The Value of Musical Analysis
Musical analysis often gets a bad rap among players. It’s argued that too much analysis kills the spirit of a performance. But while it’s true that analysis can be badly done or poorly applied, this is no argument for ignoring it. Good analysis shines a light on what the music is trying to say. To illustrate, let’s briefly look into a short etude by the guitarist and composer Fernando Sor (1778-1839).
This is a short piece of 24 measures in rounded binary form. (Those familiar with this piece will notice that I’ve changed the repeat scheme. I’ll discuss this later in the article.) Rounded binary means there are two sections, and the second section repeats most or all the music of the A section. In this piece, the A section comprises mm. 1-8, and the B section comprises mm. 9-24. Not only is this piece very symmetrical—all six phrases are four measures in length—but the movement of the melody is very smooth. In the A section, the melody moves almost entirely in eighth notes, and in the first half of the B section it moves almost entirely in quarter notes. Already this suggests something about how the piece should be played: it has an unruffled serenity that shouldn’t be disturbed by large or sudden contrasts of tempo and dynamics.
Now let’s look at the contrast between the A section and the beginning of the B section. In A, the melody and bass move together with no other voice of any prominence. But in the first eight measures of B, the bass and melody now share the stage with an open third string pedal. (A pedal is an unchanging repeated note, usually with one or more moving voices above or below.) To my ear, this new texture has an almost music box quality to it. So I like to play it simply and in strict time, to contrast with the more lyrical quality of the A section and the last eight measures of the B section.
There’s another nice touch in the first half of B: in m. 11, the bass begins a canon with the melody in the top voice. It’s easier to see in the following reduction of mm. 9-14:
This is another good reason to play this section in strict time, so listeners are more likely to catch the imitation. I might slightly accent the bass starting at m. 11, although I don’t want to overdo it. In a piece like this, it’s best to err on the side of subtlety and trust listeners to hear what I’m trying to convey.
What about the third string pedal in mm. 9-14? In a three voice texture, an unmoving voice is generally the least interesting part and should be subordinate to the moving voices. And that’s how I’d start this section. But consider a more nuanced approach. Notice that in m. 14 the middle voice now begins moving, becoming a more interesting part of the texture. So I might think of the middle voice like this: it begins as an unchanging pedal, but gradually builds enough momentum to break free and sing its own melody. With this in mind, I could begin the pedal quietly and gradually crescendo to where the middle voice finally becomes an equal partner with the other voices. In this way, I can take an old musical truism (moving voices are more interesting than unmoving voices) and apply it in a more subtle way. It’s good to remember that musical interpretation isn’t a paint-by-numbers process.
Let’s now consider mm. 14-15, one of only two places in the entire piece that has accidentals. These accidentals are the result of secondary dominants: V7 of vi, and V7 of V. Indeed, this is the first place that strays from primary chords, and it’s the most harmonically active part of the piece. So this is the dramatic high point of the piece—what Sergei Rachmaninoff called “the point.” (A friend of Rachmaninoff recalled congratulating him after a performance, only to have Rachmaninoff glumly reply: “But didn’t you hear? I missed the point!”) This also dovetails nicely with the idea to gradually crescendo the middle voice pedal beginning in m. 9.
But what of m. 22? It also has an accidental that’s the result of a secondary dominant: V7 of IV. Couldn’t this be the dramatic high point? I don’t think so for two reasons. First, there’s less of a buildup in tension to this measure than the buildup to mm. 14-16. Second, this is very close to the end of the piece. Rather than a dramatic high point, it seems more a wistful turn of harmony before bringing things to a gentle close. Indeed, I might even decrescendo to the Bb/G diad, as though the melody is trying to rise but doesn’t have the strength to push any higher.
There’s a detail in m. 16 that shouldn’t be overlooked. Notice the last G is stemmed both up and down. Why? The likely answer is that, unlike the previous Gs, Sor wanted this G to be part of the upper melodic line rather than a subsidiary voice. So the new phrase should begin from here, as a gentle pickup note to m. 17.
Now, as promised earlier, I need to explain my change in the repeat scheme of this piece. In the original publication, there’s only one repeat sign at the end of the piece. So as first published, this piece is actually in ABA form, not rounded binary. But this may be a publishing error. (Such errors were common in Sor’s day—for example, the repeat scheme in the first publication of the Allegretto from Op. 43 “Mes Ennuis” is obviously flawed.) I believe Sor intended this piece to follow the repeat scheme I’ve indicated in this article. To me, this makes more musical sense than simply repeating the entire piece from the end. Can I prove it? No, and I may be wrong. But it’s a reminder that we often must make judgements about the accuracy of publications, particularly when the composer is no longer at hand to solve the problem.
There’s another advantage of analysis: it’s a great aid for memorizing music. Think of it this way. Which would you rather have to memorize and recite? This:
“Beep scelo pi sovon yoaxals axage eep baxathols fleudd belth upen zis cenkinonk pit jod naxatien, cencoivow din rifoltupp, pi podicaxatow te zo plepesitien zaxat axarr von axalo cloaxatow oquaxar.”
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Most likely you’d prefer to memorize and recite the second sentence. Why? Because the first sentence is gibberish. The second sentence is something you understand. Comprehension confers meaning. And meaning makes text easier to work with. It’s easier to remember and easier to craft into a convincing recitation.
Although more can be said about this little piece, I’ll stop here. Notice there’s nothing impractical about this analysis. Everything discussed here tells us something about how we might play the music. Of course, we must never allow analysis to drain the life from a performance. There’s a famous oxymoron by conductor George Szell: “I want this phrase to sound completely spontaneous—however, as the result of meticulous planning.” Contradictory? Perhaps, but balancing opposites is part of the fun of making good music.
I’ll close by noting that some guitarists dismiss Sor as an insignificant composer. In reply, I would argue that such an attitude is more a reflection of a lapse in judgement than any deficiency in Sor’s music. Many of Sor’s etudes are miniature jewels, needing a refined taste and intelligence to bring their latent beauty to life.