On Teaching: Further thoughts about rhythm

August 22, 2021
Example 1: Widor Symphony 6, movement 1, opening bars
Example 1: Widor Symphony 6, movement 1, opening bars

Further thoughts about rhythm

In the very late 1960s and early 1970s, when I was first interested in the organ and listening to a lot of organ music, I had an LP recording of late-nineteenth-century French organ selections, pieces and excerpts of pieces by several composers, played by several different organists. It was a miscellany, a real sampler. All of the pieces were new to me then, as were the organs and the performers. The piece that impressed me most was the first movement of Charles-Marie Widor’s Sixth Symphony, played by Xavier Darasse. I should probably say that the passage that impressed me was the opening of that movement (Example 1). I remember quite clearly, fifty years later, that I listened to the opening of that track over and over again. I probably destroyed that part of the LP, but it helped to solidify my love for the organ; thus it was worth it!

Several weeks ago, as I decided to write a column or two focusing on various aspects of rhythm, that passage started going through my head again. It has scarcely been out of my head since, except when I have been listening to something else. Every passage of music has some relationship to the concept of rhythm. In spite of my early love for it, the first movement of that Widor symphony is not one that I have performed or analyzed. But thinking about it now and finally analyzing it a little bit, I think that there are all sorts of interesting things occurring with the rhythm of those first few measures. In particular, there are fascinating relationships between the rhetorical and theoretical aspects of rhythm, and this is part of what I address in this column.

The rhythm of the striking opening chords of the movement is demonstrated in Example 2. The rhythm of those powerful chords, and of the melody that is their treble line, is treated as a motive throughout the movement. But the surface rhythm, the rhythm of new notes, whatever voice or part of the texture they come from, is demonstrated in Example 3. That extra quarter note is a passing note in the pedal part, the bass line.

This is all straightforward, just a description of what is in the score. But it is fascinating to me that I hear two things going on at once, two different ways to describe the rhythm of this passage, both valid and meaningful. This seems to be a wrinkle in the relationship between counterpoint and rhythm. Lines of counterpoint, in the way that we usually conceive of them, are almost always characterized in part by having at least some rhythmic difference one to another. But here we have a passage that is seemingly homophonic. But the fact that the rhythm of that last quarter note of the second measure comes across as being on a lower level of importance rhythmically injects an element of counterpoint. This is subjective, but it is an interesting confirmation that the bass/pedal line is used over the next few measures to open the passage into more and more palpable counterpoint, as shown in Example 4.

If we do not know where notes are coming from rhetorically, then our sense of what the rhythm of a passage is can only be the surface rhythm. Turning that the other way around, if we notice hierarchies of rhythmic importance in different notes within a texture, that may be a clue as to some of what is going on rhetorically and contrapuntally in that passage.

For me, this is a new and slightly different way of looking at the relationship between rhythm and counterpoint. This means that I have not yet worked out how to help students apply it to pieces they are working on. There is a lot of music—from Byrd fantasias through Beatles songs, and including a lot of organ repertoire from all time and places—that is clearly not fully, rigorously contrapuntal, but in which counterpoint keeps breaking through. It is probably true that the vast majority of tonal music falls into this category. But nonetheless I have always had a problem feeling comfortable with it conceptually. Is it counterpoint or is it not? I understand that this is just the imposition of a rigid framework. But still, the concept that I am sketching out here seems to be able to help me get more comfortable with counterpoint flowing in and out of a piece or a passage.

My second answer to why this passage started going through my head has to do with the relationship between rhythm and rhythm as rhetoric. The rhythm of the notes at the beginning of this piece is well-defined and clear. But what is that rhythm doing? In a lot of circumstances, the rhythm of the first measure—just two half notes—would suggest a downbeat and an upbeat. But the way that I hear this first measure is something different and harder to describe. I hear each of those chords as a kind of world in itself, neither coming from anywhere rhythmically nor leading anywhere, but just rather insistently being. It is as if the second chord has so much gravity and weight that it refuses to be in a hierarchical relationship to the first chord or to the downbeat of the next measure. This is subjective, my way of hearing it. Assuming for the moment that this is correct or at least meaningful, is it about rhythm? A plausible and normal answer to that would be no. The rhythm is what it is, and everything else is a different aspect: affect, aesthetic, sonority, the push and pull of the harmony, interpretive choices, and so on. But it strikes me that it might be more interesting to expand the concept of rhythm to include more about what the rhythmic pulses and impulses are doing.

I believe that this concept or image could be interesting and helpful to students. It might provide a way of broadening the comfort zone of some students who are making choices about how to precisely execute rhythms on the page. If so, that would probably be through allowing choices about freedom of rhythm, bending and stretching the notated rhythm to feel more like an essential part of the rhythm itself. It might also provide me or any teacher with a way of helping the student to think about interpretive rhythmic choices without simply suggesting details of those choices to the student. I am now eager to work with a student on this piece!

