Rachmaninow – Etude Tableau op. 39 n°4 – Analysis

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.

Conclusion : 

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. 






Brahms’ Op. 118 n°1 – Quick Analysis

Brahms op. 118 n°1 on Youtube

I’ve always enjoyed literary analysis and in fact did it spontaneously from a young age. The reason ? I loved to steal my favourite authors writing techniques to spruce up my own essays at school. As for music, I don’t compose, but I feel like I would enjoy it much more if I knew what I was doing, and deliberately steal a technique or another for effect. But because I had never done it in such a dedicated way before, the task seemed quite daunting. Today I decided to throw myself in the deep end and see what I could get from a piece with my “thief state of mind” by listening to it with the score dipslayed on the video. In a dozen of minutes I came up with the following “analysis”.

Quick Analysis op.188 n°1

Character is energetic, vigorous, imbued with confidence.
The vigour is achieved by the deep dips of the left hand from the bottom of the keyboard, like a powerful wheel or engine.

The confidence is conveyed by the forte dynamic, the full sound of big chords, but also the fact the melodic lines tend to be quite conjunct even though the chord changes underneath are quite wild, as if the melody was a man staking his grounds over an unpredictable and wild nature. Also to note, is that when you sing the melody, you would naturally “contract” it, your brain omitting the notes of the left hand that seem ‘added’. This ‘unstoppable’ left hand can also suggests the wilderness of the nature. This same trick is used in Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude (op.10 nr.12).


Chopin’s op. 10 nr.12
From Chopin’s op.10 nr.12 The melodic line is so spread out, it creates tension as the brain naturally wants to ‘contract’ it.


The many meshed countermelodies also make up this wild and somehow festive setting to the narrative.

Towards the end we have a cascading diminished seventh chord arpeggio, which is notoriously used in romantic music for dramatic effect. Here it rushes up and down the keyboard like an apparition of an animal or a hit of lightning.

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The diminished seventh chord going all the way up the keyboard

For me, I find interesting to observe how Brahms made the transition between that gesture to the rest of the piece. Well, he goes out of the diminished seventh chord by building another one a semitone lower (that you can see in the right hand – fddbg#) but HOHOHO if you look at the left hand you see an E, so that chord is in fact a dominant 9th in the key of A ! ); but he doesn’t want tonal rest just yet so he throws us with a g natural over an A major chord making another dominant seventh chord in the key of D that become dominant 9th with the Bb in the right hand. All of this happening in an unbelievably short amount of time.

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The contrast is then even more striking because immediately after that harmonic decisiveness, happens a superb indecision… Will it be D major or D minor ??? We cannot know as we are presented with both the major and the minor versions of the cadential 6/4.

But then, other revival of situation, the D, major or minor doesn’t matter that much as it is not the tonic but only the 4th degree of A as we are presented with chord vii. Then the piece dies away by a slowing down of the harmonic rhythm and slow appoggiaturas resolving down into eternal rest. (That makes us appreciate even more the tonal rollercoaster we had just 5 bars earlier!)

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Another dramatic ‘trick’: when he very easily could have made the left hand pattern of the three last bars ‘fit’ exactly, he breaks it in the last four notes leading to the final chord like a very last dramatic gesture.


On the difficulties of mental practice

1# It is really hard not to slip into daydreaming and staying focused…

> Time is perceived in an entierely different way
> Tiny physical actions rock you to sleep
> Silence eases you into sleep

2# When it comes to effective practice following mental practice, one gets disturbed by the different perception of time.
Everything is often thought *faster* that what we can play.
The question that arises then is whether one should force oneself to imagine “slower” or instead embrace this discrepancy between thoughts and physicality (accept it as a fact and get used to it).

3# The mental effort is huge and exhausting at first.

4# This makes it harder to mentally practice for hours since we get tired from the mental effort AND we have to fight against sleep (see #1)

5# A little voice in your head keeps telling you that the solutions you find by mental practice are not going to work in real life.

What are your experiences with mental practice ? Do you have advices to give to a beginner in the field?