RETHINKING EXPRESSION IN HARALD SÆVERUD´S PIANO MUSIC
BY EINAR RØTTINGEN
Examples of how language influenced and helped my artistic project
To investigate methodological approaches in “Rethinking Expression in Harald Sæverud’s Piano Music”, different ways of using language were explored to gain a deeper understanding of compositional elements and musical expression. Some of these ways have been:
- Using spoken language as a way of seeing tones and motifs as specific musical words and syllables; relating this to Sæverud’s hierarchy of articulation and accentuation marks. See RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 3.
- Applying terminology from music theory and analysis to discover and describe inherent compositional elements. These are motifs, their shapes, intervallic/harmonic relationships, counterpoint, overall phrase structure, score indications, title, verbal information, articulation marks, dynamics, slurs, etc. See the analysis of “Li-tone” below.
- Interpreting a two-voice texture as a dramatic dialogue between individuals, finding descriptive words to characterize how the voices communicate and relate to one other. One voice can be “leading”, “challenging”, “supporting”, “resisting” or “reconciling with” the other voice. See the analysis of “Li-tone” below. Creating associations to the world of children and childlike narratives to describe imagined underlying feelings in the music. This was a help to stimulate the performer’s imagery, adding more vitality and contrast to the constantly-changing expression.
- Creating a “scene of play” as an imagined, spontaneous dialogue, with a little girl “speaking to herself” while playing with her doll. In this role play, associations are created, different roles are acted out, questions are asked and answered. See the text on “Sonatina No. 2” below.
Analysis of “Li-tone” (Hillside Melody) Op. 14, No. 5
This piece was an important starting point for my project. Firstly, this piece was used as a base of experimentation with different interpretations that varied the expressive means (dynamics, tempo, rubato) in extreme ways. This experimentation helped me to get freer from earlier views of the music and to find out if the musical material could withstand manipulation, be drawn in different directions without losing meaning.
Secondly, there was a wish to dive deeply into the piece and analyse it quite freely, without using any defined method. It sought to get closer to its compositional elements, musical material, indications in the score, sense of form and emotional content. The piece was chosen, because it is such an important and iconic piece in Sæverud’s piano production. It contains many of the key characteristics of his style and way of writing for the piano and is relatively easy to play. See example 1 to follow the score. See also RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 3 to listen to the recording and see added score indications (as derived from this analysis).
See example 1 (in sidebar): “Li-tone” Op. 14, No. 5
Motifs and two-voice dialogue
“Li-tone” is a dialogue between two voices. They are in constant interaction: the upper voice (soprano) always takes the initiative while the lower voice (tenor) responds to it in different ways.
The piece is based on a few motifs and figures. The opening three-note motif B-G-E (bar 1) forms the most important, recurring motif. This motif appears inverted in bars 5, 37, 38. It gains its identity and expressive force from its shape and rhythm, more specifically, a descending and an ascending figure of two eighth notes and a quarter-note. The intervals of the motif vary throughout the piece.
In contrast to this opening motif, we find stepwise motions, often in form of an ascending, turning motion (bars 6-8) or other turning figures (bars 18, 20, 22 and more). In bars 1-8, the lower voice ascends stepwise in a counter movement to the upper voice. Then it presents its own counter-motif in bars 9-16 (marked espressivo) as if to emphasize its independence to the upper voice`s second statement of the melody. The lower voice continues by imitating the upper voice’s motifs freely or more strictly in canon (mirroring). Towards the end – at the climatic recapitulation of the opening material in bars 40-47 - the lower voice presents an organ point on E with a bell-like ostinato effect in pedal – campana – in dialogue with the main motif.
The piece ends with the two voices back in the main motif and moving in strict canon. It is as if the two voices are finally brought together and reconciled.
Phrase structure and harmonic/intervallic relationships
The form of “Li-tone” can be seen as A-A’-B-B’-A’’-coda. The phrase structure is in traditional 4+4-bar units, except for bars 25-27, which is the only place where the pattern is broken. These three bars form an unexpected, sudden appearance of the main motif, expressively going to melodic F (instead of E as in the opening), with a resigned fall to temporary A-minor. These bars reappear in modified form as a memory in bars 48-49, but with a longer, resigned descent to final E-minor.