In a way, I have put the cart before the horse, describing some ideas that occurred to me once I decided to write a column about a certain subject. As a result of one conversation with colleagues and a few interactions with students, I revisited a few of my ideas about rhythm, the relationship between notated rhythm and rhythm in practice, and certain practical matters about teaching rhythm. The latter include metronome use, counting, how to approach counting during slow practice, and a few other matters. The core of what I plan to write about is a concept that intrigues me: the possibility of deriving rhythm fundamentally, though only in part, from something other than the notation. I will talk about this at length in my next column.

I finish this column with a few more circumscribed yet fascinating points. The first is an anecdote from well over thirty years ago that has stayed with me all this time. I was then beginning to look for ways to participate in chamber music, and I connected with various colleagues as best I could. There was one player with whom I had a session or two of running through pieces and with whom I started to talk about giving concerts. As I came out of one such session, another colleague caught sight of me and said concerning my rehearsal partner, “You know, she really can’t count.” I did not know what to say, and I ended up with something like “Umm . . . ok,” and I did not let that comment affect my decision to go ahead and work with this fine and interesting musician. That comment was false in experience. This player had no more tendency to misread a rhythm or waver in rhythm or tempo than anyone else. But she was someone who often played purposely and quite freely. I learned a lot from her in this respect. I was left wondering what the real source of the uncalled-for carping criticism was. Did that other colleague have a bad experience with the person with whom I was working? Or misremembered or mistaken her for someone else? Or had it been a case of mistaking intentional, interpretive rhythmic freedom for an inability to count?

This latter idea always intrigues me and can be confounding. How do we know whether something that we hear (as to rhythm, for the purposes of this discussion) that departs from the most literally accurate is a mistake or a purposeful gesture? What different attitudes do we bring to such an event if it is one or the other? Is there a gray area in between? The attitude that we bring to mistakes that our students make is pretty clear—it is part of our job to point them out and help the student to understand what the problem is, how to correct it or to avoid similar things, and so on.

But what if the student says, “No, I meant to do that?” There is a strong pull to ask why and to accept that any deviation from what seems to be on the page is all right if there is a good reason. The discussions that arise from grappling with situations like this can be very fruitful indeed, but I have always thought that it is too restrictive. I hope that the concepts I will discuss next time can be used to help students understand what is going on rhythmically when they feel the pull to do something other than what seems to be the literal meaning of the notation but cannot express why. Furthermore, I hope that this can also help teachers address this situation with students without simply dictating outcomes.

I am reminded of a review that I read once of Joseph Szigeti’s recording of the Bach sonatas and partitas for violin. I apologize, as I have been unable to find this review, an unusual issue for the internet era. I am certain that it was written by B. H. Haggin. As best I remember, Haggin liked the recording and got a lot out of the playing and the pieces. But he also felt that the pieces themselves were not very interesting, that Szigeti, with his rhythmically free and idiosyncratic approach to Bach interpretation, had made great music out of pieces that were intrinsically dull exercises. I believe that this assessment was not as unexpected at that point in history as it would be now, though I do not agree with it. It seems to cast an interesting light on rhythm in performance. The reviewer’s perspective was that the player’s striking rhythmic choices were what we might call “wrong” in the sense that they were not really based on anything intrinsic to the music. They were imposed upon the music and thereby made the music great when it really was not. Is this a good situation or a bad one? How would we react if we thought we heard this happening with our students?

The last item that I mention here is an observation that I made while driving recently. I rolled down the window and shortly thereafter heard the sound of two cars passing me in quick succession going the other way. There were two whooshing sounds probably about 0.7 seconds apart. There had not been any cars ahead of them for a while, nor were there any following behind. So the two sounds were isolated. Although translated into the terms of musical rhythm this was just two notes out of any context, and it immediately evoked for me a very specific moment, namely the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in E Minor for piano, opus 90 (Example 5).

The two car sounds seemed to deliver the rhythm of this opening gesture. Why and how? Two notes in a row is so commonplace in music that it is almost silly to evoke a specific instance of it as a thing in itself at all! Even if the two cars sounded clearly like an upbeat and a downbeat, that hardly narrows things down at all. And it cannot be harmony or sonority—what I heard had no pitch or harmony, and the sonority was that of a couple of cars. So what made that passage come into my head? I do not have an answer, but it adds to my sense that there is something more to rhythm than what we see notated on the page or can describe in words.

A special note: I will be playing selections from J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue on harpsichord as part of the New York City concert series Midtown Concerts on Thursday, October 28, at 1:15 p.m. at the Church of the Transfiguration, 1 East 29th Street, New York, New York. I take the liberty of mentioning this since I have written extensively in these pages about my Art of the Fugue project. This will be the first public manifestation of that project and my first public concert in two-and-a-half years. If any readers can make it, I would of course be overjoyed to see you there

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