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A Different Ending: A Short Sonata on the Subject of Musical Time


Introduction: Similarity Divides and Differences Join

The beginning of this discussion is on the question of unity and multiplicity: What do these sounds represent to us? Unity or multiplicity?

Example no.1

Some will say it is unity, for, indeed, we are talking about that same, exact note. Most will claim it is multiplicity, for we are surely talking about the same note sounding three times. And now I shall ask: what do the following notes represent…unity or multiplicity?

Example no.2

Also here there will surely be differences of opinion: some will say “multiplicity”, as there is more than one note here and the majority will go for “unity”. This is because they identify the melody as the opening motif of Beethoven’s Symphony no.5 or as the famous melody on the neighbor’s mobile ‘phone.

From these examples, we are convinced that our brain will usually tend to grasp the identity or close resemblance as multiple appearances of the same thing. On the other hand, we tend to connect things that are different, creating with them new associations and new meanings. We can then say that similarity divides and differences unify, or, in other words, that the first example represents multiplicity and that the second represents unity.

Exposition: “Repetition is musical time” (Zuckerkandl)

In his immortal book “Sound and Symbol”, Viktor Zuckerkandl describes repetition as an inseparable part of the existence of musical time: Zuckerkandl begins by comparing musical time to physical time, and, for the sake of our discussion, I will present two central issues from this comparison[1]:

1) Physical time measures events, whereas musical time creates events.

2) Physical time can be divided into equal parts, whereas musical time has no sense of equal division.

“Will physical time still have meaning if we remove the events from it?” Zuckerkandl asks. In his answer to this, he quotes Leibniz’s words – that time is a notion and not reality, for, indeed, snow melts, people grow old and the earth’s surface changes, but that these phenomena do not occur as a result of the change of time but as chemical reactions, temperature differences and vulcan activity. I have asked myself whether, in fact, musical time has meaning when we empty it of events.

As an example, let us take this famous melody from “Judas Maccabaeus” by Händel:

Example no.3

Every child in Israel can sing this melody. If we were to now listen to Beethoven’s Variations for Piano and ‘Cello on this theme, we would be able to hum the melody to ourselves in each of the variations. As a matter of fact, we would also actually be able to predict the length of each variation, for indeed, its length would be that of the Chanukah song[2]. Also, if the music suddenly stops, we will still be able to imagine, if we so wish, the duration of each variation. Also, should Beethoven suddenly decide to change the length of the beat or the time signature of a certain variation, we would immediately match the new beat or the new meter to the “Chanukah song” and “guess” the course of the variation. This would also be the case in many songs of the AABA form. Tell that to an experienced jazz musician and he will immediately know what you are talking about. He will know well when to improvise on the verse and when to improvise on the refrain.

Let us take an even bolder example: as experienced musicians, when we hear a minuet movement from a Mozart quartet, we know that it will be in the form of AABBCCDDAB. Even if we are not familiar with the movement, we are able to predict the course of what will happen from our acquaintance with the form. We will now dispose of the events i.e notes and rhythms and implant new events in the same form, such as a gavotte from a Bach suite. The gavotte will have the same form or, in other words, will behave according to the same development of musical time. We are talking about pieces from the periods written many years apart, pieces having different meters, different tempi yet still having the same “temporal behavior”, if it can be called that, identical to AABBCCDDAB.

In the light of these examples, it can be said that musical time has its own meaning, even if we remove the events from it. In the last instance, we have seen that, from the point of view of our grasp of musical time, equality is not the most important issue, (beats, meter, bars), rather, in fact, repetitiveness is that which has greater meaning in our grasp of musical time: as we said at the beginning of the article, similarity divides… Zuckerkandl questions and tries to find a parallel to the phenomenon of repetitiveness in music and in the other arts[3]: he talks about carpets or embroidery, in which there is endless repetition of the same motif. According to him, the difference is in that, simultaneously, we see the same countless repeats of a specific adorning feature as a complete unit, thus creating interesting, formal complexities. The question is, on having to see that same ornament, and only it, many times, time after time, whether we would derive the same enjoyment from it. From here, Zuckerkandl continues his journey to the world of poetry, drawing on the example of the Hunters’ Chorus from Weber’s “Der Freischütz” (Marksman).

Example no.4

And now, all of this comes back from the beginning. Is anyone able to imagine a poem in which the text is repeated so many times? I invite you to try.

