Boëllmann Suite Gothique Part 3:
This month’s column focuses on the Menuet Gothique, the second movement of Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique.
The Menuet Gothique is an extraordinarily tuneful piece of music. It has always been right at the top of my list of pieces which, when I am teaching them or otherwise have them on my mind, tend to run through my head as I am walking along the street or relaxing. I believe that this—although it is just a subjective reaction on my part—provides a clue about some effective ways to practice the piece, as I will discuss below. I will start out, however, with a few thoughts about the overall shape and structure of the Menuet.
The form of the piece starts out as that of a classic minuet. That is, it is in triple time, neither very fast nor very slow, and it begins with two phrases, each of which is repeated. (In this piece, the first time through a phrase and its “repeat” are not identical, but I am treating them as identical for this brief analysis. I will also discuss this below.) The lengths of the two phrases are in a traditional, classic proportion: the first phrase eight measures, the second sixteen. Furthermore, the opening of the second phrase is a variant of the second half of the opening phrase, or perhaps a kind of answer to it. This way of linking the two halves of a binary keyboard dance—minuet or any other—was common at least from the time of Froberger, that is, from the mid-seventeenth century.
The next section of the piece—beginning with the upbeat to m. 49—continues the classical minuet structure, at least at first. Since it is in the same triple time, but presents different thematic material, it has the feeling of the traditional trio section of the classic “minuet and trio” form. (This was a form in which one minuet was followed by another, which in turn was followed by a literal repeat of the first minuet. This was one solution to the issue—always present in music—of the balance between contrast and continuity, or between the familiar and the new. Typical examples of a minuet and trio can be found, for example, in the first “French Suite” or the fourth “English Suite” of Bach. And this form was commonly used in the Classical period, in symphonies and other orchestral music as well as in keyboard music. Because the third section in this form is exactly the same as the first, it can also be thought of as a rondo or ritornello form.) The section beginning at m. 49, which I am considering evocative of the “trio” of the minuet and trio form, opens with another eight-bar phrase, which is, like the opening phrase of the piece, then repeated. This in turn is followed by a new eight-bar phrase. According to the model that we are developing, that is, according to the way that phrases have been dealt with in the piece so far, this phrase—mm. 65–72—should also be repeated. If Boëllmann had repeated these measures and then directed the player to return to the beginning and play to measure 48, ending the piece there, then the whole work would have been in the most traditional, old-fashioned, minuet and trio form.
(I suspect that the classic structure of the beginning of this piece, something not by any means found in all minuets written in the late nineteenth century, reflects the composer’s intention to write a piece that deserves to be called “Gothique”. Of course, the minuet was a Baroque rather than Gothic form, but this is, at least at the beginning, an old-fashioned piece, evocative of old-fashioned style.)
However, Boëllmann does not repeat the second half of the “trio” or return to the beginning just yet. Instead of the repeat of mm. 65–72, the composer gives us new material loosely based on what has come just before it. The next 40 or so measures of the piece consist of material derived from what I am considering the “trio” section, interrupted occasionally—three times—by short bursts of material derived from the opening theme. This also makes a sort of rondo or ritornello form. It sets up a final return of the opening theme, without the repeats that characterized its appearance in mm. 1–48, but otherwise essentially the same. This “da capo”—mm. 113–136— brings the piece to a close.
(To me the penultimate section of this piece, mm. 73–110, is strangely reminiscent of the middle section of the fugue from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548. In that [much longer] section, rather free-sounding passagework is also occasionally interrupted by brief, almost abrupt-sounding, statements of the opening theme.)
