Monday, May 27, 2013

It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That 12/32 Swing!

Way back in 1931 Duke Ellington wrote a tune called "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)". The title was an oft-expressed sentiment at the time among jazz musicians even though the "swing" era was a couple of years in the future. Here is a 1943 recording.

Nice tune, nicely done. But jazz musicians did not actually invent 'swing' --wait a minute, just what the heck is 'swing' anyway? Here is the Wikipedia article. Here is the section on the specific rhythmic technique:
A "swung note" or "shuffle note" is a performance practice, mainly in jazz-influenced music, in which some notes with equal written time values are performed with unequal durations, usually as alternating long and short. Music of the Baroque and Classical notes inégales era follow similar principles. A swing or shuffle rhythm is the rhythm produced by playing repeated pairs of notes in this way.
Yes, that is quite correct, the notes inégales of the French baroque was basically the same technique, though in a somewhat different context. Here is an allemande by Rameau with lots of notes inégales:

Of course, the idea of playing notes written as even notes unevenly predates the Baroque, though in the Renaissance it was regarded more as an optional way of ornamenting. The French made it more systematic. Pretty much any piece in 3/4 with flowing eighth notes could be played inégale.

But for a really stunning example of rhythmic virtuosity and swinging rhythms, we look to the last piano sonata of Beethoven, the Sonata in C minor, op. 111, composed in 1822. The last movement is an Arietta adagio molto semplice e cantabile: slowly, very simply and singing. It certainly starts that way. But the rhythms get more and more complex. This is one of Beethoven's great sets of variations. Here is that theme and the first variation:

The notes of the theme are certainly simple enough with an absolutely diatonic theme in regular note values. But the time signature is a bit unusual: 9/16. Mind you, unless you are following in the score you are hardly going to notice that this is a compound time signature. Just those couple of times when you have an eighth followed by a sixteenth. But the basic beat here, and in all compound time signatures, is not a simple note value, but rather a dotted note value. So when, in the first variation which starts in the middle of the page, we get the beat subdivided, we suddenly realize that the beat consists of three notes. We might even think we are hearing triplets. The feeling of subdividing the beat in three parts moves us to another rhythmic level, propelling us forward. The second variation takes this to another level. Here we can see the end of the first variation followed by the second variation:

As you can observe, the second variation is the same tempo ("L'istesso tempo") as the first, which was the same tempo as the theme. But now Beethoven moves to yet another level of division where the notes are exactly half as long as in the first variation. The eighth/sixteenth pairs are replaced by sixteenth/thirty-second pairs. It starts to sound a bit "jazzy", something one would not have expected from the original theme. But Beethoven is just getting started. The next variation really goes to town:

Again, same tempo, and again, a halving of the note values. The sixteenth/thirty-second note pairs are now replaced by thirty-second/sixty-fourth note pairs! Notice the change of time signature to 12/32. This is another compound time signature. Where the original signature 9/16 had three beats, each beat consisting of a dotted eighth, this one has four beats, each one consisting of a dotted thirty-second. I can't actually recall another similar time-signature in a piece by Beethoven--or anyone else up to this time, for that matter. From here on things get rather more complicated and the variations tend to flow into one another. But I want to pick out two more examples from the coda. After a great deal of thickly-textured rhythms, everything quietens down and we have a recall of the original theme in the bass in the original note values:

Click to enlarge
We have since returned to the 9/16 time signature. There are actually three levels here: a bit of the theme in the bass (with echoes in the tenor), a counter melody in the soprano and a trill in the alto. The trill moves up and up into the stratosphere and then the triplet subdivision returns (not really triplets, of course, just to the ear). This is all on the dominant of E flat major. Beethoven works around a few different keys: C major, A minor, C major again, before arriving at the last page:

What is extraordinary about this is the rhythm again. He has three absolutely separate levels: first, the trill on G that goes on for a long time. Then the melody, in dotted eighths as in the original theme. Finally a rumbling decoration in the bass in thirty-second notes. This performs the function of somehow uniting all the various rhythmic levels of the movement. The ending is simplicity itself, with the original theme, split up between treble and bass, in the simplest of cadences.

There are hosts of books about Beethoven from just about every angle: his biography, spiritual development, sketches, harmony, handling of form and on and on. But I don't know of a single one that really has a thorough look at his handling of rhythm--just as important in my view.

So there you have it, a brief look at the rhythms of one movement of one of his piano sonatas, in which he did a number of things that no-one had done before (or since). One writer, on hearing that third variation proclaimed that Beethoven had invented jazz! But of course it only sounds that way to us because we know jazz and ragtime. One wonders what the listeners at the time thought of it.

Let's listen to this movement, which is about fifteen minutes long. Here is Maurizio Pollini live in Lucerne in April 2012:

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