Brad Mehldau: Who Needs a Good Melody Anyway?
In the second of a series of exclusive blog posts, Brad Mehldau continues his conversation with the Carnegie Hall audience, revealing his thoughts on composition and improvisation.
Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane
Part Two: Who Needs a Good Melody Anyway?
The three-period schema we mentioned earlier partially fails us with Beethoven because his later music develops in two opposing directions. There is the tendency to retract and economize that we find already in Op. 95 and also in the very last string quartet, but there is also a move towards even greater breadth, found in the gargantuan "Hammerklavier" Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106. In this piece, Beethoven reaches far back, past the high Classicism of his immediate predecessors Haydn and Mozart, to Bach. He returns to the fugue, a musical form that had reached an apotheosis in Bach's music. He employs it, though, to create a new kind of music, expressionistic in its rejection of traditional beauty. In the fugal last movement of the "Hammerklavier," a trill takes center stage, forming an integral part of the fugue's theme:
By placing a mere ornament in the forefront of this brash fugal texture, Beethoven is thumbing his nose at the banality of commonplace musical gestures and gets away with it because of the imaginative richness of everything that surrounds the trill as the fugue progresses. He also presents the performer with one of the most famously difficult essays ever written for piano. Any vestige of Viennese Classicism is smashed to bits here, and Beethoven won a victory over the past, present, and future: Nothing like this had been written for piano before, and nothing ever will. The "Hammerklavier" is that rare piece of art that transcends all previous means of expression and then remains standing alone, towering over all that follows it. The sonatas of Liszt, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms in subsequent decades as well as of 20th-century composers like Prokofiev and Barber would take many cues from the "Hammerklavier," but none would achieve its dichotomy of archaism and wild, unbridled expression.
The banality of the fugue is humorous, but there is a menacing quality to that humor because of its extreme difficulty, which often comes from executing that trill amidst all the figuration that surrounds it. Pianists can hear Beethoven laughing in his grave when they work on this piece, and Beethoven's victory over his creative mortality here has a mocking edge that again brings to mind 20th-century examples: There is a distinctively sarcastic quality to this music at times that one encounters, similarly, in some of Prokofiev's scores—one thinks of the opening movements of his Sixth and Seventh sonatas in particular. The difficulty of Beethoven's score is Joycean—one thinks of the anecdote that Joyce was heard at all hours of the night from his room as he wrote Finnegan's Wake, cackling with wicked glee. I'll bet Beethoven had a similar sadistic pleasure as he composed this movement. We know from his correspondence that Beethoven was consciously setting out to give pianists something to chew on for a long time.
This direct confrontation with the banal is not an arbitrary occurrence in Beethoven's later period. It is subsequently codified into method in another late piano work, the "Diabelli" Variations, Op. 120. Beethoven was given a theme composed by the Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli and asked to compose a variation on it. It was to be included in a collection of variations from various composers on the same theme, among them Schubert and Czerny. Famously, Beethoven first refused to participate, but then took up the theme with a vengeance, composing a huge set of variations that he eventually published as the separate work we know today.
Diabelli's theme, in waltz time, is at first glance a trifle. Again, as in the "Hammerklavier" fugue, mere ornamentation is one of its most distinguishing features; in this case, it is the distinguishing feature. Here are the first eight bars:
There is no melodic activity in the right hand here apart from the quick curve of the opening right hand pickup phrase, repeated in the dominant at the pickup to bar 5. Does this even qualify as melody, though? It looks and acts more like an ornament. The first note of the piece is an appoggiatura, and taken as a whole, the phrase is similar to the ornament that appears first in the Baroque era, called a "cadence" because of the way it forms a cadence in its shape. A cadence-type ornament looks like this:
and sounds like this:
The difference between Diabelli's theme and the Baroque cadence is when each lands on the tonic pitch. Because the tonic takes place directly before the downbeat in the cadential ornament above, it has the potential function of creating harmonic movement by leading us somewhere else on the following downbeat. A simple series of cadential ornaments, written out as they sound, illustrates how they can keep things moving forward:
In the Diabelli theme, though, the opening melodic gesture lands squarely on the C tonic, on the downbeat—there is nowhere else to go. The effect is bland and stifling in a comic way. The piece has just begun, and the first thing it is telling us is: "I have nothing more to say!" Since this melody will not bring us anywhere else, the only way to the dominant is to raise the whole shape by a step, as takes place at the pickup to bar 5. This is unimaginative and sounds banal because there is no development of the idea, but maybe that's just the point.
