Updated: May 4
On Schubert’s song, triplets and heretical astronomy
Those readers, who have had the kindness to read my blog on the dotted rhythm (https://www.carlo-marchione.com/post/the-dotted-rhythm-and-the-chameleon), will remember that I had called it the chameleon of music, for its ability to adapt to the surrounding environment and transform itself accordingly. Through some very striking musical examples, this article will present to you one of its most ‘heretical’ transformations and show how this mutation can utterly transform the character of a passage/piece and even undermine a well-established performing tradition of very famous pieces of the music history. We will then implement the knowledge acquired to Schubert's 'Lob der Tränen' and see how this can positively revitalize our performance of this wonderful piece.
The chameleon changes color: the assimilation of the 16th to the triplet
All treatises, from the Baroque till Schubert’s time, emphasize the strong influence of the triplet on the dotted rhythm. When they occur simultaneously in the same passage the sixteenth is assimilated to the last quaver of the triplet.
J.S.Bach: Brandenburg Concerto n.5, BWV 1050, 3rd mvt
Lob der Triplets: Some musical examples
We have just seen how the presence of triplets influences the performance of a dotted rhythm. We could have a clear idea of it by just observing the layout of manuscripts and first editions from Baroque till Romanticisms. Indeed, the sixteenth notes are placed exactly above or below the last 8th of the triplet.
J.S.Bach: Partita BWV 825, Corrente (1731), first edition, laying by Bach himself:
F.Schubert: Winterreise, no.6 Wasserflut (1827), manuscript:
Carrying out this rule could torpedo centuries of untouchable performing tradition of the following masterpiece.
L.van Beethoven: Sonata op.27 no.2 (Moonlight Sonata), 1 mvt (1801), first edition:
This kind of notation, with the 16th exactly above the triplet-quaver occurs many times in this edition. Should we then assimilate the 16th to the triplet?... By the way, among thousands available recordings I couldn’t find anyone in ternary rhythm.
Important update!!! Today continuing my research of ternary performances of the Moonlight Sonata I found one! To me it makes sense. Here below the video:
Another controversial piece is certainly the astonishing Prelude in E major (from ’24 Preludes, op.28, 1839) by F.Chopin. Here how it looks the first edition:
Why the blue squared rhythm is given in this way only 1 single time during the whole piece? Should we play only here a trochee rhythm in the upper voice? It seems to me quite unlikely. I think that it is more reasonable to suppose that all (single) dotted rhythms should be performed trochaic and that, 'mistakenly', just in this occasion, the notation depicts the way the rhythm was supposed to be performed. But how could this happen?
Everybody who knows a little bit of music writing programs can agree that it is much easier to write a dotted rhythm rather than displacing every time the 16th under or above the last note of the triplet. I am not an expert of typographic layout techniques, but I can immagine that the workers of those music editions had to face in that time similar problems. Moreover, we see that Chopin wrote also groups with double dot (red squared). In this case, the 32nd note of these group should be played obviously after the third 8th note of the triplet, but a literal performance of the red squared group sounds than to me quite unnatural and illogical and implies thus the assimilation of the 16th to the triplet. Yet, the majority of piano players continues to interpret literally Chopin’s notation. A wonderful exception is Rafał Blechacz (Chopin Competition 2005 winner), who plays this Prelude with a wonderful, spacious ternary subdivision:
An 8th note which follows a quarter note with the dot (green squared) is also assimilated by the triplet.
G.F.Händel: Recorder Sonata HWV 362, I mvt (published 1732):
The perfect guinea pig
In the last years one of the most popular and played pieces of our repertoire is undoubtedly ‘Lob der Tränen” (In praise of tears), from the ‘6 Schubert’sche Lieder’ by J.K.Mertz. In this piece, plenty of dotted rhythms coexist with triplets. Moreover, besides an accompaniment which is almost exclusively composed of triplets, the melody itself make copiously use of them. It will be thus our perfect guinea pig for treating this fascinating topic applied to the guitar repertoire. Indeed, by implementing the above-mentioned simple and logical precept to the Lob der Tränen (LdT) we will obtain a very surprising and yet convincing musical outcome. On the other hand, I am aware that this point of view will cause heterogeneous reactions. Nevertheless, from my side, the result of my thoughts on this topic materialized in a transcription of this song which will be released on my Online Shop (together with other 3, wonderful Lieder by Schubert) next Monday, May the 4th (https://www.carlo-marchione.com/completecatalogue).
To avoid any misunderstanding...
I would like immediately to clarify that my transcription is not intended to be a criticism of Mertz's work and the realization of the rhythm a reproach of some interpreters’ choice. It simply aims to propose a solo guitar version of this Lied which is more adherent to Schubert's original, in terms of notes and rhythmical execution. Indeed, we know that Mertz based his work on a previous arrangement done by F.Liszt. It is, so to speak, an arrangement of the second generation, albeit wonderful. Moreover, in a general way, Liszt’s adoration for the Viennese Master did not prevent him from taking some licenses in arranging his Lieder (harmony, melody, imitation passages etc.). On the other side, this was totally justifiable and desirable in an operation of that kind. Mertz, for his part, gave obviously here and there some personal touches to his work too. Therefore, I decided to exclusively follow the first edition.
