The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

Viktoria Mullova Goes for Baroque

Viktoria Mullova BachIt’s rare for violin soloists to drastically rethink their approach to a composer, leaving behind two contrasting recordings of the same music. But that’s exactly what happened over the course of 15 years with Viktoria Mullova’s interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Six Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin.

Following the release of a spectacular 1994 Philips recording featuring a modern interpretation, Mullova re-recorded solo Bach in 2009 on the Onyx label, this time with a Walter Barbiero Baroque bow, gut strings (rather than modern metal strings) and a tuning note lowered from the standard A 440 Hz to the A 415 Hz of Bach’s time. She played a 1750 G.B. Guadagnini violin.

You can read about Mullova’s gradual evolution to Baroque performance practice here. Listen to excerpts of the modern 1994 recording here and then compare it with a sample from the equally great 2009 recording below. Qualities which set this performance apart are the consistent sense of Baroque dance, the distinct drama and tone colors of each variation, and the natural way one variation unfolds into the next.

Here is the monumental Ciaconna from the D minor Partita, BWV 1004:

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For another sample from Mullova’s 2009 recording, listen to the Fuga from Sonata No. 2 in A Minor. Here is a a live 2013 performance of Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto. 

Born in Russia, Viktoria Mullova was a student of Leonid Kogan. She won first prize at the 1980 International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition in Helsinki and the Gold Medal at the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition. In 1983 she daringly defected to the West during a concert tour, leaving a Soviet-owned Stradivarius behind on a hotel bed.

A survey of recordings from Hilary Hahn to Nathan Milstein shows a diverse range of approaches to solo Bach. Listening to this recording, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling interpretation.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony

Dimitri Shostakovich
Dimitri Shostakovich

It’s impossible to separate the music of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) from the horrors and repression of Soviet life under Stalin. In a brutal society glued together by coercive thought control, constant fear, and the execution of between eight and 20 million people, art had the capacity to articulate truths otherwise unspeakable. This made Shostakovich’s music dangerous, as this quote by the composer suggests:

[quote]Music illuminates a person and provides him with his last hope; even Stalin, a butcher, knew that.[/quote]

Shostakovich’s relationship with Stalin was complex and has been the subject of debate. Amazingly, in spite of constant state censorship, the spirit of darkness permeating the music is evident, often in the form of irony. For example, the final movement of the famous Fifth Symphony concludes with seemingly triumphant and celebratory fanfares in the heroic key of D major. Many conductors have taken this music at a fast clip-about 188 eighth notes per minute. But there is speculation that Shostakovich actually intended it to go much slower. Listen to contrasting tempos of this ending here. You’ll notice that in the slower tempo the music sounds empty and hollow, providing only a veneer of celebration.

There are questions about the accuracy of Shostakovich’s memoirs, published by Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov. Still, this quote from the book regarding the ending of the Fifth Symphony is interesting to consider:

[quote]The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing,” and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing”[/quote]

Called upon to commemorate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany with his Ninth Symphony, Shostakovich delivered music which was light and frivolous. It was quickly censored by Soviet authorities.

Premiering on December 17, 1953, Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 was Shostakovich’s first symphony following Stalin’s death. Some listeners hear the darkness and terror of the Stalin years fully expressed for the first time in this work.

Let’s listen to a live 2009 performance of the Tenth Symphony by Mariss Jansons and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. As you listen, consider the atmosphere the music evokes. How do harmonies elicit emotion? Do the sounds of the instruments suggest distinct personas? The first movement grows out of the eerily quiet depths of the low strings. What happens as the music develops?

  1. Moderato (0:00)
  2. Allegro (20:05)
  3. Allegretto (27:42)
  4. Andante-Allegro (40:18)

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Let’s go back and listen one more time. From the opening of the first movement, you probably sensed something frightening, maybe even menacing…a sense of dread and foreboding. We’ve all had the experience of fixating on something we find disturbing and experiencing an almost physical reaction. The more we think about it, the more anxious and worked up we get. For me, this first movement unfolds in a similar way. Slowly, in stages it gets increasingly wound up, along the way capturing a sea of indescribable and complex emotions (2:17, then 3:20, then 4:11).

At 5:55 a grotesque waltz begins. Notice the way beats are accentuated in unpredictable ways. It’s anything but graceful. This isn’t Swan Lake.

By the time we reach the development section in the middle of the movement, we’re at a completely new level of anxiety, which continues to grow. Notice the way the woodwinds scream out at top volume in the most shrill, high register around 10:41 The motive from the opening bars of the symphony is repeated obsessively (in the low brass at 10:19 and 13:58). A sense of struggle is written into the music. Following 12:14, listen to the way the strings fight against the brass, desperately grasping at a series of notes which lead nowhere. Except for a brief ray of light (20:52), the movement ends as it began.

The second movement provides another view of terror. As you listen, consider how the music is flowing. Are we moving towards a goal or just rigidly marching forward towards an increasingly frightening abyss?

In the third movement we hear the famous DSCH motive (29:06 and 35:29), which Shostakovich used in many pieces, including the ferocious String Quartet No. 8. In German these pitches, (D, E-flat, C, B), are abbreviated initials for “Dmitry Shostakovich.” With the obsessive repetition of this musical cryptogram, Shostakovich may be suggesting that the spirit of the individual cannot be crushed. The solo horn motive, which is repeated throughout the movement, represents the initials of one of Shostakovich’s female students, Elmira Nazirova (E-A-E-D-A). In the final bars the two motives are heard together.

In the final movement Shostakovich gives us an almost silly and slightly sarcastic theme (44:59). We hear hints of this theme gradually taking shape in the preceding Andante (44:19). Notice the return of the DSCH motive (49:27, 52:13, 52:53). Consider how the ending of the final movement relates to the what came before. Why do you think Shostakovich chose this type of ending?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Now it’s your turn…[/typography]

I’ve offered a few of my thoughts regarding the music. Now go back, listen again and come back with your own ideas. Is there a particular moment in the music which speaks to you in an especially strong way? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.