Commentators have scorned Diabelli's theme since it first appeared, but others have pointed to its appealing generic quality. It's very possible that Diabelli intentionally made his theme generic so there would be room to let the composers use their imagination in the variations to tell stories with true development. Whatever the case, the theme took hold of Beethoven, and he created a set of piano variations that is rivaled in magnitude and imagination only by Bach's Goldberg Variations and Brahms' "Handel" Variations.
A good theme is often referred to as a gift, something that is given to a composer—from the creator, from one's muse, etc. The way that theme is worked out in the course of the piece will involve the will and intelligence of the composer, but the initial theme often just comes to him or her in a moment of inspiration. But what if it doesn't? Beethoven demonstrates in the "Diabelli" Variations that he doesn't need this gift—he will find inspiration elsewhere, and he will even use the uninspired quality of someone else's theme to his expressionistic advantage. This is a victory over banality that is achieved through banality. And in the story of Beethoven the creative musician, it is a victory over his mortality. He has avoided repeating himself. He thus retains his relevancy and avoids dying a creative death.
By engaging in the banality of Diabelli's theme directly and creating so much from it, Beethoven's music is deconstructive, calling into question the importance of a good theme. (In part, one could argue that he is deconstructing his own earlier output as well: There is a tendency towards banality that we find even in some of Beethoven's greatest themes—it is part of their character.) If such a paltry theme as Diabelli's can inspire such a rich bounty of material from Beethoven, the music itself is asking its listener, what constitutes good music? The answer is not something that we point to in the music, i.e., the melody, the harmony, or the rhythm. It is something that we find in the one who creates the music. It is the imaginative gift of the composer, more than whatever pre-made material he works with, that keeps us coming back for more.
Theme and Variations: the Dumbassed-Genius Cousin of Musical Forms
Now replace "composer" in the previous sentence with "improviser". Imagine that instead of Beethoven composing variations on Diabelli's theme, it's Charlie Parker improvising a solo on George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." Parker and other jazz musicians were probably not particularly intrigued by Gershwin's trite melody to "I Got Rhythm"—although it has its time and place and it has its charms. They were attracted by the organizing formal and harmonic characteristics of the song, though—the simple AABA form, the square 32-bar length (after they jettisoned Gershwin's short coda), and the yin-yang balance of tonality that the tune has: We stay right around the home tonic for the first two A sections. At the B section, we travel to harmony that is remote from the tonal center. Then we return once more to the A section. Here is how jazz musicians think of "I Got Rhythm":
Jazz musicians call this type of chord schema "rhythm changes." ("Changes" means "chords" in jazz terminology.) It is one of the basic improvisatory structures of jazz—a vessel waiting to be filled, like the sonnet for the poet, the bank heist for the filmmaker, or the Bildungsroman for the novelist.
Rhythm changes in themselves are banal as well: When a musician plays those chords of Gershwin's above, they have a hackneyed feel—it is a distinctly 1930 kind of banality that you might describe as repetitiously, relentlessly enthusiastic: "Come on everybody, let's be happy!" You picture a musical revue, guys with top hats, and lots of forced smiles. A jazz musician playing rhythm changes must find his or her way to not succumb to their inherent corniness. An innovator like Charlie Parker provides the strongest model we have: meeting the harmony head-on with a new approach that was revelatory for American music. We'll look at how and why later on.
Jazz musicians use other harmonic progressions that are less repetitive than "I Got Rhythm" for their improvisatory flights. "Lover Come Back to Me," "Just You, Just Me," and other popular songs of the day were vehicles for Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and others. Sometimes they played the original melody, or sometimes they wrote a new melody, and then they improvised over the structure of the song, looping it around. For the layman: This is what's going on in much of jazz for the last 80 years or so. On the rhythm changes example above, a jazz musician creates melodies that are related to the chords or "changes" there, and when the band gets to the last measure, they simply go back to the beginning. Yes, they are improvising, but they are improvising over that repeated structure. Formally, this is exactly like the theme-and-variations model that Beethoven used earlier.
If you take the various common forms in classical music—the sonata-allegro form, the minuet and its younger sibling the scherzo, the rondo, what have you—almost all of them have some inherent drama built into their structure. The sonata-allegro form is the most interesting as a canvas by itself without paint: its theme-development-recapitulation shape gives an imaginative composer a strong narrative arc to work with. The dance-based minuet is much simpler in design, but the mere inclusion in the trio section of new thematic material, usually in a different key or mode, already gives a composer the potential for contrast. Contrast, antagonism, and tension, or their opposites, unity, accord and resolution, are all fundamental aspects of musical storytelling in the same way that they are in any other narrative medium. In the era of high Classicism, sonata-allegro form in particular inaugurated a new kind of musical storytelling in which the large-scale tonal relationships—particularly the fundamental dichotomy of tonic and dominant—were exploited as a narrative means to an end.
