Friday, February 5, 2010

Going Down - Descending Scales in Fantasia #1

Word on the wire is that this weekend we should expect a snowstorm of somewhat epic proportions here in Fallsington, PA, along with most of the rest of the east coast. I like that kind of weekend. Snowbound, I tend to have a decent chance of getting something done, like recording Telemann's Fantasia #1.

There's one more aspect of Fantasia #1 I wanted to discuss before recording and posting, and that is the magic of the descending scale. If you have ever studied and trained as a musician, you've surely spent countless hours working on scales. First-year clarinetists and world-class violin soloists alike include all sorts of scales as part of their daily practice rituals. Take a look at most any score by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, or about a google other composers, and you won't have to look hard to find examples of scales or parts of scales all over the place. Listen to a solo by Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Scales, scales, scales. They're everywhere. However, we hear and play scales so often, and perhaps consider them more a chore than a part of the music-making experience, that I think musicians and listeners often forget that there's a basic and real beauty built right into the major scale--particularly, the descending major scale.

My brother once told me a story about a friend's young daughter who was taking violin lessons. "Want to hear my favorite song," she said. "It's called D Major Scale."

Listen to this little sample from Wynton Marsalis's incredible epic work, "In This House, On This Morning."

Absolutely gorgeous. And it's nothing more than a descending major scale down to the third. How many times have I played descending major scales and forgotten to listen, and forgotten to hear THAT? I don't necessarily play scales every day--though there have been some long stretches over the past few decades where I have--but I get a pang that I have often treated them like a chore, when they pack as much beauty as Wynton demonstrates. Now consider the clip below. This is me playing two lines from the second movement of Fantasia #1. Here also is the excerpt from the sheet music.

OK, I recognize the brazeness of putting my audio clip right under Wynton's and saying, "isn't that pretty?" But isn't it? And believe me, I'm talking about Telemann's notes, not my playing of them. If you think that Telemann passage is beautiful, which I certainly do, you have to acknowledge certain neat things that Telemann is doing here. For one, look at that descending line in the green boxes (you may need to click on the score image to enlarge it). It's a plain-vanilla descending D major scale. Telemann calls special attention to that descending scale in two ways. First, the eighth and sixteenth notes he wraps around the scale don't change, i.e., if you take the green-box notes away, you just just hear the same (kind of dull) repeated phrase. Put those notes back in (i.e., put the descending scale back in), and you get this thing of magical beauty. The other thing he does is he keeps pinging those D's at the top of each line. So he's playing the scale against an implied drone on the D, just to remind us where this is going. Listen to the first part of that example again. This time I'll use a wee bit of technology to call attention to the descending scale.

See? Just a descending major scale. Now listen to example two again while following along in the sheet music. Pay special attention to the surprise low G# at the beginning of measure 35. It catches you by surprise because it feels like Telemann is going to descend all the way down the D major scale. Instead he descends down to the 5th (D down to A) but suddenly, he throws us a curveball--this G#, which is totally unwelcome in D major, but is the 7th, the leading tone, in A major. Telemann switched keys on us. And then he uses that as a jumping off point for another descending major scale--this time A major (look at the red boxes). When he descended from D, he went down to the 5th, and now in A major, he picks up at the 4th. And it's just as beautiful this time. Plus it's very warm and fuzzy and satisfying because this time he descends all the way down to the A.

Looks like the snow will be coming soon. Hopefully this weekend I'll record #1.

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