire, carnal knowledge, that sort of thing. And how does Wagner give you this sense? How does he communicate this? Well there’s this idea of continually rising sequence that then hits this climax with a dissonant, almost painful dissonance, and then the resolution; the music duplicating in an odd way life’s processes.

The climax of the opera, the real climax, however, really doesn’t come until about three hours into it, at the end. Now we have Tristan dying of a mortal wound. Isolde is cradling him in her arms. And she sings an aria. We’ll call it an aria; Wagner called it a different name, it’s called the “Liebestod.” She’s singing about her vision of their life in the hereafter, in the world beyond, in the celestial realm. And so it’s called a “love-death,” a Liebestod here, and it’s typical, I suppose, of the conventions of the Romantic period. This is the nineteenth century; this is romance, Tristan and Isolde. So we’re going to pick this up about halfway through the Liebestod of Isolde, and once again we will hear these little snippets, these motives. [noise from outside]

[Outside noise interrupts] I don’t have absolute pitch. When you’re really annoyed with things in life, you can sometimes at least have some fun, enjoy it somehow, by trying to figure out what key it’s in. That was a pipe in F we were listening to, a rather unresonant pipe in F. Okay, so let’s go back to the midpoint of the Liebestod here, and we’re going to hear these little snippets. This is not antecedent and consequent; this is a motive being pushed higher and higher each time to a climax. Here we go: [music]

Okay, we’re going to pause it there just for a second. It’s glorious. It’s a glorious sound. And isn’t it nice to have our audio system working properly again? This is really the first day that it’s worked properly. So it sounds wonderful. It’s glorious. It’s a glorious climax that Wagner has been working for — for three hours here, that we’ve got, that we’ve arrived at. But now he’s going to turn everything around. The entire sentiment is going to change. And I think we should be able enumerate here, maybe as many as four different ways in which Wagner does turn our emotions one hundred eighty degrees at this point. So we’re going to go back, and we’re going to listen to the climax again, and then we’re going to listen to how the music changes. And I want you to, as you sit there, to think about, “What’s he doing here?” You’re the composer; how do you make something go from sort of cradle in your arms to vision of the world beyond. So think about dynamics, think about tempo, think about these sequences, consonance and dissonance, etc., etc., etc. Okay, here we go.[plays music]

Well, I hope you liked that. Really gorgeous. So get me started here. What did you hear there? How did he slow down this entire train? Yes?

Student: It got softer.

Professor Craig Wright: So the whole thing got softer. So we’re going to take the basics first. And that would be number one on my list — the whole thing got softer. What else happened? Not only soft — although the voice ended up rather high — what are the last sounds we heard? [plays piano]

It also ended lower. And we talked about high and low intention, that sort of thing, before. Softer, maybe lower generally in terms of the tessitura, or the range. What else? Chris?

Student: The tempo got slower.

Professor Craig Wright: Yes. There were some points that the tempo got slower. And we’ll talk about that in just a minute if we hit on anything else here. Anything else? Elizabeth?

Student: Fewer instruments?

Professor Craig Wright: Well, they weren’t playing as loud. They weren’t quite as obvious. I’m not sure that there were fewer instruments. My guess is, if I were to look at that score, it would be huge and everybody would still be playing. It’s just that it sounded fewer because they were playing more quietly. What about — Roger?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Craig Wright: Yes, he used the dissonance. For example, we had that snake idea, that snake in the Garden of Eden: [plays piano]

He was writhing around there, but then he took it up two more degrees and folded it in to a consonance, so it was all very consonant at the end. What about the sequence? It was a — [plays piano] It was rising, rising, rising, but here at the end it started doing: [plays piano]

It’s just repeating the same pitches over and over and over again. He took that out of the equation, too. He backed out of this idea, of the sequence. It’s static at this point. We have stasis, we have arrival, stability. What was the one thing that we haven’t mentioned in terms of the tonality here? [plays piano]

There at the end — what is that last sound? Very strongly, the tonic. [plays piano] That’s the way it ended. There was one other thing that was kind of cool here. I’m trying to think of the exact — [plays piano] We had that kind of sound — [plays piano] Supposing I went — [plays piano] Does this have any resonance to you? [plays piano] Where are you, if you hear this sound? Hmm? [plays piano]