Putting a theme through its paces, working it out, transforming it, and all the while moving away from and then back towards the tonic home base: This largely German impulse changed musical expression forever. Put briefly, the impulse was to create something grander, but with formal integrity: a large structure, not just a large sprawling mass. This meant, for a composer like Beethoven, an inherently organic structure, in which the tension and resolution on a micro-level, felt in a singular melodic gesture, corresponded to the larger tonal relationships within a movement—or even within a whole multi-movement work.
In a theme and variations, the tension and resolution that we hear the first time through the initial theme is all we have. Going back to the "Diabelli" Variations, let's look at the full opening theme:
The music begins on the tonic and then moves towards the dominant, where it decisively lands at bar 16. This material is repeated. After the repeat sign, we are moving back towards the tonic, which decisively arrives in the last bar. And when we repeat that second part once more, that's it. This tonal harmonic scheme will never be developed more; it will simply be repeated. All of the variations will adhere to it, until Beethoven reaches the exalted ending fugue.
In telling any musical story, the musician—the improviser, the composer, the singer-songwriter, etc.—works with a dichotomy of identity and difference. Both are necessary. The identity of a work is established through some sort of repetition: A theme is initially announced, and then a particular aspect of the theme is heard again. What we call development is really a mix of repetition and something different. The great difference between theme and variations and the sonata-allegro formal approach is that in theme and variations there is strictly no structural development after the initial statement of the theme. What follows is a series of repetitions. The variation that ensues is a kind of development, but it is development from the top-down, so to speak: Melodic variation, rhythmic variation, but all within an established harmonic and formal structure, which is repeated over and over.
The impulse to constantly repeat the opening thematic material is, in itself, unintelligent and narratively shortsighted. One relinquishes any real possibility of structural development. Theme and variations take a proto-copy-paste approach, and in the literature of high Classicism, they have a unique identity—I think of them as the dumbassed cousin of the other more exalted forms. Really, though, this cousin is more complex; he is more of an idiot-savant figure. For while he repeats the structure of his story over and over again, he uses his rich imaginative gift to fill it with something continuously new. Yes, the structure stays fixed, but once we are free from the burden of actual structural development, so many unusual and downright strange things can happen.
How exactly is structural development a burden? It isn't simply a burden: It is the burden. It is why Brahms took so long with a first symphony; it is why Chopin never composed one; it is why Schumann's sonatas are not as popular as his other piano music. The Romantics that followed Beethoven expanded on his expressive innovation but could not match the formal integrity of his large-scale structures. Their most realized contributions were often miniatures, and that made sense: The greatness of composers like Schumann or Chopin (and already Schubert in some of his later music) came in their ability to express something fragmentary and fractured, and to let it stay like that. There is a tragedy to this kind of fractured expression—it is the great, beautiful tragedy of 19th-century art music.
The "Diabelli" Variations are full of strangeness. Early on in the third variation, we encounter this:
The initial three-note pickup at the beginning is a lilting, feminine shape that Beethoven uses throughout the variation, developing it further after the repeat sign through the use of imitation in different registers. It acts as a springboard, leading to cascading chordal movement in all directions. But at bar 20, it is as if there is a skip in the record, and we can't move forward: We hear only that three note segment in the bass register, repeated, looped around continuously. The effect is both humorous and mysterious, with the pianissimo dynamic marking.
Schubert may have had the variation in his head when he went to compose his last, exalted piano sonata five years later. It begins like this:
The trill there in the left hand at bar eight is the same kind of weird non sequitur Beethoven used in Variation III—it is something unannounced, unprepared-for, but most importantly, unjustified. There is no good reason why that trill appears, in the same way that there is no reason that Beethoven's figure in Variation III decides to repeat itself, grumbling in the lower register.
Schubert wrote music in the realm of the non sequitur in a way that is unsettling and sometimes simply terrifying in his last years. Take the unexpected harmonic left turn in his song, "Der Döppelganger." When the speaker discovers that the figure he is viewing is none other than himself, Schubert gives us a chord on the stalt syllable of Gestalt, on the second-to-last bar below, that is twisted and bizarre, and the song is suddenly in an alienated, unhinged world that sounds more like Vienna of the 20th century:
It's just plain weird, and it's so great.