The passages that I have been calling “repeats” are, as I suggested above, not actually identical to the passages being repeated (or, so to speak, not quite repeated). They differ in the following ways: the bass lines migrate from manuals to pedal, or vice versa; the right hand parts, bearing the treble melodies, change octaves; and left hand parts, essentially doubling the right hand in octaves, come and go. Meanwhile, the treble melodies and the bass lines remain, as far as the note patterns are concerned—octaves aside—identical. These note changes on the repeats are accompanied by changes in the suggested registrations, and all of the changes work in sync with one another. The phrases in which the treble is higher, the bass is in the pedals, and the texture is thicker are also the passages in which the registrations are louder, that is Grande Orgue with couplers, marked ff. The manuals-only phrases—treble lower, texture thinner—are marked to be played on the Récit, p or pp. Either the changes in registration alone or the changes in the note picture alone would create a noticeable forte/piano contrast in the repeats. Together they reinforce one another and make that contrast stronger. To me it makes sense to think of the changes in the note picture in these repeats to be a change in registration rather than a change in the music. I am pretty sure that listeners hear it that way.
The tunefulness of this piece derives from two things, I believe. First of all, the melody in the upper voice is memorable and easy to sing or hum or whistle. It is a tune that would probably make a good hymn (more so, I would say, than the melody of the first movement of the suite, even though that movement is marked “Choral”). Second, the bass line is—like a quintessential continuo line from the late Baroque, say of Handel or Telemann—a line that combines convincing melodic direction with strong unambiguous underlining of the harmony. It is a line that exists to support and bring out the melodic strength of the upper voice. In this respect it also resembles the bass line of many hymns, though it covers a much wider range. Also, the piece is—except for the interaction between the treble and the bass, and that only in parts of the piece—unambiguously non-contrapuntal. The inner voices are important, but their importance is in the way that they provide harmonic support for primarily the melody and secondarily the bass line, and in the ways that they influence volume through the changes in texture described above. There is no moment in this piece when the listener’s attention is meant to focus primarily on an inner voice or when that attention is meant to perform the feat of dividing itself among several voices in a way that shortchanges none of them. There is always a principal melody, and, with the exception of a couple of measures around m. 78, it is always in the top voice.
This suggests a starting point for practicing the piece. The equivalent for this piece to playing and learning separate voices in a contrapuntal work is first to play and learn the soprano melody. That is, by playing it all by itself, without the rest of the right hand part: playing it as naturally and easily as possible, letting it become second nature, a tune that will go through your head when you least expect it. For this purpose the repeats, with changed octaves and thicker texture, don’t matter. The next step is to practice the bass line, in the left hand, enough to get comfortable with it, and then put the bass and the melody together, still without the inner-voice chords. This is a straightforward enough procedure that it doesn’t really need a formal protocol, but if it had one, it might look like this:
1) play the melody from mm. 1–8 a dozen times
2) do the same with the melody from mm. 17–32
3) play the left-hand part from mm. 1–8 a dozen times
4) do the same with the left hand part from mm. 17–32
5) put #1 and #3 together about a dozen times
6) put #2 and #4 together about a dozen times
(Then do the same thing with any other measures where new material is introduced, such as mm. 49–52 or 73–78.)
The purpose of this is the same as that of practicing each voice in a fugue and then putting those voices together in pairs. It is to get the ears to follow the most important melodic and rhythmic elements of the piece so naturally, so instinctively, so strongly, that it will be nearly impossible not to bring those elements out convincingly in performance, even when the complication of playing all the notes is added back in.
At this stage it is time to think about the meaning of the various indications for articulation given by the composer. Such signs are almost entirely absent from both the first and the last movements of the Suite Gothique. They are found throughout the third movement, the Prière à Notre- Dame, but only to do one thing, namely to delineate long phrases with slurs. In this movement, articulation is used at several levels. First of all, the entire piece is marked non-legato. That is, the marking occurs at the very beginning and is never contradicted. Non-legato articulation is the context for the whole piece. However, within that context, a certain number of notes are marked either with slurs or with staccato dots. The vast majority of the slurs are written over two-note groupings, the first two quarter-notes of a measure. This happens in the quarter-note bass line at the beginning (Example 1). And in the treble elsewhere (Example 2).
