Several music bloggers have been posting recently about the relative merits of different approaches to musical analysis: 'impressionistic' writing versus heavily technical. Interesting viewpoints from Helen, Steve Hicken and AC Douglas.
At university in the mid-80s I had my fair share of the second kind and found it really rather thrilling. Especially Schenker. When Schenker is well explained and sensitively applied, he can help to shed tremendous new light on pieces that one thought one knew backwards. My most inspiring encounter with Schenkerian thinking was when I listened to Murray Perahia giving piano masterclasses in which he used a Schenkerian approach to transform his students' performances and also his observers' ears. For instance, he demonstrated how the whole first movement of Schumann's piano concerto springs from the conflict engendered by the semitone that opens the piano's first flourish. I began to think I'd never truly heard this most familiar of works before.
Fast-forward to yesterday. I've been slogging away at the piano on the Faure A major violin sonata (just a week to go before the performance) and yesterday I found something in it that I've never noticed before, despite months of practising and years of passionate listening. But a few little notes buried deep inside the music suddenly reminded me of something else. It set off a new train of thought...I toothcombed my way through the whole sonata...and I think it really does say what I think it says. This tiny motif, and what Faure does with it, carries messages that tally perfectly with his character - he had a very naughty, subversive streak - and with the timing and reasons for this piece's creation. And in the context of other influential music of the day, it simultaneously pays tribute and 'cocks a snook', which is fairly typical of Monsieur Gabriel as I know him. Tom thinks I've gone out of my mind, which is usually a sure sign that I'm onto something, so I intend to investigate further.
One thing that I'm certain of: a purely impressionistic approach won't work if I want to prove this point. These days I don't enjoy wading through pages of academic theory any more than I enjoy eating cardboard, but sometimes one has to resort to it because it's the only way to get at the next level of meaningful information - a level that would otherwise remain hidden forever.