The main key is E-minor. Because of the thin texture (only two voices), the harmonic sense is often ambiguous and unresolved, with frequent dissonances between voices. There is an unexpected, short cadence to G major (bar 16) at the end of the A’ section. The melody now makes enigmatic turns with tritones in the motifs (bars 17-20) and climbs to the aforementioned A-minor cadence. The B-section starts again (bar 28) - slightly modified with more insistent intervals (bars 29, 31) - with wider intervals in the bass (bars 32-39). This intensification builds up to bars 37-39 which circle around E (with F as dissonance to E), as if to prepare a resolution to A-minor. Instead, the opening motif is stated once again in E-minor (the A’’ section- campagna).
There is clearly a relationship between F# and F in the melody: The F#, established in the first half of the piece as part of melodic E-minor, unexpectedly becomes F in bar 25, where the bar structure is broken. The lower voice imitates the leap to F an octave lower, so that its F forms a dissonance to the E in the upper voice (bar 26). The melodic F is resolved to E as the fifth of A-minor (bars 26-27). The most intense part of the piece in terms of dynamics, register and dissonance is to be found in bars 37-39 were the F and E are in a “double-clash” both within the melody and between the voices. Here, the upper voice climbs to the highest register of the piece - G# and A.
When the leap to F comes again towards the end in bar 48 (più lento), it has a powerful effect, because it now comes as an extension of the main theme at the moment when one would expect the theme to go back to E as in bar 9. At the same time, the leap to F was experienced before in bar 25, but not in this setting. This becomes an extraordinary moment – without doubt the emotional highpoint of the piece – where the resounding “bells” in the pedal (opening up the texture, giving a feeling of timelessness) are suddenly taken away. The simple, main motif in the upper voice is joined in imitation by the lower voice in canon (molto dolce with una corda pedal).
The articulation is basically legato with some staccato on single notes (bars 5, 13, 26, 38 and 44) and “speaking” portato in the B-sections (bars 21,23, 32 and 34). Slurs clearly indicate groupings of notes. In addition, the first note of the main motif is marked marcato (>) throughout, with the added text non troppo marcato e molto dolce. It is a reminder that the first note should be articulated, and that following notes are derived from this initial impulse.
It appears somewhat contradictory that the marcato (>) should be molto dolce. The general dynamic and sound character indication is mp dolce throughout the piece (with occasional hair-pin swells <>), and so the marcato on the main motif should be even softer! It seems that these indications want to express that everything should stay within an intimate atmosphere and gentle sound world in which the markings (<) should be carefully executed.
The other special marking, marcato espressivo (<>), occurs structurally, emphasizing the highest note F# in the main melody (bars 6, 14 and 45). There is a sudden sixteenth- note leap up to it before the melody ascends in the turning motion as described above. Marcato espressivo is also used on the sudden F in bar 25, later when it comes back (in remembrance) in bar 48 (where the final canon starts), on the C in bar 52 (the turning point of the canon), and in the end where the final calando starts.
Title and gestures
The title “Li-tone” depicts the two sides of a valley (one of the most characteristic features in Norwegian nature). It symbolizes the main motif’s descent and ascent, a physical motion of downhill and uphill. Fundamentally, the whole piece can be experienced as a play with gestures and intervals going up or down, stepwise, or in width (from a third to the expressive seventh).
Already in the opening two measures, the main motif explores in chronological order: a minor third (B-G), a minor sixth (G-E), a major second (E-D) and a perfect fourth (D-A). Because of the clarity of the two-voice texture and the utter nakedness and simplicity of the melody, the size and direction (up or down) of the intervals become even more essential; every relationship between the notes – the note itself, which interval it is coming from and going to – becomes literally important for the expression. The intervals are gathered in different groups to form differently shaped motifs, figures, and gestures. There is feeling of austere simplicity and of a direct, serious, and profound musical message.
