Concerto for Two Double Reeds in detail: IV — Rondo
This is the fourth in a series of post-performance analyses of my Concerto for Two Double Reeds. You can also read about I — Tessellations, II — Meta-Canon and III — Loops. Click here to read the full score of movement IV — Rondo or listen to the live recording.
The fourth movement is an old-fashioned rondo with lots of tunes; however, the original idea was rhythmical rather than melodic, and these rhythmic concerns recur throughout the movement.
Perhaps the decisive moment for me in writing this movement was when I noticed a rhythmic parallel between a Latin poem and an Italian canzonetta.
Catullus 63 treats of a subject that wouldn’t be out of place in an Almodóvar film: a young man, Attis, a devotee of the cult of Cybele, enters a trance and emasculates himself:
Super alta vectus Attis celeri rate maria
Phrygium ut nemus citato cupide pede tetigit
adiitque opaca silvis redimita loca deae,
stimulatus ibi furenti rabie, vagus animis
devolvit ili acuto sibi pondera silice.
Aside from its rather provocative theme, what marks this poem out is its driving rhythm:
This rhythm is known as the Galliambic, and the first half (before the caesura — marked ‘||’) is also known as the Anacreontic. The Anacreontic rhythm can be considered as the result of anaclasis (inversion) of the middle two syllables of an Ionic dimeter:
⏑⏑––|⏑⏑–– becomes ⏑⏑–⏑|–⏑––
Now, if you go back and read my old teaser post for this concerto, you’ll see I discuss the patterns of bell ringing, which are based on swapping values in a series. The transformation from the Ionic dimeter to the Anacreontic follows the same technique (albeit in a fairly limited fashion).
Here is the same passage in modern notation:
The pervasive rhythm of this passage is again the Anacreontic:
I had been keen for a while to play with classical rhythms, and this observation prompted me to start playing with the technique of anaclasis.
The opening passage of this movement doesn’t apply this technique to the Ionic dimiter, but rather to an Anapaestic rhythm:
After anaclasis, this becomes the following rhythm:
Join the two rhythms, and you get this:
This is the rhythm of the opening phrase of the Final of my concerto:
In addition to introducing an important rhythmic technique, this opening passage also sets out two other important aspects of the movement:
- The anaclastic rhythm cuts across the barline (the A♯ quavers tied from b.3 to b.4) giving a syncopated accent;
- The melodic material is derived from triads on C and F♯, which lie a tritone apart.
The entire first phrase shows how these three ideas are developed:
This brief opening fanfare is played in the oboe and bassoon, and leads into the rondo theme at [A]:
The first eight bars of this theme are based around the Anapaestic dimeter rhythm already explained, but with a small variation in the second foot. The following four bars, in 3/4, oppose a straight Ionic dimeter with its Anacreontic variant. This material maintains the polytonal nature of the opening: the strings play a vamp rhythm alternative between C and F♯ chords every two beats — even after the change to 3/4 —, and the thematic material meanders between these two tonal centres:
This material is interrupted with a harsh outburst in the strings, again varying the Anacreontic rhythm across an interval of a major 7th, which is then picked up by the oboe in the inversion of that interval: an minor 2nd, leading back into the rondo theme, which is rounded off with a descending variant of the broken chords that opened the movement.
Episode I at [E] takes the ideas of the rondo theme and explores them in a different context. The alternating chords are each moved by a semitone, from C and F♯ to C♯ and F. The vamp bass remains, but the upper strings now play counterpoint above it, rather than pizzicato, and the solo material is a duet between oboe and bassoon. The technique of anaclasis appears again, this time transforming a dactylic dimeter (which is not explicitly heard):
–⏑⏑|–⏑⏑ becomes –⏑–⏑⏑⏑
This episode leads straight back into the rondo theme at [F], which is this time finished with arpeggi in the low strings, which recall the solo material at [E].
Episode II leaves behind anaclastic meters, and explores Aeolic rhythms instead.
The core rhythm of Aeolic meter is the choriamb:
This basic unit is extended by the addition of syllables before and after. The syllables before are anceps (either long or short), while those after tend to alter breve, longum. For instance, the rhythmic colon known as the Hipponactean looks like this:
⏓⏓ –⏑⏑– ⏑–×
In this episode, I decided to work freely with the principles of Aeolic rhythm, rather than adopting a preexisting verse form. Here is the resulting rhythm:
–– –⏑⏑– ⏑–⏑–
–– –⏑⏑– ⏑–⏑–
–– –⏑⏑– ⏑–
⏑⏑ –⏑⏑– ⏑––
In each of these lines the central Choriamb can be seen clearly.
