Too Few Notes? I Think Not! – or – Modest Melodies: Their Might


I have long been enthralled by what, to me, is a great piece of music featuring a melody (and often harmony) that is so simple. By simple, I mean, involving just a few notes. The definition itself sounds simplistic, so let me elaborate. I’m fascinated (yes, a synonym can be elaboration!) by melodies which, once flourishes like appogiatura, passing tones, grace notes, etc., are removed, involve really, just a few tones – up – or down – or up/down (or reverse). It’s not at all that I don’t love grand, ornate, multi-octave (soaring) or meandering melodies (some of those, too, can be distilled to just a few notes). But today I offer examples of what I mean; sometimes these initial or opening melodies do give way to more elaborate lines, but the basic theme is very simple and, I think – very powerful.

Sometimes the distilling (which is like diagramming a sentence, if you think about it) – reveals, basically, a repetition, and there is something …. perhaps calming to me, or some other emotion that’s positive. I’m not here to examine the psychology of it. However, if we ventured into ekphrasis, I would say that simplicity of language appeals to me in poetry – as do concise works, but I have also adored, seemingly forever, “The Marshes of Glynn” (Sidney Lanier) and “Lycidas” (John Milton).  I am one of the few people who has “Dogville” (von Trier) as a favorite movie (stark, prop-less stage setting). I don’t mind its repetition or its visuals at all; quite the opposite. The “sentiment” I may be trying to express would be similar to “great things come in small packages or “short & sweet.” I do, though, love to hate cliche, please pass the accent – or not.

Someone with Polednice as a handle summed things up well, I think, at
‘… by “simple,” I don’t mean harmonically unadventurous or quaint sounding, I mean that the surface elements do not consist of much …sometimes “centred on a theme of just two ascending or descending notes.” ‘

Satie by Rusinol

Satie by Russignol

satie gnoss musikThe music of Erik Satie has interested me for decades. His music is not exactly neglected, but it seems one hears the same pieces over and over (on the radio, that is) –  especially one of the Gymnopedies. I have listened to his Nocturnes, and must admit that I prefer the Gymnopedies and Gnossienes. I am more drawn to the latter, to me, there is something electrifying in them (though that may be hyperbolic). Let’s say that there is something about the compact, uncomplex nature of these themes that is alluring. Sometimes the sum of the main melody will be a few notes; sometimes, that melody is basically a scale. I was going to name notes, but think I’ll refrain from that (I see in proofing that I’ve veered from the decision,min general.). My favorite of these is the first Gnossiene.

I can’t help but be interested in composers’ biographies: this is but an excerpt, and the only excerpt I’ll run. Perhaps you don’t or won’t like Satie – but I do; I think his work is marvelous. Thus, it is always interesting to me to read about “failures” who become famous (ie, others agree with me). Éric Alfred Leslie Satie (French: [eʁik sati]; 17 May 1866 – 1 July 1925) — he signed his name Erik Satie after 1884 — was a French composer and pianist. In 1879 Satie entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was soon labelled untalented by his teachers. Georges Mathias, his professor of piano at the Conservatoire, described his pupil’s piano technique in flatly negative terms, “insignificant and laborious” and “worthless.” Émile Descombes called him “the laziest student in the Conservatoire.”

Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 55 in F minor is another work that, to me, falls into a category I made (rather tautological, but there it is.) (I don’t know me why so many of my favorite pieces (simple or complex) are in F minor, by the way.) I said I would not name names – notes, that is – but I wish to, here. The theme starts on a C, the scale’s fifth, but it is but a leading tone, if a long lead. What follows is a descending partial scale: F, E-flat D flat C B C D-flat C – but if you “distill” this melody you have something like, well, …. C! with a harmony of I-V-I, the C’s staying above the return to to tonic (I). Take a listen:

chopin by Lionello Balestrieri Chopin by Lionelli Balistrieri

Here is the middle movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (you will note a predilection or happenstance for/of minor keys; maybe minor lends itself easily to simplicity of statement (for lack of better verbiage), because it already has a certain power or gravitas-like element to it (to me), inherently – most likely a melancholy, which… well, I won’t explore that here.  Of course, this work has out and out repetition of an E, before its half-ascending scale; this repetition is the major theme, even when the theme recurs on the third of the scale, for instance, the C versus the fifth, E. With Beethoven’s increasing deafness, it is known that he would substitute low notes for high, but I am not certain when, during the malady, the 7th Symphony was composed (this could be looked up easily, but I have to move along to my half-life). It is interesting to ponder, however, whether melodies might be influenced by a composer’s physical condition at the time of composition – they are, of course! – but an etiology of exactly how might make for further fascinating study.

Beethoven Beethoven

beethoven musik
I fell for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 as a teen – again, violating my statement re notes – the C D C D C B-flat A-flat B-flat G – I’m showing a total of just four notes, in a melody which can be distilled to something like C …………G (tonic to dominant starting approx. :00:47 in):

Rach by Granger Rachmaninov by Granger

rach music

In considering Baroque, it might be said that this style’s hallmark IS simplicity. That’s ok; there’s always a spectrum. This has long been a favorite: “Ground” by Henry Purcell. Basso ostinato, of course, is in itself, hypnotizing (and thus, for some reason, arresting – to me) –  although my topic mainly concerns melody:

purcellHenry Purcell

Purcell Ground

The Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2, 2nd movement, both in orchestral introduction and piano melody, also “qualify,” if in a slightly different way. (I can’t seem to find a version that’s louder than this one, so try this in a very quiet environment; it is an extreme treat):

shostakovih by Blake arter

Shostakovich by Blake Carter

I’m amazed to see no Bach here, from among my long-time favorites. I could go hunting (or jog my memory), but perhaps the reader would like to send in Bach selections, or others, to include non-classical music. As a composer, I’ve modeled (not consciously, really) the very topic I discuss today (some of these improvs are on Youtube, but are not deserving of the company here). Okay, okay, you’ve forced my hand(s): one last – more modern – example: “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen: ….. and I’d like to offer a … simple… thank you – for stopping by Spectral Lyre this day.

leonard cohen Leonard Cohen

Posted by Julie K. Shavin

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