The tempo and character indications are Andante mesto, with metronome indication quarter note = 63. Mesto can be translated as being rueful when somebody feels or expresses regret or sorrow in a gentle, quiet way (state of melancholy). The tension between the simplicity of the musical material and the ambiguity of the relationship between the two voices creates a complexity of feelings that can go deeply into the many shades of sadness and melancholy.
In the following, I want to reflect on the emotional impact and sense of meaning of “Li-tone” as the piece unfolds. I will also ask questions and show ambiguities of how the musical material can be perceived. These reflections will form the basis for different ways of playing the piece.
Bar-to-bar description of dramatic elements
Upper voice: There is a sense of pride and directness in expression. It tries to express a sadness as it is - plainly, without heaviness or sentimentality. The notes belonging together are grouped under a slur. There should be a breath in the phrasing between the slurred groups, so they speak as independent units without rushing, as parts of a continuous melody. The leap to F# (bars 5-6) is an intensification as if the melody is raised up into more light, before gradually falling to a new statement.
Lower voice: It starts almost imperceptibly as a syncopated, ascending E-minor scale always on the second beat, two octaves below the upper voice, as if gradually making itself present through growing intensity. The specific marking tenuto seems to indicate that this voice wants to hold back the melody by sustaining the second beat (light beat) of the melody in the upper voice. It is as if the lower voice wants to consistently support the melody (in its ups and downs) by seeking a further goal on the E an octave higher.
Upper voice: Repeat of melody as in bars 1-8.
Lower voice: Continues from the E it has reached, now marked espressivo.
What does espressivo mean in this context? Clearly, the lower voice should be brought out as equal (at least) to its partner and with a different sonority. We have already heard the upper voice’s melody, and it is the lower voice that now demands attention.
Even though the melody is now repeated in the upper voice, the transition is almost unnoticeable because the lower voice suddenly starts moving in bar 9. Here the lower voice is playing with the upper voice: it seems to show continued support for the upper voice, basically following its rhythms. But it also shows independence through counter motion, counter motif (descent and ascent) and individual articulation of sixteenth rests after the slurs (bars 11,13 and 15). The rests help bring clarity and distinguish the counterpoint. The sixteenth note at the end of the slur (before the rest) should not be staccato, but gently and naturally released after emphasizing the first note of the slur. The composer clearly distinguishes this kind of articulation from the staccato sixteenth in bar 5 and similar places.
The independence of the lower voice shows itself also in its dissonant interactions (bars 10,12 and 14) underlining its importance and reluctance to be subordinate to any clear harmony. The contrary motion climaxes in bar 14 with a low G clashing with high F#, preparing the G-major cadence: the lower voice climbs to the leading tone F# where it meets the upper voice on the G of the melody. This is a symbolic meeting of the two voices, unified for a moment in this second statement of the melody where the lower voice gives a new harmonic ending. How is this cadence to be understood? Should it be played more softly (diminuendo) as a gentle resolution to G-major? Or is it to be played as if just passing through? The cadence feels natural and strange at the same time.
Bars 17-18 are sequenced in bars 19-20. The two voices are in canon: the lower voice continues to be marked espressivo but sustains expressively the tritones A-D# and G-C#, while the upper voice turns on G and F. The first statement (bars 17-18) seems to want to go forward but withdraws. The second statement, a step lower, tries a new attempt but resigns even more. It is the lower voice that again tries to uphold and support the upper voice by imitating its ascent and sustaining its higher tones (tritones) a little longer, while the upper voice tends to resign.
These measures seem to be a kind of transition which plays with the main motivic gesture (bar 1), swelling up and down dynamically but not going in any clear direction.