Maybe in Yale Commencement where we sing hymns or at church or something like that. But we would call that an Amen — an Amen cadence. What does that bring to the — it sort of brings the divine benediction here. Now, the nineteenth century, life is more painful — [plays piano]

But you have a sense here at the end that they’re living a blessed existence in heaven; it may be because Wagner has folded in, sort of subliminally, below the surface, this cadence. We have deceptive cadences here, and we have another kind of cadence called an Amen cadence that brings an additional resonance — an additional symbolism to the conclusion. So it’s a wonderful piece of music, and maybe — I think we have time — let’s listen to just the last few seconds of that again, because it recaps some of the points we’ve been making. [music and piano]

Here’s the snake going away. Here’s the consonance. Okay, good. So that’s the Liebestod of Richard Wagner. Questions about that? Thoughts about that? Comments about that?

Chapter 4. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro: Melodic Sequence Analysis [00:32:18]

All right, if not, let’s go on to talk about Mozart, a little bit more about Mozart. We’re going to hear another aria by Mozart, and this one does something a little bit different than — well, it’s a kind of combination of what we’ve just studied here. We’ve got a highly structured aria by Mozart; yet at the same time, we’re going to see an example of rising melodic sequence in it. And we have a guest artist today: Lauren Libaw. So Lauren, come on up. Some of you know Lauren; she’s in Davenport College. And I’ve known her for years now because she is a music major, and I’ve seen her sing in lots of different productions — in the School of Music’s Orpheus and the Underworld a year or so ago. So, Lauren, I know that you’ve sung with the Los Angeles Opera, and I remember that you sang with David Stern in Brussels — was it Brussels or Paris or both?

Student: Both.

Professor Craig Wright: Both. Probably at Le Châtelet in Paris? Yes. The Châtelet Theater, the big metro change. So she’s a very experienced singer, and a very, very good singer. But tell us, Lauren, what do you want to do with this? Here you are at Yale; you could become an opera singer or you could go to law school and work for Skadden Arps in New York or Los Angeles or whatever you want to do. What are you going to do with all this?

Student: I would like to pursue a career in opera; law school isn’t for me, although I do like to argue. Sorry, parents.

Professor Craig Wright: So this year, if you’re a senior, are you going to take a year off? Or are you going to apply directly to graduate schools in voice? And where are you going to apply if you’re feeling to do that?

Student: Actually, I’m going to go back to work with David Stern in Paris.

Professor Craig Wright: So you’re in that already?

Student: Yes. He very kindly has asked me.

Professor Craig Wright: David Stern was a Yale undergraduate. He is the son — and he was the nicest boy — the son of who? Of whom? Stern? Does that ring a bell? Isaac Stern, the world-famous — one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century. So David was an undergraduate here, graduated probably fifteen or so years ago, went on to a career in music as a conductor, mostly in Europe.

Student: I think he told me that he was a TA for this class.

Professor Craig Wright: He would come in from time to time, and we would do things in here. As an undergraduate, he was not a TA — but then he was a conductor for the YSO [Yale Symphony Orchestra] for a couple of years. So he would come in from time to time and we would do different things. So Lauren, as I’ve mentioned, is a very experienced singer, and we’re going to do a little aria here out of Mozart’s Figaro, his opera The Marriage of Figaro, 1786, called “Voi che sapete.” So Lauren, can you tell us something about this aria? Who’s singing it?

Student: This aria is sung by Cherubino, who is a young boy, actually–I’m wearing pants for the purpose. It’s called a “trouser role” for that reason. It’s sung by a woman.

Professor Craig Wright: Why do they do that? Did the weird opera people like transvestites or something? There are other roles like this — it’s just kind a convention in opera.

Student: He is a young boy — so maybe the high voice —

Professor Craig Wright: He’s an adolescent, fourteen, and what’s he experiencing here?

Student: First love or first lust.

Professor Craig Wright: He’s not sure.

Student: He’s not sure. He’s singing to the Countess, with whom he’s in love — with a little help from Susanna.