One also thinks of the heart-wrenching middle section of the Adagio movement of Schubert's String Quintet in C Major, which jabs us in the gut after the impossible tenderness that came before it. We do not see it coming, and even though it affects us deeply, we don't really understand why it arrived. The feeling is: "What happened?" Or, there is the hellish nihilism in the Andantino movement of his second-to-last piano sonata, No. 20 in A Major (D. 959). Again, it comes fiercely, without warning, from nowhere. Schubert was a guy who had visions at night when he went to bed—bad dreams, but dreams full of ecstasy as well—and he managed to get some down on paper before he left the earth. That's the only way I can explain his music to myself when I hear it. For me, there is no other music that is so dreamily beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Schubert found a way to "take it out," as jazz musicians would say, and he may have taken a cue from Beethoven, or he may not have—we know that he admired Beethoven. If he did, it is ironic, because with Beethoven, even what looks to be a non sequitur is in fact justified if we dig deeper: He is almost never just "taking it out" willy-nilly. We'll look at that phenomenon later in his Ninth Symphony. With Schubert, though, these outbursts in his music are purely chaotic, even when you unpack them: They don't come from anywhere, and they don't lead anywhere else. They're like seizures that pass.
Beethoven's way out in this case is through the theme-and-variations form itself: Once the template is established in the opening theme, he allows himself all sorts of utterances, like the grumbling left hand of variation 3 above. The reason why one idea follows another is not so important—there might not be a discernable reason. The ideas may flow in a more stream-of-consciousness manner, like a person talking continuously, saying what comes to him right at that moment.
This characteristic applies to the improvised jazz solo and gives much of jazz its particular character. I would emphasize that the stream-of-consciousness description does not denote formlessness or arbitrariness in terms of the individual expression of the soloist. There may well be a strong narrative line in the solo, and the best jazz soloists are storytellers. The difference, though, between this kind of theme-and-variations approach and the other more "justified" style of composition that we find in sonata-allegro works, is the viewpoint of the storyteller: In theme-and-variations approach, the composer or jazz soloist is looking ahead constantly; whereas in the sonata-allegro approach, the composer is constantly looking back, seeing what he or she just did, and then building on that. The present must always be justified by the past.
We could think of the two approaches in terms of building a house. In theme and variations or jazz soloing, the frame of the house has already been built, and the composer/soloist can decorate all he wants, without worry that the structure will collapse. However (a big however): He cannot stray from the frame of the house; he must work within its borders. In the sonata-allegro approach, the composer must start from scratch and build the house from the ground up - this is a lot more work, and requires more diligence. He can't just build willy-nilly; he has to make a house that will not just look good, but will also stay standing. If he can pull that off, though, he has the reward of building whatever kind of house he wants; he may follow his own course at all times. There is no pre-existing template that he is obliged to follow.
Theme and variations make a concession—they relinquish the autonomous act of building that house from the ground up, and follow that pre-existing template. They make this sacrifice in the service of a more immediate kind of expression. The urge to make variations is a pragmatic urge—the urge for a quicker means to an end; the desire for a template that one can open and start filling with the creative, chattering stream of material rustling in his or her head; a template that will then quickly organize that chatter. The necessary dichotomous identity of musical expression is then quickly established—the fixed identity of the thematic structure announces itself to the listener repeatedly, giving him or her a continual reference point, and the drama and flux of difference and variety play out within that structure.
Which approach is deeper? Let's look at Beethovenian justification in his very first piano sonata. Here is the beginning:
Everything comes from a two-part idea in the opening two measures, bracketed above as Part A and Part B. They are yin and yang to each other: Part A is more harmonic in nature, tracing the F-minor tonic triad, while Part B is more melodic, moving stepwise. Part A is ascending; Part B is descending. Part A is staccato; Part B is slurred. The note values in Part A are uniform and square; those of Part B are varied. The yin and yang will act as a springboard in two directions throughout the movement, and the distinction between the two parts will propel the musical narrative forward, as they differentiate themselves from each other.
Everything comes out of what preceded it, as noted in the brackets above the musical gestures. The first eight measures are a masterful example of building tension: The initial idea is immediately recast in the dominant harmony in bars 3 and 4. In bars 5 and 6, the first four bars are shoved into half the space, which gives us a feeling of insistence and tension. Repetition is tension for Beethoven in this setting, and difference comes as a release of that tension. At bar 7, we have a climax, and that release takes place in the descending scalewise motion in the right hand after the rolled chord. Only here, for the first time, do we hear distinct difference. Those four notes are eighth notes, and that's a big deal: Until this point, absolutely no notes with that metric value have shown their face. When Beethoven introduces them here, they have a dual effect. With the hairpin diminuendo, they feel like a retraction or a retreat. At the same time, we hear that those notes are a slowed-down variation of Part B's triplets, expressing themselves emphatically one more time. This simultaneous pulling-back and insisting makes a wonderful moment, full of emotional ambiguity. There are at least two ways for a pianist to play bars 7 and 8: more insistent, more hesitant, or somewhere in between that reflects both of those sentiments. Beginnings like these are what make Beethoven the heavyweight champion of justification. Justification in his hands is never obvious or easy—it is urgent; it is questioning and self-critical; it is filled with import.