Melancholy vs Determination: In praise of tears
First of all, I would like to explain to you why, beyond all purely musical reasons, the ternary subdivision makes so much more sense than the usual binary one. The readers of my blogs will remember that the dotted rhythm in its usual form was used in the musical rhetoric of at least 5 centuries to express a determined, resolute affection. If we now analyze the text and the musical expression of this Lied, however, we observe that the general character is rather of melancholic sentimentalism (the title says already a lot about the mood of the poem), an atmosphere which Schubert so wonderfully expresses in music with the use of delicate suspensions. It is clear that this sentiment requires more consequently a rocking trochaic rhythm, more than a straight Marche-like one. Therefore, already in the piano introduction, it seems to me quite logical to conform the sixteenth note of the dotted rhythm to the last note of the triplet:
F.Schubert: Lob der Tränen, D.711 (1817):
We can also observe that, throughout the score, all 16ths are placed exactly under the last 8th of the triplet. Moreover, the bow inspires rather a calm and smooth execution than an energetic one (in a standard execution of a dotted rhythm, due to the performance practice of then, a clear breathing pause was placed before the 16th, thus it wouldn't make any sense to add a bow).
By applying further this transformation to all the dotted rhythms of the ‘Lob der Tränen’ we will get some interesting surprises. Let's take, for example, this passage.
F.Schubert, Lob der Tränen:
After the assimilation of the 16th:
Rather different from most of the conventional versions we know. Yet totally logical and, in my modest opinion, more natural in this specific context. At this point, you will not be surprised to know that in many performances for voice and piano the trochaic rhythm is used consequently throughout the whole piece, like in this convincing recording by the German soprano Sybilla Rubens (although, I find really illogical that the pianist doesn’t follow in the introduction this nice groove, by not conforming the 16ths to the triplet):
Text and performer’s free choice
Obviously, it may be a part of our interpretative responsibilities to decide it from time to time, in spite of everything, a 16th of a dotted rhythm should be performed as such, therefore narrower, with a more determined expression and with more rhythmical quality. For instance, it is sometimes suggested in some treatises to skip this rule of the assimilation when the tempo is rather slow, whereas this might also count as a personal suggestion of the writer.
(said aside: the tempo signature of Lob der Tränen is ‘Ziemlich langsam’, which means in German ‘seemly slow’, in the meaning of ‘slow but not too much’)
We see that also Merzt himself, in his arrangement of this song, alternates a literal notation of the dotted rhythm (red squared) with a trochaic one (blue squared). The choice stays always in the hand of the player:
3/4 vs 9/8
The question at this point, however, arises spontaneously: why didn't Schubert write the Lied in 9/8, avoiding in this way all potential misunderstandings on the dotted rhythm? The answer, in my opinion, is much simpler than one might think: it is just much more difficult to write (also for the editors) and read a piece in this time rather than in 3/4 using triplets. The score looks simply ‘cleaner’. For this reason, he also wrote the above-mentioned ‘Wasserflut’ in 3/4. Over more, he counted with the general knowledge of the musicians of then, who could immediately discern when one had to apply the rule of the assimilation. Very probably, because of this practical reason, 9/8 is a tempo which is rarely encountered in literature from the Baroque onwards (the only piece that comes to mind at this moment is the Prelude in E flat major from the second book of J.S.Bach’s WTC). Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity of the rhythmical performance, I decided, yet, to write my arrangement in 9/8, but I can assure you that it was not easy. Many notes with dots, bows across the bar, two rests instead of one (1/4 + 1/8 instead of only 1/4)... Eventually, it became a clear score for studying this piece though and I am very happy with this choice.
Here how a passage looks written in these 2 different tempos.
F.Schubert, Lob der Tränen, original in 3/4:
F.Schubert, Lob der Tränen, transcription in 9/8:
Some days ago, I was working with a student on the ‘Gondoliera’ from Bardenklänge (4th book) by Merzt himself. This piece is written in an unusual tempo of 9/8 (yet, another!). The interesting thing is that, in spite of the fact that some basses should logically be held throughout the bar, Mertz wrote them as if the tempo was 3/4. The intention was, in my opinion, to ease reading by avoiding all that jungle of dots and duration bows of the 9/8.
Historically inspired performance vs dogmatic thinking
To ask Schubert why it did not write this masterpiece in 3/4 would be like having asked him why, as German native-speaking, he would write "Freude" and yet pronounce "Froide". The answer lies in the social dynamics of a semiotic system, known to everyone in a certain area and period. Once the rules are known, there is no need to highlight the use one makes of them every time. On the contrary, only exceptions must be specified. I think, for instance, to the point above the notes in French Baroque music, to indicate an 'equal' execution in contrast with the custom of playing them unequal, or to the Umlaut in the German language which change, for instance, the ‘U’ into ‘Ü’ in some plurals (Kuh = cow / Kühe = cows).
So, please don't believe those who say: a piece must be played as it is written! We should just learn the rules for reading it correctly and so, on this basis, build a striking interpretation of it. That's what we call Historically inspired performance.
Well, I hope I could awake your curiosity about this extremely fascinating and sometimes elusive topic and also about my rendition of 'Lob der Tränen'.
To conclude, a remark: my experience, as a human being and a musician, taught me that the fact that everybody has always been doing something in a certain way does not necessarily guarantee for its correctness. Without this ‘heretical’ vision of life we couldn’t have had a N.Copernicus and, even worse, the sun would still revolve around the earth.
I thank you heartily for having read until the end of this blog and hope it will be of some use to you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care and see you next time!
P.S. My most sincere thanks to Paolo Quircio for the correction of the English text!