- The melody has now reached its lowest register and will have two attempts to climb upward from the note D, first in bars 21-22, then higher in bars 23-24. The lower voice imitates it like before. The upper voice now moves in continuous eighth notes, speaking in portato with the lower voice. The portato articulation functions as an intensification of the expression, seeming to want to go forward. Finally, the crescendo in bar 24 goes directly to the highpoint of bar 25 as described above. The high F mirrored in the lower voice F imitation, seems to express sudden emotions of pain, loneliness, and regret. It is as if something appeared from past memory. The quasi calando (as if dying out) indicates a slight hesitation and withdrawal of the melody and its imitation in the lower voice. The hesitation is hardly noticeable, like a brief sense of regret or a sigh. This is the first time the lower voice consistently imitates the whole melodic fragment of the upper voice and is of symbolic significance. It is as if the lower voice now empathizes with the eruptive “cry” of the upper voice and literally follows or echoes it in its footsteps until the end of bar 27. This anticipates the final canon of the coda (from bar 48), which will somehow “resolve” the relationship between the voices.
- This is a repeat of the material from bars 17-20, but now it is intensified through changes in both voices marked quasi sostenuto. Instead of resigning (as in bars 19 and 20) the melody has the insisting power of resolving temporarily from D# to E and C# to D before falling down. The lower voice answers by expanding its support to lower tones in dissonance with the upper voice, followed by wider ascending leaps (sixths). This brings earlier material, which initially had seemed modest and unassuming, back to life. It is as if the composer is insisting on the importance of those feelings. The quasi sostenuto adds to this urgency of expression; it lets the performer give more time to emphasize each eighth note as if they were separate, underlined “words”. The descending melody intensifies and becomes longer (within a seventh as opposed to the earlier turn around a third). It is as if the gesture now wants to be sure to get across emotions that in earlier statements were hiding.
These bars again build up intensity with the same melodic material as in bars 21-24, but now the lower voice follows the new pattern established in bars 28-31. It is as if the lower voice decides that the upper voice this time needs more substantial support so that the melody can climb higher than before, as it will from bar 36. The melody will now transcend the earlier leap to F (bar 25), expressing an intensity of emotion that has not been said earlier. The lower voice supports the upper voice now by expanding even more (bars 37-39) from a sixth, to a seventh to an octave leap – the latter being the largest leap of the piece. The importance and ambivalence of the E – soon to become a ostinato “bell” - is prepared in bar 38, which is the turning point of the piece where E becomes more and more isolated, though still in tension with F. We seem to expect a traditional tonal resolution to A-minor after a molto ritardando and a comma (slight break) before proceeding to bar 40.
The “resolution” in bar 40 to E-minor brings the listener back to the opening melody. It seems to contain ambivalent feelings. There is a sense of unfulfilled resolution of the proceeding bar’s insistent intensity: maybe this way had no future after all? But there is also a reassurance of “home” and a return to the initial proud statement of the melody. This latter feeling is reinforced by the steady and recurring “bell” on E with the lower voice’s consistent support to push the melody to each next bar with its two eighth notes. The sudden appearance of full pedal brings in a new dimension: the sense of time is expanded, the bell symbolizing timelessness. The drama of the two voices is somehow transcended to a different and greater space, where they are unified by a third element outside of the two voices - the eternal E-bell marked marcato espressivo <> with cascades of overtones in the pedal that suddenly surround the voices.
The sudden turn and change of tempo (piu lento) and the leap to F in bar 48 create an extraordinary emotional moment in the piece. It recalls a sense of nostalgia, of pain. The bell’s centred support is gone. The utter nakedness of the two voices, again in simple two-voice texture, descend into resignation.
Childlike associations and narratives in “Sonatinas” Op. 30
“…When do you think people will understand that an artist must be more or less self-absorbed, for unless he tries to find the depth of his own mind, his art cannot be deeply human. When he is warmed up all the way until the childish, then his imagination blossoms and new visions and forces arise in him…. And this is my credo as an artist: without becoming like a child, you will not enter music’s divine kingdom!”. (Sæverud: 1967, pp. 128-129)
“In order that my Sonatinas should keep themselves as young and fresh as possible, I got the idea of dedicating each of them to a young girl - yes, the youngest one is still going around with a ribbon in her hair. It is possible that I am the only one who thinks this was a good idea, but I liked the thought that if I became exceedingly old and grey, my six sonatinas would always have a young and beauteous following. And in this way, I also get to suggest that I think sonatinas should be young: they must be smooth and slim and free of all what I call “piano fat”. I have only used two-voice textures throughout, even though this has not been a predetermined work program: it has only come naturally like this during the development of the material. And the more transparent the music is, the more it can have to say. It is remarkable that the well-known Beethoven interpreter Arthur Schnabel put the master’s bagatelles above the sonatas. But if the means are sparse, then even more is demanded of both performer and listener; where selection is limited, each single part means so much more. They become close-up pictures or art of commentary in which every little nuance of tone and pitch can be of importance” (Kayser: 1997, p.160).
