By Edward Klorman (McGill University)
Author’s note: This blog post is adapted from Chapter 6 of my book Mozart’s Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
When examining a metrically ambiguous passage, many musical analysts will seek to untangle problems by explaining which among multiple metrical interpretations is “the correct one.” In this blog post, I explore metrical conflicts from a different point of view—namely, that of the performers.
Musicians often strive to find ways to play better together, to match their phrasing and shaping in order to “feel” the music in a unified way. But what happens when they encounter a passage in which their parts don’t match, but are in conflict? The subordinate theme from Brahms’s Sonata in E♭ Major for Piano and Clarinet, op. 120, no. 2 is a case in point.
You can get a sense of the issue—and imagine how you might approach it in performance—from this video. (Since my clarinet skills are a little rusty, I perform on viola instead!)
To provide some context for the subordinate theme, let’s first look briefly at the main theme and transition. The sonata opens with fairly regular four-bar hypermeter, as I’ve shown in my markings above the staves.
Some metrical dissonance arises in mm. 15–17, which tend to sound more like 3/2 meter than the notated 4/4. Within these four bars, the piano’s left hand emphasizes the off beats, playing on the weak quarters of each half-note pulse. The four-bar hypermeter is restored in mm. 18–21, but the piano’s syncopations continue to emphasize weak quarter notes. (These syncopations foreshadow an ambiguity I will discuss in the subordinate theme.)
In m. 21, the final bar of the transition, the diminuendo hairpin and the rest on beat 4 encourage the players to use some rubato, allowing the sound and momentum to dissipate as the passage comes to rest on a tentative German augmented-sixth chord in B♭ major (a harmony that yearns to resolve to V in the new key, the traditional cadential goal of an expositional transition).
And then what? After the general pause, the clarinet begins the subordinate theme on the notated downbeat, with the piano imitating one beat later.
The Subordinate Theme in Brahms’s Notation
This imitation constitutes a canon per arsin et thesin, whereby strong beats in one part coincide with weak beats in the other. Coming right after a general pause, this passage would challenge many listeners to determine whether it is the clarinet’s entrance or the piano’s that falls on the “true” downbeat (if the listener is not following the score).
Indeed, for the first several bars of the theme, it seems plausible that the bar lines might be located one quarter note later than how Brahms notated them, as shown below. Only by m. 28 (best seen above, in the print of Brahms’s score) is the notated bar line unequivocally confirmed: the clarinet’s eighth-note upbeat clearly establishes the downbeat of m. 28, and moreover it is at this juncture that the piano gives up the metrically ambiguating canon. Simply put, my alternative notation below seems plausible initially at m. 22 (making the placement of bar lines difficult to discern for several measures), but by m. 28 it is absurd.
Subordinate Theme in a Plausible Alternative Notation
Why do I hear this passage as so metrically ambiguous? And how should musicians approach their performance of such a metrical conflict? I will explain my own understanding and performance approach:
After the German augmented-sixth chord and general pause in m. 21, the clarinet’s entrance on concert F may initially seem to represent dominant harmony, bolstering the sense that it is an upbeat to the piano’s tonic entrance. But when I play the passage (on viola), I try to make the entrance in a metrically neutral way, stressing neither note of the (concert) F–F gesture. Observing Brahms’s sotto voce marking and emulating a clarinet’s capacity for niente entrances helps to achieve this. Once the piano enters in canon, the two players might emphasize their conflicting meters with a gentle persistence—that is, with the piano emphasizing the long slurs beginning on beat 2 (and thus suggesting my alternate notation). Brahms’s beams across bar lines encourage the pianist to count in terms of my alternate notation. This performance approach heightens the conflict and suspends the sense of metrical ambiguity as long as possible (ideally until around m. 28), thus taking advantage of a special opportunity afforded by Brahms’s passage.
* * *
The approach I’ve suggested here is consistent with performance advice proffered in eighteenth-century performance manuals, such as those by Leopold Mozart, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Daniel Gottlob Türk. These authors encourage performers to emphasize beginnings of slurs, especially those that are syncopated against the meter (as in the piano part here). Brahms was certainly familiar with these ideas and harbored a highly traditional understanding of the meanings of slurs, one that is particularly relevant in a passage such as this. (On these eighteenth-century writers’ understanding of slurs and their execution, see my discussion in Mozart’s Music of Friends. On Brahms’s affiliation with older understandings about slurs, see Heinrich Schenker’s essay “Abolish the phrasing slur” in The Masterwork in Music, I ).
I’ll close with a perspective on performing metrical conflicts from an author more nearly contemporary to Brahms (and certainly one who felt a strong affinity to him), Heinrich Schenker:
It is the responsibility of the performer primarily to express the special characteristics of a composition, as they sometimes coincide with the meter, sometimes oppose it. Today, not only the failure to recognize rhythmic relationships but also sheer indolence creates a performance for the metric scheme alone—a dismaying evidence of decline (Free Composition, translated by Ernst Oster, emphasis added).
Leaving Schenker’s hortatory tone aside, he offers an idea well worth pondering. In everyday life, we strive to avoid conflicts or else to resolve them. But in playing music, our impulse to resolve conflicts should be questioned. A conflict-resolving performance strategy might conclude: “Brahms clearly intended the meter as he notated it, and this is confirmed by m. 28. Therefore, we should perform in accordance with the notated meter, minimizing signals that rub against it.” But a more satisfying approach, at least to me, is to allow the conflict to flourish and for the two musicians to each make an earnest bid for the meter as suggested by their own parts. The clarinetist’s bid for the notated meter ultimately prevails, of course. But our final-state understanding of the metrical structure is, like history, determined by the victor, and only after the conflict has ended.