Friday, January 11, 2013

Sacred Music VII: Canons and Constraints

At the heart of our various essays on the liturgy and musical style has been my argument that certain musical procedures, namely polyphonic ones, are by nature the most appropriate for liturgical music.

To further this point I would like to compare two contrasting developments of a theme from Johann Pachelbel. The first is the composer's own, the famous Canon/Chaconne in D, and the second is a contemporary arrangement by pianist George Winston. Please note that I'm not suggest Pachelbel's piece is by any means the ideal liturgical piece, but rather that his technique creates a far different effect with the theme than Winston's, and that effect is more amenable to the liturgy's needs.

Studying Pachelbel's work we observe two features at work: a canon in the violins over the ground bass in the cello.

These two procedures will provide an overarching sense of stability throughout, the counterpoint of the canon constraining the elements and weaving them into a texture and the ground bass serving as a rhythmic and harmonic touchstone. None of the variations steals the show. All of the energy is focused and balanced.

The effect is in great contrast to that of Winston's set of variations, which feels like a series of riffs and subdivisions rather than a cohesive whole with a sense of direction. Here the rhythms are unchecked and we are jerked by the variations rather then embedded in the texture. The result is a profoundly more free-wheeling feel, despite, incredibly, the presence of Pachelbel's ground bass.

Again, this comparison is not qualitative by a study in contrasts. How much more contemplative is Pachelbel's piece with it's Baroque aesthetic of constrained expressivity than the contemporary variations which seem to seize at you with every jingle and jangle. Pachelbel's rhythm's are vigorous, yet it is a fire refined by an aesthetic of balance, of harmony in the non-musical sense of conformity and congruity.

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