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Leo Brouwer's El Decameron Negro


Leo Brouwer's El Decameron Negro

13 October 2019 / William Anderson / On the Beat

The well deserved fuss about our favorite modernists left other interesting music unexamined, at least by that prideful modernist faction.

We do not have to go so far as to say Schoenberg should be deposed and Sibelius or Tchaikovsky ensconced. They’re all ensconced! And Brouwer too!

I was not out the defend the classical guitar community’s most beloved composer, but my guitar student Pablo Sanchez is doing a spectacular job with Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro, making such a strong case for it. Hearing it every week has led me to have a great respect for the work, particularly its large scale design. Here are my observations so far. Brouwer is a master of the Afro-Cuban Picaresque. His work with Henze’s El Cimarón may have been formative, but I am now feeling that Brouwer has surpassed Henze in many ways.

It was said, as I was growing up, that Brouwer worked like Villa-Lobos, cobbling together little riffs. It’s ok to cobble together little riffs if they are brilliant and grab us, but we want to see things growing from small to large in a meaningful way, teaching us to care about one thing that relates to something related, but different (bigger or smaller, wider, narrower) coming later. That happens spectacularly in El Decameron Negro. Moreover, we see here a stellar example of a big 21st C. project–an interval content story.

Schoenberg’s Op. 9 is a landmark Interval Content Story, but Brahms Op. 88, no less so. Why is the interval content story a 21st C. project? — Because the 20th C became obsessive compulsive about intervallic unity, and because of the Leibowitz diktat about equal weight. These were important developments, but they sidetracked many from the Op. 9 *interval content story*.

Schoenberg’s Op. 9 is an exemplar –a tune for every interval cylce, with the 4ths in the middle grabbing us and holding us and forming the warm heart of the piece. The interval content story becomes the large scale focus when modulation is no longer a large scale element of a work, but instead relegated to the foreground or middle ground. In El Decameron Negro, the E Lydian tune at “Un poco sostenuto” forms the hot center of the work.

Interval Content Stories
Some of us began calling that “interval vector music”, but some musicologists furiously objected. Interval content stories is less scary sounding.

The first thing circled here is the little riff that is transposed and inverted into the big Lydian moment (marked Un poco sostenuto). In measure 27-28 the B-C-A is followed by F#-D#-E. These are both diatonic subsets and octotonic subsets.

For what it’s worth: The two figures are in different octotonic scales, one includes a G natural, the other does not, but includes a G#. A rose by any other name: That the two fragments are related by an inversional index that places them in different octotonic scales does not reduce their octotonic redolence. I think this is simply because their diatonic contexts are no less thwarted for that index number.

The second circled item is in measure 7. [ Ab, B, Db, G, F ] can be called a Dominant 7 with #11, but that would be using terminology from a different kind of music. Here it’s more apt to think of the different ways this pentachord breaks down. 4/5ths whole tone; 4/5ths of a dominant 7 chord and therefore it is 4/5ths octotonic.

The big moment is an interval content story–the landing of E Lydian at “Un poco sostenuto”.

On the way, both G# and A# are witheld.

1–no G naturals or G#s at all in the high register (space above the top line of the staff) until “Un poco Sostenuto”. Note, into measure 27, G natural is encircled–F, B, A point hard at G natural.

2–no Bb’s or A#’s until the low ones on the (5) string. In the high register, no A# in the high register until m. 47, in the figuration. The big arrival of Bb is in measure 55, where it appears, significantly, in a context that is almost equal parts Bb Lydian and E Lydian. The tetrachord there is a subset of the harmony that has been in our face from measure 3.

Brouwer has been pointing toward where he’s going in a masterful fashion.

In measure 55, Brouwer makes his Lydian note big, and he relates it to his #11 riff. Call that m. 55 chord a Double Lydian chord–E Lydian + its tritone substitution. A jazz person would get it. It really stands out, and it refreshes the lovely sounds we hear in measures 45 & 46; 48 & 49.

The Tranquillo is one of the most exquisite interval content stories since Schoenberg op. 9. It hearkens back to the era of Op. 9, before music became momentarily obsessived with intervallic unity.

The 12-tone phase of 20th C. musical exploration became obsessive compulsive about intervalic unity. One example of this obsession with *unified intervallic content* is the Webernian row–4 identical trichords, but in 4 different orderings. It was a lovely phase, and we all adore Webern.

In the 21st C. intervalic unity is of great value, but not as an end in itself. It is to function for a passage or a section, but only to create a drama around the breaking of the consistency. Stravinsky got this.

To tell a long interval content story, one must be able to offer a long passage with consistent invertal content–within contextually defined “collection boundaries”, but the primary sound of the passage can have adjutant sounds.

The Tranquillo section is about whole tone sounds. It begins with an augmented triad resolving to a minor triad–an A minor triad. The taste that’s left with us is the one that is less familiar.

In Renaissance lute music, the species counterpoint creates perfect intervalic unity, forming a bland background color for the canvass. Passages take on the color or the odor of the nearest non-chord tones. See Dove son quei fieri occhi, where C major gets a 7-6 flavor, while A major (the phrase ending with the Picardy 3rd) gets a 4-3 flavor. The 4-3 becomes a social convention almost as strong as the Cadential 6/4.

The Tranquillo is about whole tone sounds and their nearby adjutants, gradually morphing into and landing an A Lydian chord–the Lydian hexachord in the last bar with the fermata. The A Lydian erases the whole tone sounds.

Along the way, notice the low A, with D natural and Eb–call it a signature of A Ionian/Lydian. It’s very witty.

Perhaps the most striking moment in the passage is the chord (spelling from bottom to top)–

G, C, G#, B, E
and the G# moves up to A, as usual.

There’s nothing like this move. It is a unique feature of this movment. It grabs us, and before we can recover, we have landed in A Lydian. A few measures later, Brouwer’s main theme from the previous “Un poco sostenuto” will return not in E, but in A Lydian.

Note: into the A Lydian theme (the second “Un poco sostenuto” on page 4) we do not get a repeat of the material that leads into m. 45. Why? Because the Tranquillo did that work in a different way. the 2nd A Lydian “Un poco sostenuto” is now an amplifiction of the fermata bar at the end of the Tranquillo.

Coming soon: some thoughts on Cuba and Social Realist music in the work of Carlos Fariñas.

–William Kentner Anderson