There is repetition and difference, repetition and difference. Repetition builds tension here, and difference releases it, but in theme and variations, the opposite is true: repetition is the norm and represents stasis, while the constant variation superimposed on that repetition provides the tension that keeps the listener occupied. These two types of expression are fundamentally different. The one allows what the other relinquishes. In the sonata-allegro form of the example immediately above, the unfolding ideas follow no pre-existing grid, but must continually justify themselves by what preceded them. In theme and variations, those ideas may unfold as they please, but must always adhere to the grid.
It's apples and oranges, but we could make one last observation about the difference before leaving the topic. In the bulk of canonical three- or four-movement classical works from the later part of the 18th century through the 19th, and still in the 20th—such as sonatas for an individual instrument or an instrument with accompaniment, chamber music, and symphonies—the sonata-allegro movement will be first, and the theme and variations movement will come after it, often as a finale, but also often in a middle slow movement. This could have become the norm for many reasons, but particularly after Beethoven, there is a sense that a composer must prove himself compositionally worthy in that first movement, and the way to do that was through the sonata-allegro form.
It's simply easier in many ways to compose theme and variations. I don't have the data to back it up, but I'm sure that the actual amount of time spent composing a theme-and-variations movement for all those composers was less than the time it took to write a sonata-allegro movement of equal length. That ease is why the approach benefits jazz musicians because—here I might ruffle some feathers—jazz is not fundamentally a composer's music. It's a form of music with some great composers, and a lot of great improvisers. Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to suggest that jazz musicians didn't write sonata-allegro pieces because they couldn't, so they copped out and blew over repeated thematic material. I mean that they had other designs.
The chief reason why theme and variations interest me here is because they are the most significant formal device that jazz music took from western classical music. This is not a coincidence. It speaks to the pragmatic urge in jazz—the urge to accommodate the improviser. The improviser is the protagonist, and most often he is decorating the existing house versus building a new one from scratch. We watch him or her with wonder, or we watch him or her with boredom. If you think about a lot of modern jazz, you realize that, collectively, jazz musicians threw all their eggs in one basket formally speaking, by submitting to the theme and variations approach.
I am bracketing out all of the great compositional contributions from people like Duke Ellington not because it is of lesser worth or importance in my view, but because when we talk about the be-bop revolution in small-group jazz, led by Charlie Parker, and then everything that followed it—Miles Davis's groups in the 50s, John Coltrane's group in the 60s, and many other great ensembles and soloists, right up to the present day, when you walk into a jazz jam session just about anywhere on the planet—we're talking about a theme-and-variations approach, or, as a jazz musician would have it, "head-solo-head out" (the "head" for jazz musicians is the theme). Jazz musicians everywhere are all still trying to be little Beethovens: They're trying to make their improvised variations imaginative and interesting.
If you think about that, it's really a ludicrous project: How is someone going to arrange his or her notes in a more compelling way than all the ways we've already heard—especially on older-than-dirt structures like rhythm changes and blues? The reason why a lot of people complain that jazz is boring is because, truthfully, a lot of it is. And most of the time, the reason that it's boring is because that soloist and the band he or she interacts with are not arranging their notes in a fresh way. This may be an obvious point, but I raise it to emphasize the nature of the creativity in jazz: It is not necessarily expressed in the composition at all. Often the composition is just a means to an improvisatory end. So much lays on the improvisation, on the personalized variations of the material that the group comes up with in the heat of the moment. If those variations aren't inspired, then the banality of the composition—rhythm changes, for example—will be all that's left. Then you want to race for the door.
This is not meant as a mystification of what jazz musicians do, nor is it meant as a diminishment of what they have achieved. To me, it speaks more to the character of their collective achievement, and now I go back to this idea of avoiding a creative death: When a jazz musician blows an uninspired solo, he or she dies right in front of us—and we die with them, of boredom. When a jazz musician blows a great solo, though, he or she avoids dying a creative death in real time, right in front of us, for all to see. It's a victory and it's a thrill—it's the jazz sublime. Later, we'll consider its nature more closely.