Background reading for my dissertation included the article “Atonality, Analysis, and the Intentional Fallacy” by Ethan Haimo, professor of music at Notre Dame. The idea in it is that the composer’s intention matters sometimes, and sometimes all that matters is what’s on the page whether the composer intended it or not.
I’m writing about the Rachmaninoff Three Russian Songs. They are folk song settings, and the first of the three, “Cherez rjechku,” begins with three quarter notes: G, E, E, E. The tune is unambiguously in E minor, but those two pitches in a vaccuum could just as easily suggest C major. And the evidence suggests to me that Rachmaninoff’s intent is to play with that possibility, so the harmony oscillates between E minor and C major.
I originally identified this as a characteristic of Russian folk music called peremennost, or modal mutability. It’s a classic example–textbook, really–and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
But my music theory advisor suggested that this was a case of double-tonic complex, which is, it turns out, pretty common in post-Wagnerian music. In it, two tonics (usually a third apart) share centrality.
Now, I had never heard of the double-tonic complex before, and I bet you haven’t either. It isn’t part of the Common Practice, and it’s only mentioned in a handful of articles on JSTOR. Still, yes, the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Three Russian Songs does exhibit classic characteristics of double-tonic complex.
So: peremennost and double-tonic complex. Both ways of analyzing the music are correct. But is one more true than the other?
Haimo’s article suggests identifying statements as type one or type two, depending on whether the analyst is suggesting that the composer intended to do a thing (type one) or the analysis is just a statement in words of what’s on the page (type two).
So both peremennost and double-tonic complex explain the relationships found on the page of “Cherez rjechku.” That’s what I mean when I say they are both correct. But when I ask if one is truer than the other, I’m wondering if it’s possible to make a type-one statement about the relationship.
Rachmaninoff famously avoided talking about music theory and compositional strategies, insisting that he composed the music in his heart. I feel confident that he knew about peremennost because it’s a thing in Russian folk music. I haven’t read anything in which he discusses it, though he does mention that he has the sounds of Russian music in him–folk songs as well as chant and bells from the Orthodox church. But he was also well educated and clearly had the sounds of late Romantic music in his ear, too.
So is “Cherez rjechku” Russian music or Romantic music? Do I, as a conductor, need to make a decision? As an academic, I should hedge my bets by identifying both as type-two statements of fact, and avoid any type-one guesses as to Rachmaninoff’s intention. But as a conductor, I can’t just back away from specificity. But maybe as long as I know that this is my choice, my interpretation of what’s on Rachmaninoff’s page, then I’m being honest as to my own intention as a performer.
I recently listened to an interview with Neil Gaiman in which he said that once a writer creates a work, he lets it go. The reader participates in creating the story by completing it in his or her head. That’s just part of the deal. Every individual’s experience of a book is and should be colored by his or her life and imagination.
In the same interview, Neil Gaiman said he sometimes doesn’t like to hand over a work to a director to make a movie or TV show out of it because then people blame him or things he doesn’t like either. That hit pretty close to home, because I’m the director in this analogy. A composer publishes a work of music, the conductor interprets it, the performers perform it, and it is only a well-informed audience with good ears who can discern which party is to blame for any faults they perceive.
The interview was at the end of an audiobook performance of Gaiman of his own work, and he confessed that his reading was not the definitive reading, just his reading. Rachmaninoff performed his own music a lot, and listening to his recordings is AMAZING. I am sooooo happy that he lived in a time when we could listen to him play what he heard in his music. But apparently he had disagreements with conductors who performed his music in ways that contradicted with what he intended. The third of the Three Russian Songs, one story goes, was premiered much faster than Rachmaninoff intended, and he argued with the conductor over it.
And I think he’s right. The conductor is always wrong. I think the audience should blame a conductor for the mistakes of the players and for the boringness of a piece of music. Our job is to make it work. Our job is to advocate for the composer (thank you, Erich Leinsdorf). So if the composer is standing there telling me to conduct it slower, then I will.
But there are lots of times when the conductor’s intention is unclear. Peremennost or double-tonic complex? I doubt Rachmaninoff would care what I called it. He wouldn’t want to talk about it. He wrote what what in his heart.
I can’t put any of this in my dissertation. But here on the blog, I write what’s in my heart, too.