Which devices create a taciturn character in the music?
How to have a lot of colour without sounding strictly romantic or impressionistic?
I – A clever use of the aeolian mode
- The piece is in B aeolian. That means that chord V is minor, for example. This unusual colour to such a frequently used chord will immediately imbue the whole piece with a characteristic sound.
- Rachmaninow makes use of all different aspects of the tonic function.
He uses i4/3, VI and III extensively for the colour they give.
- What he does sometimes is to transform a half-diminished chord (ii7) into a dominant 9th, like in bar 5, 3rd quaver beat. (Ex. 1) This also gives a lot of flavour to the mode.
- Whenever he hints a key, through its dominant seventh, for example, he immediately surprises us by giving us a note that is completely out and makes us go ‘what the h…?’, like in bar 9, second crochet beat. (Ex 2) That way everything is consistently weird, even when a key is hinted.
- He outlines the core of a chord by a tenth, and fills its inside with chromatic movement. This is a great and easy way (when we have 4 semi-quavers per chord to use) to add some chromatic spice whilst having a clear harmonic (tonal) progression. E.g. in bar 9 (Ex. 3)
- For mystery, he uses a Napolitean chord -G major in the key of F# minor bar 20. (Ex. 4) And a little later, bar 21, the augmented chord (twice)
- In general, no appogiatura is fewer than 2 notes. That has the effect of giving STRONG colours to everything.
- The harmonic rhythm is irregular and syncopated, which creates in itself an eccentric character. (Ex.5)
- The style of the harmony changes to tell a story. The harmony of the beginning is pretty straight forward and has the function of setting the scene, or introducing the main character (personified by the mode), a taciturn, gavotte-dancing, unsophisticated yet mysterious and mystical character. As the narration goes on the pace quickens, and this is achieved by a faster harmonic rhythm. Sometimes the harmony is used for drama, for example the ostinato evolving into a fast rising sequence (bars 29 to 33) to create expectation or when the harmony gets ‘stuck’ after the climax in order to calm the action before the last part of the piece (bar 36 to 40 and then 41 to 43).
II -‘Grotesque’ writing
- There is no time signature. Each bar has its own length. This contributes to the piece’s quirkiness.
- The articulations are really crisp, and the basic melodic unit is the quaver. This helps giving a ‘gavotte‘ kind of feel.
- Dramatic changes of texture/character (e.g bar 6, 15, 22 or 33) This creates drama. The climax of the piece is anticipated by a build up in expectation by ostinato+rising sequence.
- He uses very recognisable melodic elements like the repetition of a note, a scale going down or chime-like chords.
- Melodies are ALL OVER THE PLACE. Rachmaninov is an exceptional contrapuntist and you can literally find counter-melodies EVERYWHERE. The fact that melodies are often hidden in the texture gives them a kind of mystery.
The taciturn and grotesque character is achieved by a bouncy articulation, a modal language, irregular rhythm and characteristic melodic elements. But the more mystical attributes of that character are created by a very coloristic use of the harmony, and tourment is often linked to an increase in chromaticism, which becomes so dense and moves so fast that it makes everyone feel lost at the climax.