Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A verbal sonata

A person interested in classical music learns early on that the sonata form may have little or nothing to do with the sonata genre: even at the height of the classical period, which gave birth to both the sonata form and the modern sonata genre (that is, a work in three or four movements for one, two or three instruments). sonatas were written but not using the sonata form; while the sonata form itself became the backbone of the modern concerto and symphony. Ideally, the form utilizes a theme--main melody, in layman's language--which is first stated (often with a preliminary workup), developed through variation and/or modulation in the appropriate harmonically related keys, and at the end recapitulated; interspersed through this development is usually a second, and sometimes a third theme, which receives similar treatment, is generally either related in some technical way to the first theme or fundamentally contrasts with it, and is worked into the recapitulation for a general resolution that carries the movement to a harmonic "home" that may be different from the key in which the movement began.

A good illustration of this is the parshah we will read this coming Shabbat, Lekh-lekha. (Okay, perhaps only the type of mind that has perseverated on classical music for the last forty years would think this way. But please bear with me.) There are quite clearly two themes, one receiving a vastly varied development, and the conclusion is one that carries the parshah forward to an appropirate resolution--but one which will looks forward to further development, just as the later movements of many classical works are linked to the first movement, and the complete resolution must wait until the very end. The first theme may be termed displacement or exile; the second can be called theophany.

The opening of the parshah introduces both together, with the second theme momentarily having the larger impact. G-d tells Abraham to "get ye hence"--theophany initiates displacement and exile, and the theme that will be more elaborately developed, and hence in musical terms would be the major theme of the movement, is actually a secondary theme--which itself is an illustration of displacement. The displacement is emphasized in the command itself, in a threefold variation. Abraham is to be displaced from everything familiar to him, and sent into the land which G-d will show him. He is exiled, in reverse: his goal is his true home, Eretz Yisrael. And throughout the parsha wandering and displacement abound: Abraham and Sarah displaced into Egypt because of famine, Sarah displaced into Pharoah's household, the arguments of the herdmen displacing both Abraham and Lot, Lot taken captive and Abraham forced to go war (both in their distinctive ways forms of displacement and exile--we may imagine here modulations from C sharp minor into F minor notated as E sharp minor, full of seconds and sevenths that only gradually resolve into A minor by way of A flat minor as Melchizedek comes out to greet Abraham) with the King of Sodom's escapades further embellishing the development, Hagar replacing Sarah in Abraham's bed, her despising of her mistress, and her first adventure into in the wilderness--each different forms of displacement--and the numerous times in which Abraham moves about the Holy Land, pitching his tent in some new place. The name changes give to Abraham and Sarah are themselves a form of displacement, a sounding of the theme in the middle of an episode devoted to the theme of theophany. The prediction of the slavery in Egypt also is an instance where the displacement theme appears briefly in an episode devoted to the parsha's other theme.

But it is really that other theme--less elaborated upon though it is--which is really the major theme of the parsha. From the initial command to "get ye hence" through the covenant of the parts and at the end the command of circumcision, G-d appears, and keeps appearing, explaining and re-assuring Abraham that his progeny will be a multitude and that Eretz Yisrael will be their inheritance. (Side note: people often refer to Sarah's laughter when she hear the promise that she will bear a son at her advanced age in the next parshah. They seem to forget that Abraham's initial reaction to that promise, given for the first time in this parshah, is also to laugh.) In musical terms we switch each time from a minor key developed with dissonant modulations to a major key--perhaps B flat or D, often linked in musical vocabulary to celebratory or triumphal music--modulated only through the major consonances of third, dominant and sixth, with the episode that corresponds to the covenant between the parts in a more somber key (D minor perhaps) and a more solemn tempo than the rest of the movement. And finally, the ending section would be a third theme, developed integrally from the theophany theme, to represent Abraham's obedience to the divine command and the institution of brit milah, and coming to rest in a new key--perhaps B major, from which the succeeding movements will move through B minor back into minor keys for the expulsion of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac.

Perhaps the above will be of service as you review the parshah for yourself. If not, consider it my personal mishegoss.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...