Saturday, August 4, 2007

Hearing (and Writing) the Seconds

The notes that accompany the recording made by Per Dreier conducting the London Symphony Orchestra claim that "one can hear for the first time all the music which Grieg composed for Peer Gynt." As a glutton for thoroughness, I found this offer hard to resist; and recently it has come to satisfy my growing interest in listening for the sounds, rather than the notes. This is particularly important when Grieg draws upon folk elements, and for two of the folk dances Grieg dispenses with the conventional orchestra and draws upon a solo Hardanger Violin. I believe I saw my only Hardanger (or a close variation of one) when I was attending a conference (on cognitive musicology) in Jyvaskyla, a Finnish city that seems to be known for its automobile rally and university (along with a squirrel that raids a local grocery store to steal chocolate eggs at least twice a day). As seemed to be the case with a lot of "folk fiddle" music, the Hardanger sound had a lot to do with double-stop playing, possibly using an open string to create the same effect as a bagpipe drone.

This morning, as I continued to work my way through his Lyric Pieces, I discovered that Grieg was impressed enough with this effect to translate it to the piano keyboard. In the fourth "Halling" piece in the fourth set (Opus 47, 1888), there are two "open string" tones in the right hand, the D above middle C and the A above it. What is particularly interesting is that all of the double-stops in his effect involve seconds (both minor and major in the "Halling" piece, which is actually appropriated from the first of the Hardanger folk dances, which, in turn, first surfaces in the "Prelude" to the first act of Peer Gynt). Thus the sound is more about the stubbornness of the drone, rather than the use of multiple tones for harmonic effect. Nevertheless, the effect is used very sparsely in the piano version, unlike that persistent "Gibet" note in Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit (although it is used far more heavily in the second Peer Gynt folk dance). I take this as an understanding on Grieg's part of what was necessary to achieve the proper "sound effect" in the absence of the "original instrument," providing yet another example that there is more "information content" in Grieg than may be deduced from the notes printed on the page!

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