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The Basis of Phrasing.

BY W. S. B. MATHEWS.

In order to teach phrasing, two things are necessary: First, to train the pupil to recognize the ideas in the pieces he studies; and, second, to give the necessary touches commanding expressive tone quality, through the use of which he will be able to bring the musical ideas to the attention of the listener. In the first statement which I published upon this subject I was not altogether fortunate in the theory, the manner in which I treated it tending to awaken a conception of phrasing as a separating, whereas phrasing is a joining, of tones. The first thing to do is to find out what tones go together to make up an idea; and the second thing is to join those tones so that they do express the idea. The separating from the idea next following may or may not take place. As a rule, it does; but often it does not, two ideas being joined in the performance into one continuous flow. In this flow, however, the individuality of the two ideas composing it will not be lost, but will both be brought out in a manner which lies at the very heart of the art, whereof a little later. Now as to the second point involved, the provision of touches commanding musical expression very early in the course, I differ in toto from many teachers. I hold that when a person begins to learn any instrument, the very first thing to master is the production of a musical tone, and by degrees an expressive tone. For when one has an expressive and musical tone, even if he plays but a simple thing, it will be interesting; whereas, without musical tone he may play something very difficult and elaborate without being interesting in the slightest degree. Of the latter one could find hundreds of illustrations in almost any part of the country up to within a very few years. Latterly, however, the art of musical expression has come into current piano-teaching to a degree formerly unknown, through the larger use of pieces and the smaller use of unmusical studies. Nevertheless, I believe that we are as yet only at the threshold, and that the art of teaching the piano musically is destined to receive a powerful impulse within the next ten years. It is on account of my idea that a musical tone is to be placed first that I have so much insisted upon Mason’s technics; because, so far as I know, his exercises afford a more expressive play for the fingers than any other technical exercises.

How is the pupil to know a musical idea when he sees it? This is the great question. He is both to recognize it intellectually and to feel it, because if he does not do the latter he will never play it with expression. How, then, first to lead to the recognition of musical ideas? One should begin, I think, by a simple exercise in recognizing musical figures. Suppose, for instance, a study contains a series of ascending scales; as the eye passes along the page it recognizes a series of oblique lines rising toward the right hand. A succession of descending scales presents a series of descending oblique lines. A succession of complete scales, ascending and descending, presents a series of obtuse angles, the lines both rising and falling. It is so with any kind of a piece. Take the first Cramer study. The series of steps by means of which the hands first ascend the keyboard can easily be seen to grow out of the figure contained in the first four notes (16 hs) When the runs start to descend, a new figure is taken, and so on.

It is the same with any kind of piece wha ever; there are certain curves made by the melodic phrases, certain approximate curves, which the eye will take in from the position of the notes on the staff. Suppose we take a strongly marked thematic piece, like the finale of the Beethoven Sonata in D minor, Opus 31, No. 3. The figure here consists of the first four notes, which are repeated over and over, with rests after each figure. The eye cannot possibly go amiss here. Or take the finale of the first sonata. Here in the right hand there are three chords struck forcibly, and rather independent of each other. Look through the movement and notice how many times this figure occurs. A little farther along there is a motive of quarters, descending, seven tones in succession, the last a half. Notice how many

times this figure occurs. Or take the beginning of the Haydn Sonata in D major, which stands as the third study in my first book of phrasing. Here is a figure of four notes, and another of two, repeated. And so it goes in every piece; the most superficial looking at the page will reveal note figures which occur more than once. A very little practice will discover them.

A figure is not necessarily an idea, in the full meaning of the term. It may serve as material out of which an idea may be constructed, or it may be a full idea in and of itself. The figures in quarters, in the first sonata already mentioned, do make a complete idea. The four-note figure beginning the first Cramer study does not make an idea. It is merely a passage figure, or passage motive. Here we arrive at a point where sense begins to make a difference. What is the foundation of this difference?

The Beethoven idea in quarters in the first sonata has a motion and a repose. It moves in a particular direction for a given length of time, and ends with an accent. It need not end with an accent; it might end with an unaccented syllable, like such words as “like-ly,” etc. But in this case the accent is still upon the last word. Now, a musical figure, in order to form an idea, in the sense in which we are now using the term, must have a determinate motion and a repose. The Cramer figure of four tones has no repose. It can only acquire repose by many repetitions, and at last bringing up at an accented tone. If it be repeated at the same pitch three times, and closed with the tone which would begin the fourth repetition, it would become an idea. If it were repeated in ascending degrees three times, and closed with the accent which would begin a fourth repetition, it would also be an idea. What, then, are the signs of musical idea?

The first element in a musical idea, for our present purpose, is the rhythm. A musical idea begins at a certain point in the measure, and ends either at the corresponding point in the next measure, or else in the next but one. Always exactly one measure, or two measures. Here the measure form is a point of notice. A measure for musical purposes is generally something different from a straight “one, two, three, four,” bar to bar; it is usually from some point within the measure to a similar point in the next. Hence arise measure forms of “two, three, four, one,” in which the closing beat has the accent; of “three, four, one, two,” where the accent fell one beat before the close. More likely, however, it begins with a fraction, and ends at the corresponding place in the corresponding beat of the next or the next measure but one. In some cases the musical idea consists of but two tones, a fraction of a measure, or of a beat; in these cases it will be found that the little idea is repeated and sequenced upon until a larger symmetry is composed. And in phrasing such an idea, the little ideas have to be distinctly brought out, while at the same time the movement of the entire figure is also felt. This which appears complicated is very easy. And I would say that the first basis of phrasing is to learn to recognize the measure form, and to use this as a rough sort of guide in recognizing the points where breaks in the musical ideas might be expected. If it were permitted me to make use of musical notation here I could make this plainer. But it is not convenient. When we pass the first little idea, the musical molecule, there will be found another, which will be the same thing exactly, or approximately, or a new one, but generally of exactly the same length. Thus at the end of exactly two or four measures from the point of beginning there will be found the end of the structural phrase; and four of these phrases will make up a period. Occasionally the periods will be longer or shorter. They will be made longer by repeating some part, and shorter by cutting across some part. The normal simple period is of exactly eight measures, counting from the exact fraction of the measure where the first tone enters. When the motive is two measures, the resulting simple period will be sixteen measures.

Within the period there is a correspondence of subject and predicate, or thesis and antithesis. This opens up a new set of questions, into which there is not space just now to enter.—The Musical Record.

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