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Saturday morning quotes 3.49: Where’s the tune?

April 19, 2014

“…Plato defines melody to consist of harmony, number & wordes; harmony naked of it selfe: words the ornament of harmony, number the common friend and vniter of them both.”

– John Dowland (1563 – 1626), Dedication from The First Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1597

John Dowland’s interpretation of the historical definition of melody certainly changed with the times, but it seems appropriate to begin with his idea of melody as the overarching framework to which harmony, rhythm and words are all subservient.  Dowland’s music offers a fine example of how truly tuneful melodies became more important and eventually gained prominence over merely correct counterpoint during the 17th century, culminating in the galant style of the 18th century.

“The true goal of music—its proper enterprise—is melody. All the parts of harmony have as their ultimate purpose only beautiful melody. Therefore the question of which is the more significant, melody or harmony, is futile. Beyond doubt, the means is subordinate to the end.”

– Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721 – 1783), Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, 1771.

By Mozart’s time (1756 – 1791), melody had become all-important.  The great composer is remembered for airs you can whistle, but he was no stranger to the art of fugue, and some of his best works display breathtaking skill in the use of invertible counterpoint hidden in plain view and disguised as trifling tunes.

“Melody is the essence of music. I compare a good melodist to a fine racer, and counterpointists to hack post-horses; therefore be advised, let well alone and remember the old Italian proverb: Chi sa più, meno sa—Who knows most, knows least.”

– attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in Reminiscences of Michael Kelly  (1762–1826)

Romantic composers of the 19th century wrote some of the most enduring and memorable tunes—and then set about burying them in a dense fog of orchestral texture.  While this may be indulging in provocative overstatement, the beautifully lush romantic orchestrations of Brahms and Mahler gave rise to a complete rejection of anything and everything that was beautiful.

“The listener is from the very first bewildered by a stream of deliberately discordant sounds. Fragments of melody, beginnings of a musical phrase appear on the surface, are submerged, then emerge again and disappear once more in the roar…On the stage, singing is replaced by screaming.  If the composer happens to hit on a simple and understandable melody, he, as if frightened by such a calamity, flees into the jungle of musical confusion, at times reaching complete cacophony.”

– Review of Shostakovitch’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District, in Pravda, Moscow, January 28, 1936; from Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, 2nd edition, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1953.

Thankfully, there are a few living, breathing composers today who have restored a standard of composing with taste and refinement, and who know how to write a good tune.  David Lamb, for instance.  David is a prolific composer with a diverse catalog of works—and he even has a roundabout connection to early music, having contributed a composition and his instrumental skills to the recording, Early Music by the Kronos Quartet.

While I particularly love David’s inspired music for saxophones, our connection was through a mutual friend and through the medium of Swedish folk fiddling, of which he is an enthusiastic advocate.  After I posted a tribute in memoriam to our departed friend, David sent scores to a few waltzes composed in her honor.  The second of the two waltzes has an evocative melancholy character, and I was moved to add a bass and make an arrangement for guitar and lute, taking advantage of the instruments’ propensity to produce cross-string suspensions.

In answer to the question posed by the title of this blog post, and with David Lamb’s permission, we make available a pdf score of his tune, Sally’s Waltz #2, arranged for guitar or lute in parallel transcription.

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One Comment
  1. Erika permalink

    Thank you for making the download available. Thank you also for the obituary for Sally, which reminds the reader of the value of a life lived with integrity.

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