8.08.2012

Goltz Op. 2 No. 1: Raising the Curtain

In the beginning there was C major!

When I first began writing this post, I didn't quite realize the implications of this dramatic statement. Prelude sets begin with a piece in C major. (Some notable exceptions include Hans Gál in B major, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in G minor, and Yuri Nikolayevich Chugunov in F-sharp major.) In what other genre of music does something like this happen? As a listener, you approach the prelude set, a lengthy journey that could take anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours through all the major and minor keys and in every conceivable mood, and the first thing you hear is some combination of C-E-G.


So what does this tell us about the tradition of prelude sets? It tells us that composers value a simple beginning. Regardless of whether or not the opening piece is overtly simple in character or texture, the lack of accidentals in a C major key signature automatically make it visually and tactilely simpler than a key with required black notes. Some C major preludes go a step further and begin the set with  immaculate, basic, elemental, purity. Just think the first piece of J.S. Bach's WTC1 or Chopin's Op. 28, both of which consist entirely of an ostinato outlining recognizable chords.

We can now think of C major as is the "once upon a time" that opens the preludial fairy tale. It promises something new while reminding us of the genre's shared history. What sort of scene does Goltz's Moderato semplice C major prelude present to us?

Neo(a)politan is not only a delicious ice cream trifecta of childhood deliciousness (although I always ate the strawberry first to better enjoy the chocolate and vanilla), but also the name of a particular harmonic sound in Western music. In music, the Neopolitan designates an occurrence of the major, flattened-second chord or ♭II. This unique sound has been around at least since the eighteenth century when it functioned primarily as a pre-dominant chord. (Enroll in your local Music Theory III course for more details.) For Goltz the sound of the Neopolitan takes on a special significance. Both the two-measure into (mm. 1–2) and two-measure recap (mm. 20–21) consist of pedaled swaths of tonic and Neopolitan sound (C major and D-flat major alternating). The penultimate measure (m. 26) goes so far as to play the two sonorities in horizontal simultaneousness (I+II) and the big dominant halt before the recap (mm. 18–19) pairs together a dominant-seventh with the Neopolitan (V7+II). The effect is quite disconcerting and amorphous, functional but unexpected. The simplicity and purity of C major is summarily challenged by these colorful intrusions.

Prelude 1 in C Major, mm. 1–3: Tonic/Neopolitan mixture

In between these Neopolitan-flavored sections, Goltz uses a variety of interesting musical devices: mixolydian melodies, parallel progressions, imitative counterpoint, synthetic or pentatonic chords, and "the wedge," a harmonic or melodic progression built upon ever-widening intervals. Despite these non-harmonic features, the prelude hints at tonality by landing (often inexplicably) upon diatonic keys. A homophonic or simple polyphonic texture also aids in intelligibility. The overall form of the piece outlines a gradual dynamic/pitch climax (mm. 16–17) that falls just past the midpoint, a layout familiar from countless Romantic Characterstück and even the famous Bach C major prelude already mentioned.

I. Bilibin

What do I love about this piece? Each of the three sections are in themselves fascinating creations: A - an ethereal, oscillating Neopolitan, water/mist section, B - a capricious, homophonic folk song, and C - a cantabile, imitative, exciting, traipsing section. Strung together in an ABCA'B' form, the character of each section stands in beautiful contrast with the others, a miniature conversation. Twenty-seven measures to present a tiny, fairy-sized adventure. It opens the imagination to so many possibilities. An excellent first look at the musical world of Goltz. And it was good.

PS I realize that no one has the sheet music to follow along with my analyses. If you are interested in understanding this music more, I'd figure out how to listen to the sole recording of this piece by pianist Sergei Podobedov (Music and Arts Programs of America 2008, CD-1210). Three pieces are available on YouTube, but Naxos or iTunes has the complete CD. Please contact me if you need some help listening to this stuff.

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