Professor Craig Wright: Susanna? So he thinks he’s in love with the countess, but maybe it’s Susanna or maybe it’s Barbarina, or maybe it’s that broomstick over there. It’s really hard to know exactly whom he’s in love with at age fourteen. That’s the confusion here. So if there’s a certain palpitation from time to time, it’s intentional here — and a certain sense of being flustered, almost — agitated or flustered — you’re uncertain about what these things are. We’re going to have Lauren sing all of this for us. But in order to have this be something other than just a performance, I’d like to work through different pedagogical issues here. So let’s talk about that just for a second. Now, at the outset of this, and you guys have your sheets out there; there’s a sheet on the music stand back there — you’ve got a sheet. So take a look at that. And we’ll see — what do you see — Marcus? Right down here in the front row, what do you see on your sheet by way of music?

Student: That it’s broken up into two different parts. Three, I guess.

Professor Craig Wright: Three. And they’re labeled “antecedent” and “consequent.” So Mozart starts out here with the antecedent and consequent phrase structure. [plays piano] That was the antecedent; here comes consequent. [plays piano] So antecedent/consequent. Then, interestingly enough, when the voice comes in, what does he do, Lauren? What does he do there? You have to sing — you just don’t duplicate what I did.

Student: He actually expands different structure by adding more material in the middle.

Professor Craig Wright: So he had an A and B, but his mind is such — I mean, I’d never be able to figure that out — he said, “Well, I can open this whole thing up and put in some additional lovely music, and then close it back down with my consequent phrase structure.” So we have that. Let’s listen to how that plays out. So we’ll just start with where you come in, Lauren, with “Voi,” okay? [plays piano while student sings]

And then we go on with a series of phrases, and as you listen to this, you might count the number of bars and phrases here. But generally speaking, they’re all four bars in length. Mozart is one of the guys that puts this whole idea of structure with melody on the map. Structure, symmetry are very important in his compositions. And as we proceed here, the text gets more and more interesting. We start talking about feelings at line five there. “Sento un affetto” — how would you translate, I guess we have a translator.

Student: “Sento un affetto.” “I feel,” — “affetto” in Italian, that’s like “something.”

Professor Craig Wright: Emotion?

Student: Yes.

Professor Craig Wright: And then sometimes he is really happy, and then sometimes he’s sort of despairing. What’s kind of cool, when we get over to the despairing idea here on the piano — [plays piano] We’re here, and we go to — [plays piano]

And then he’s going to be burning like a flame and then freezing to death, so we get the weird harmonies out here as he’s freezing and thawing. So let’s hear just a little bit, maybe with — from there — at “Sento un affetto” okay? [plays piano while student sings]

Okay. Now we’re going to go on to a little bit later — lovely, lovely, lovely. We’re going to go on to a little bit later. If you can follow on your text to “Sospiro e gemo senza voler, palpito e tremo senza saper” and so on. What does Mozart do here in terms of structure?

Student: A sequence He repeats the same series of notes progressively higher, to illustrate — as you hear the notes rising — angst —

Professor Craig Wright: Good. Agitation. So pick it up here at the B-flat, and I’ll try to catch up. [plays music while student] Okay, so notice there, how as we come to the end of that, we work up there — it rises up through the rising melodic sequence. We get — Lauren hits that high note up there, and then comes off of it — that’s the climax, the peak of the whole aria — and then the bass, what’s the bass doing? It’s sort of sneaking back down to the tonic. And when we get back to the tonic, then it comes in. We’re going to pick it up from there. Lauren, we’re going to sing to that when we get over there to [sings] just hold on “cor” and we’ll ask them a question: What happened here? What do we have here? We’ll see if you can hold on that “cor.” From the “voi.” [plays piano while student sings]

Professor Craig Wright: Nice. So what did Mozart do there? What was that?

Student: Had a deceptive cadence.

Professor Craig Wright: Had a deceptive cadence — good, Marcus scores big today. We’re sitting here on this: [plays piano] We want it to go: [plays piano] But instead it goes:

[plays piano] That’s the “cor.” And then we have our flyover: [plays piano while student sings] And that’s the way it ends. So you come back to the tonic, okay? We’ve arrived. We’ve landed. All right, I think we have time to do the whole thing now from beginning to end, and we’ll get our pages in order. So, Lauren Libaw singing “Voi che sapete” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. [plays piano while student sings] [applause]

Lovely, lovely, lovely. Aren’t we fortunate to have such talented students here at Yale? Okay, well thank you all very much. We’ll play a little more Puccini on your way out, and I hope you enjoy this day [one] as beautiful as all this music has been.

[end of transcript]

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