This is the first episode in which the bassoon is the only soloist, and the first to move away from tonality. Rather than diatonic scales, the melodic and harmonic material is drawn from a scale that Messiaen would have described as the 2nd Mode of Limited Transposition, and which is also known as the octatonic. This is made of alternating tones and semitones.
The bassoon explores this scale, while the upper strings play diminished triads — the chord that forms if you take alternate notes from this scale. As in the rondo theme, there is an ambiguity between 2/4 and 3/4 meter, but this time it is the string figurations that change:
The material of this episode is played three times:
- Bassoon solo with upper string triad accompaniment;
- Oboe solo, bassoon counterpoint in diminished arpeggi, upper string accompaniment with cello bassline;
- Oboe and bassoon have the melody, the upper string triads are spaced by octaves, the double bass joins the bassline.
The material then dissolves until only stratospheric violin and abyssal double bass are left. At this point a solo violinist picks up with the material first heard in the interruption to the initial rondo theme, which then leads into a statement of this theme in solo violin and pizzicato viola at [J]:
With the soloist played at such a high pitch, and no harmonic accompaniment, this material sounds very different from its initial statement. The material is then picked up in both violin parts (tutti), with accompaniment from all the lower strings, but still no harmony, and we then then move into the next episode at [L].
The rhythm of Episode III is again Aeolian. A feature of Aeolian rhythms is that the central Choriamb can be expanded, either by full repetition or with Anapaests (which are equivalent to a Choriamb with the first syllable missing). This passage uses Choriambic expansion, moving between Glyconics:
–⏑ –⏑⏑– ⏑–
And their expanded equivalent, the Asclepiad:
–⏑ –⏑⏑– –⏑⏑– ⏑–
The combination Glyconic, Asclepiad, Glyconic, Asclepiad is known as the Fourth Asclepiad, and is used by Horace in his Ode 3.9:
–⏓ –⏑⏑– ⏑×
–⏓ –⏑⏑– –⏑⏑– ⏑×
–⏓ –⏑⏑– ⏑×
–⏓ –⏑⏑– –⏑⏑– ⏑×
Donec gratus eram tibi
nec quisquam potior bracchia candidae
ceruici iuuenis dabat,
Persarum uigui rege beatior.
The rhythm I use for this section is slightly different, being composed of two Glyconics followed by an Asclepiad:
–⏑ –⏑⏑– ⏑–
–⏑ –⏑⏑– ⏑–
–⏑ –⏑⏑– –⏑⏑– ⏑–
Also, unlike Horace’s practice, I chose to use a short value on the second value of each line, and to keep the final value long; this keeps each line absolutely symmetrical, which adds to the character of this episode.
The melodic material for this episode is based entirely on whole-tone scales, alternating each bar between the two possible transpositions of this scale. The solo material makes a lot of the major 3rd that emerges from this scale, while the accompaniment, spaced in major 3rds, traces consecutive notes.
This episode falls into four sections:
- Melody in the oboe, scales in violins;
- Melody in the bassoon, scales in viola and cello;
- Melody in violin II and viola, harmonics in cello and double bass, scales in oboe and bassoon;
- Scales in oboe, bassoon and upper strings, harmonics in cello and double bass, then inverting roles with the upper strings playing very high notes and the cello and bass playing scales.
After these discursions into non-diatonic territory, we return at [N] to the final statements of the rondo theme. This time it is stated in the bassoon, and is fully harmonised.The interruption from the first statement reappears here, with the oboe’s lead-in slightly altered, and then the theme reappears in counterpoint at [P], first in the bassoon with bar-spaced oboe arpeggi, then at b.297 in the oboe with constant bassoon arpeggi. These arpeggi take over at b.305 in both soloists and upper string, leading into the final statement of the theme at [Q], in both oboe and bassoon, with the string pizzicati replaced with arpeggi:
At b. 321 the soloists abandon the rondo theme, picking up the movement’s opening material, and are joined by the entire orchestra playing this fanfare at b.329, before the movement closes with exact material that opened it, but across the whole ensemble:
I have to confess to feeling slightly ambivalent about this movement. It is unquestionably a crowd-pleaser, and I have a feeling it’s good fun to play, but its very richness in tunes and compelling rhythms raise nagging feelings that it’s rather superficial and not serious music. Perhaps the analysis on this page is something of an apologia for it: an attempt to show that there are actually plenty of clever ideas behind its appealing tunefulness and vampish character. Or perhaps I should just relax and enjoy it!
(*Please read my note on copyright.)