Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Why Would Ana, or Anyone, Love Polyphony?
One reader said she found the two movements of Ana's Partita on Simple Gifts delightful, but that she had trouble hearing "what the music was doing." That's understandable, because, after all, there were two things going on at the same time. Truly hearing polyphony, the superimposition of two voices, takes a little practice--but just a little.
Here's a tip that may help everything become clear. In most music today, we're used to hearing the melody in the right hand, the higher notes. The left hand usually provides accompaniment--the lower notes. But in polyphony, the left hand has a melody too. So try this: play Ana's second variation again, and listen only to the low notes--it's just a minute or so long. (Music clip) Concentrate and try to follow it to the end. If you lose the thread, play it again. After a couple repetitions, you should be able to listen to all of it and hear both parts at the same time--while they harmonize with each other. It's like a third dimension of music! That's what gives Ana the "frisks!"
If you read music, the illustration above should prove interesting. (If you play the piano, you can print it out!) It is Bach's Two Part Invention #8, a fairly simple example of polyphony which can be seen on the page fairly easily. (Right click it and open in another tab to refer to conveniently.) It's based on the F scale. The first notes for the right hand (the top stave) show the notes of an F chord, going up, and becoming more complex as they come down. But look at the second stave, for the right hand. Those are the exact same notes as the top stave, only one octave lower and played one measure after the ones on top. It's like it's chasing the beginning melody! If you'd shift the bottom stave one measure to the right, the notes would line up with the top stave almost exactly.
The pattern reverses in the second measure of the third line, where the two hands "trade" parts. The right hand (the bottom stave) takes the over the melody and the top line, starting in the next measure, chases the bottom line. The piece changes keys, too, but we won't go into that. Suffice it to say that after trading places they meet at the end, back in the original key. It's perfectly symmetrical.
It's the kind of piece that only Bach could have written: complex and simple, perplexing and delightful at the same time. It fills the brain with frisks. Ana loves to play this one. To hear a fairly competent amateur (NOT Ana!) playing it on a harpsichord, click here.
The original puzzle. Answer to the puzzle.
Bach's Little Fugue in g arranged for two instruments, which you may print and play!