The “Six Sonatinas” Op. 30 are seldom performed, even though these pieces represent some of Sæverud’s most original and high-spirited creations. Why are they not more appreciated? The composer’s comments above show that he was aware of the challenges of both performers and audiences. It can be difficult to find the musical points. What kind of expression and character is the music supposed to present? What other music can it be compared to? Are there references? Harmonies can sometimes seem strange, ambiguous, and aimless. The music seems to shift constantly from one musical idea to another and is often extremely restless, with many unpredictable quirks and turns, making it difficult to follow at times. Small, beautiful moments are often cut off by strange incidents and surprises, and the speed of changing musical ideas is so high, that once you think you have grasped something, another idea pops up. There are no instrumental effects beyond a sparse two-voice texture. Likewise, there are no extra-musical titles, narratives, or images from the composer – as with other piano pieces - to help performers or audiences to understand. The sonatinas seem to be purely abstract music.
Inspired by the abovementioned composer comments, my approach to these pieces has been to explore how associations to children and their world of play and imagination can help find direction for shaping musical characters. These pieces need a constant sense of humour, lightness, endless playfulness, joy of surprises and a feeling of being constantly amused and entertained, as if in a musical circus.
Here are some free associations to the world of children that can apply to the different childlike moods and musical characters in the sonatinas. These associations can apply to many places in all the pieces.
non grown-up world, which is too serious!(throughout)
innocence, purity (Sonatina 2, 2nd mvt.)
spontaneity, free reign of imagination/thoughts (Sonatina 1, 1st mvt.)
being completely silly, foolish, babbling along! (Sonatina 4, 3rd mvt.)
walking along, carefree/happy-go-lucky walking, also skipping! (Sonatina 6)
impatient, whimsical (Sonatina 4 and Sonatina 3, 1st mvts.)
quick changes of mood (sad, happy, angry, wondering, questioning)(Sonatina 1 and Sonatina 4, 1st mvts.)
non-self-conscious, “nature in itself”(throughout)
dancing, in motion, free movements/gestures (throughout)
ecstatic moments of joy (Sonatina 6, 1st mvt.)
devotion, unconditional love, caressing, giving (slow mvts.)
sense of wonder, awe (Sonatina 3, 2nd mvt.)
a little sad – but not really! (pretending, acting)(slow mvts.)
pleading, please give me….! (Sonatina 5, 1st mvt.)
immersed in play, obsession (throughout)
“first, I do this, then I do this!” (doing one thing at a time) (Sonatina 2, 2nd mvt.)
teasing (Sonatina 1, 1st Sonatina 6, 2nd mvt.)
SEE SCORE 2 (in sidebar): “Sonatina No. 2” from Op. 30, first movement
In the first movement of “Sonatina No. 2” (Allegretto grazioso), the harmony sounds strange and aimless in a kind of free-tonal style. It helped to see this movement as a narrative of a little girl playing with her doll and talking to herself in her own world. Her voice is unconsciously acted-out in a dialogue with herself (see example 2).
Bars 1-4: “What if I were a little bird?” (repeated question in circular feeling)
Bar 5 and 6: “Do you think?” (three eighth notes – crescendo in mp). Answer in different voice: “Maybe so?” (next three eighth notes in p, hesitating, slower)
Bars 7-10: “If I flew away, what would happen then?” (wondering question, circular feeling)
Bars 11-16: Più energico: “What if I were a giant bear – then I would climb up the tree!” (more courage, ambition, darker voice imitating a bear!)