Staccato dots are used mostly in two of the ways shown in the examples above: either on a third beat quarter-note following a pair of slurred quarter-notes or in the four-beat eighth-note upbeat pattern that is characteristic of what I have been calling the trio sections.
What is the purpose of all this articulation? Of course it is not particularly ambiguous what it means. The slurs mean real, perhaps even overlapping, legato; the dots mean very short notes, perhaps as short as they can be without losing pitch sense and sonority. Non-legato, which would seem to apply to notes that have neither of the other markings, is somewhere in between. There can be, within the meaning of the terms, some variation in legato and staccato and a lot of variation in non-legato. However, what is it all in aid of? This is a question that does not ever necessarily have—or require—an answer. But if it does have an answer, that answer might help the student/performer make specific decisions about how to carry out the articulations, and might make it easier for those articulations to come out sounding natural and convincing. I suspect that in this case there is an answer or two to that kind of question.
The slurs over pairs of quarter-notes sometimes occur when the rest of the notes in the texture are half-notes (Example 3) and otherwise occur, when they are in the treble as in Example 2 above, in such a way as to join a second beat to a downbeat and emphasize that downbeat. Both of these uses of the slur seem to be designed to create or to bring out the kind of lilt associated with the minuet. This is a triple-meter rhythm that is better represented by this:
than by this:
I would say that interpreting these slurs as saying “feel and express a lilting motion” rather than as anything more technical than that would be the best guide to playing them naturally and flexibly.
When the bass line moves to the pedal, beginning in m. 8 and then throughout, the articulation marks are absent. There are no articulation marks anywhere in the pedal part. Does this mean that the bass line should not express the same articulation when it is in the pedal that it has when it is in the left hand? Or does it mean that the composer has assumed that the player will take the articulation given in the left hand as a guide for how that line is meant to be played? I am not sure that it is possible to decide this by rigorous logic. To me the second possibility makes more artistic sense. The concept that I outlined above—articulation in service of the minuet-like lilt—can guide the ears and feet in shaping the pedal line. That is, the specifics of legato and staccato—how much overlap, or how short certain notes can be or need to be to get the right effect—will be different with the deeper sounds of the pedal, but the concept can be the same.
Fingering and pedaling
When it comes to the practical side of working on this movement—that is, working out fingerings and pedalings—the (practical) truth is that the overall non-legato articulation creates great flexibility and choice. It makes things just plain easier than they would be if the long chains of chords had to be played legato. Legato in that case would have to mean legato as to non-repeated notes, with the many repeated notes as close to legato as possible. This would be entirely doable, with lots of substitution: there would not be a lot of different ways to do it. As it is, planning on an overall non-legato, each player can pretty much look at each chord separately and decide what fingering fits that chord shape the most comfortably. As usual, hand position is the main guide. Then non-legato transitions from one chord to another can be made in a way that is physically comfortable.
There are two important things to remember about this process. First, non-legato passages, whether single-note lines or chords, end up sounding more natural, closer to cantabile, less choppy, the more comfortable and relaxed the hands and feet are. This is because choppiness and a lack of cantabile are caused not by space between notes but by choppy releases and physically tense attacks. The second thing concerns the physical or technical act of putting spaces between notes or chords. If the player, having worked out a fingering or pedaling, practices at first with so much space between notes that it is easy—blissfully, unambiguously easy—to move from one note to the next, then, when those fingering or pedaling patterns are well learned, it will never be difficult to reduce the amount of space between the notes.
In the case of this Menuet, the act of playing the simple treble melody until it is a familiar old friend—as suggested above—will guide your ears in shaping the articulation in a way that expresses the lilting minuet-like feeling of the piece. The act of practicing the notes and chords without, at first, trying to make them anything other than very detached will create the physical, technical basis for projecting that feeling when playing all of the notes.
Next month we will look at the Prière à Notre-Dame. In the case of that movement, the major technical concern is indeed the shaping of long legato lines, some with one note at a time, some with more complicated textures, and therefore with more involved fingering problems. ■