In theatre, it is also difficult to imagine a play in the form of a sonata: let us try to envisage a play that opens with a love story, developing into a fight that ends in murder. Immediately after these two subjects have been presented, the love story begins again, just as the former one happened, with a murder taking place again, just as in the initial story. It is clear that these examples are absurd, but they illustrate the uniqueness of the repetition phenomenon in music. In the opening of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, we hear a subject that is based on five notes in three variations. The subject and its simple variations are repeated 36 times. Immediately following, a part of the subject appears another eight times and all this is then repeated from the beginning. By means of this example, Zuckerkandl strengthens his argument that music is not merely sound, but sound and time. The more use there is of repetition, the more strongly the time component is expressed, becoming increasingly clearer.[4]

Development: Musical time and psychological time are not linear (Jacques Lacan)

I have endeavored to examine whether there are, nevertheless, parallels to musical time according to how Zuckerkandl describes it and whether it is possible to attribute to repetitiveness additional meanings concerning musical experience.

In his book “The Eroticism of Time”, Jacques-Alain Miller allows for a glance into Lacan’s world, and, among other things, explains his concept of time. As opposed to the classical concept of time of Barrow, Newton’s teacher, that claims that “time only has length as its parts are similar to each other and it can be seen as made up of a simple joining of consecutive moments or as the continuous flow of one moment”[5] , Miller discusses the subject of the double temporality of time. Miller presents Lacan’s theory in “The Seminar of Jacques Lacan” Book V “The Formations of the Unconscious”: time is described as moving between the present and the future; however, simultaneously, time also moves in the opposite direction: “Time passing and advancing towards the future is always accompanied by time that points back to the past and establishes the meaning and illusion of the subject, granted knowledge”[6]. Let us, for a moment, recall Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden”: the song begins with the piano alone; we then hear the maiden’s plea, the song ending with Death having his say. This observance is a linear description, but when we identify the similarity between the piano opening and the music accompanying Death’s words, we understand retroactively that the end was known in advance and was inevitable. There is, here, new meaning to repetition in music: beyond the fact that that it is the main constituent in expressing musical time, it is that which allows us to simultaneously move backwards and forwards within time: while the voice of Death is singing his text, we are reminded of the first eight bars the piano played and we experience the tragic meaning of the song. Miller concludes by saying that an event of the future can either take place or not, but, from the moment that it happens, what is “possible” becomes a “sine qua non”. The fact that the event has become a “sine qua non”, having meaning, stems from the simultaneous movement of psychological time and from the present moving into the past.[7]

Recapitulation: “Awful things have happened when Wizards have meddled with time” (Hermione Granger to Harry Potter) (Page 399)

Moving backwards in time in heard music functions on a number of levels- one which we have mentioned is associated with repetitiveness in music: every time a motif or section repeats we progress in the course of the work, moving back, at the height of the act of identifying resemblance between a section being played at this moment and the identical part we have heard a short while ago.

Another level is the influence of music on our memory: where was I when I first heard that melody? With whom did I play that song ten years ago? Sometimes a thought pops into one’s mind “If only I had behaved differently”. Sometimes we would like to be able to change the course of events; for, from the moment that they, indeed, happen, they have changed, in Miller and Lacan’s words, from the possible to the sine qua non. In the third book of the Harry Potter series, Hermione has a time-generator (the hourglass is called a “time-turner”) (p.395) which enables her to be at two lessons simultaneously. At the end of the book, we arrive at the most important use of the time generator – changing the course of events: Professor Dumbldore sends Harry Potter and Hermione to “save more than one soul”[8]. We are happy at their success and heroism, not only thanks to the story’s happy end, but also because Harry and Hermione have managed to do what we all would like to: to change events that have already happened.

In the same context, it is interesting to read the writings of Charles Rosen from his book “Sonata Forms”: “In a ternary form such as the Minuet and Trio, the sections function as an exposition, contrast and re-exposition. In sonata form, the exposition presents conflict, the development section is the intensification of the conflict and the recapitulation presents the resolution”[9]. This solution usually includes the same events as the exposition (the same melodies), but the harmony in this part of the recapitulation section changes the course of events, magically allowing us, also, to be involved in time and create a different ending.

[1] Zuckerkandl, Viktor Sound and Symbol page 202, Princeton University Press, 1969

[2] Chanukah – the Jewish Feast of Lights. A song pertaining to this festival is sung to a melody from “Judas Maccabaeus”.

[3] Ibid page 213

[4] Ibid pages 216-217

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau Eroticism in Time,2008, Roessling edition

[6] Ibid page 31

[7] Ibid page 31

[8] J.K.Rowling “Harry Potter and the Prisoner from Azkaban”, 1999, Bloomsbury

[9] Charles Rosen “Sonata Forms, Norton, 1980, pages 17-18.

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