Bars 17-18: Con grazia: “Maybe now, maybe later or maybe never!” (different voice, with a teasing, playful character)
Bars 19-20: “I would climb a mountain!” (very confident in bear voice! In forte)
Bars 21-22: mp con grazia: “Maybe not?” (repeated, teasing again)
Bars 23-6: (Thinking in piano, then growing excitement in mezzo forte)
Bars 25-26: “But I really want to be both a bird and a bear”. (insisting, high point in forte, poco sostenuto)
Bars 27-28: Tranquillo: “If I hadn’t been so small”. (hesitant, discouraged, almost giving up!)
Bars 29-31: “Do you think so? - Yes, I do”. (teasing, repeated on eighth notes again in two voices)
Bars 32-35: “But in my imagination I can pretend that it is so”. (calming down and being content that imagination can do anything you want)
An additional important musical point in this movement is to wholeheartedly make a crescendo to the first <> and then release (diminuendo). It is as if the G-flat is a stressed syllable in the musical sentence, with all the other notes preparing the G-flat or coming as a result of its accent. It is insisting every time and adds to the recurring, circular feeling of the movement; the figure is repeated eight times.
The 2nd movement has a most tender and innocent expression, with characteristic repeated notes as in “Rondo Amoroso”. See example 3 below to follow the score, RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 3 to hear the recording.
Bars 1-2: Dressing the doll.
Bars 3-4: Putting on a blouse and a skirt.
Bars 5-8: “Careful, just a little longer until all is in place!”.
Bars 9-10: Putting on gloves.
Bars 11-12: One on each hand.
Bars 13-14: “Do you think the doll will be happy?”
Bars 15-16: “Yes, but maybe she will be sad”.
Bar 17: “Will you be sad?”.
Bar 18: “Only if you become sad”.
Bars 19-20: “Then I won’t be sad, and we can both be happy!”.
Bars 21-31: (in pp) “Now we will try to walk together and wave once or twice to everybody” (walks with the doll).
Bars 32-39: (pp una corda): helping the doll carefully jump a little, all the way to the top! (accents: suddenly stumbling!)
Bars 40-47: (Teneramente): “I am getting tired, think of all that has happened! But I must go to sleep now and play some more tomorrow”.
In this movement, it is easy to miss an important musical point: the constant portato touch – combined with slurred two-note motifs – has single eighth notes with tenuto (bar 2 on B-flat, bar 3 on G, etc.). These notes must be emphasized as “syllables”. They need a little more time to be executed with a dash of pedal to make them come out. Without careful attention to this tiny detail and effect throughout, a main point is missed.
SEE SCORE 3 (in sidebar): “Sonatina No. 2” from Op. 30, second movement
TAKING A FRESH LOOK AT HARALD SÆVERUD´S 2nd and 3rd STRING QUARTETS
BY RICARDO ODRIOZOLA
At the beginning of the working process, I used time explaining to the other players the meaning of Sæverud's articulation markings. I also tried to evoke the atmosphere Sæverud created by imitating the way he sang or spoke. Metaphors were also used. They were mostly nature-related metaphors, such as water, rocks, bad weather and hiking. Also, references to stumbling on an unseen obstacle or limping were used.
My chief motivation for taking on the work of this project was ultimately to make Sæverud’s unjustly neglected music available to performers. The text accompanying the editions of the two Sæverud quartets includes biographical details about the composer, a general description of the composer's style and an extensive list of comments explaining details of his music. This research work had the benefit of future performers in mind.
In a public session prior to the first public performance of my new edition of “Quartet No. 3”, Liv Hilde Klokk of the Oslo String Quartet, remarked that she felt that it was an edition she could trust. This was corroborated by her colleagues from the ensemble. The ensemble had worked on its own, without my direct involvement. The new edition’s detailed accompanying text was designed to make performers’ of Sæverud’s music fully independent of outside assistance.
LINKS TO THE EDITIONS:
SCORE Sæverud: “String quartet No. 2” (Odriozola)
SCORE Sæverud: “String quartet No. 3” (Odriozola)