Many of the most iconic composers of the 19th century are known to have challenged the conventions of tonality, each in his own way. Berlioz, Wagner, Bruckner, and later Sibelius and Debussy, broke different boundaries cemented in the 18th century, and paved the way for the 20th century in music, when these said conventions were all but abolished. One composer whom we do not associate with the breaking of conventions, however, is Grieg. Rather, when we think of him, we think of music that adheres to tonal conventions in the most “comfortable” way, his raw folkish idiom notwithstanding. That is why the work I discuss this week, Klokkeklang (Bells), is so unique and surprising.
Bells comes at the end of the cycle of Lyric Pieces, Op. 54, which also contains the well known March of the Dwarfs. It is unlike almost anything else by Grieg—it consists almost entirely of open fifths, making it inherently tonally ambiguous, something one would not associate with Grieg. As the left hand wades from one pedal point to another, the right hand plays harmonies that don’t complement the pedal points, creating a separate tonal idiom for the work, one which has not much to do with Grieg’s style (but isn’t altogether detached from it). The question I am interested in exploring is: How does one go about playing this piece? What angle can we approach it from?
Having settled the issue of its tonal peculiarity, we still need to latch on to something as a conceptual basis. Although the open fifths which describe the bells make for a harmonically unconventional piece, they are to be found abundantly in Grieg’s output. Grieg used the open fifth to achieve a primordial and untainted sound, associated with folk musicians and instruments. The Lyric Pieces are full of open fifths, as are the last movements of the second and third violin sonatas, the monumental Ballade for piano, and a great many other works of his. Keeping this in mind, we can begin to bridge the gap between this work and the style of the composer.
But now we are faced with another aspect of the work that is most unusual for Grieg—the absence of a melody. Grieg is a composer known for his luscious and evocative melodies, which we hear in all the aforementioned works of his. In Bells, however, these melodies are nowhere to be found, and all we have is figures of rising and falling open fifths in their stead. What should a performer do in this case? I would say that the figures themselves need to acquire the same expressive value that a soothing and “catchy” melody by Grieg would have. This doesn’t mean playing the figures with the same amount of emotional involvement, of course, but rather taking the same amount of interest and fascination with one of the most basic figures in musical language. Doing this, the performer would need to prove to the perplexed audience that sequences of rising and falling fifths can be just as beautiful as say, the slow movement of Grieg’s piano concerto. In addition, in the absence of a melody, the harmonic peculiarity of the piece becomes all the more significant, with nothing to “distract” our ears from it. So rather than running away from it, I think a performer should run toward it and relish in the foreign-sounding sonorities, without trying to “normalize” them. The texture of Bells is remarkably simple, and its beauty lies therein. We get to observe the piece, rather than have to indulge in it, the way we would in a Beethoven sonata.
And lastly, we return to the title and context of this miniature of programmatic music. When thinking of the word “bells” as a title for a piece of music, we can spread our imagination wide beyond the confines of its literal meaning. Does a work of music thus called need to accurately resemble actual bells? Or could the work describe something else, too? Do we hear the actual sounds of bells, or rather the composer’s lingering impression of their sound? That, I think, is a question often ignored when playing programmatic music. A work of music that carries an extramusical title does not necessarily have to accurately describe it, and in fact, taking a title too literally can often diminish the effect of a piece (Rameau’s La poule being a prime example). We can also ask ourselves whether these bells have a slightly spiritual connotation, given the hint of an “Amen” subdominant cadence at the end of the piece. But if that’s the case, we would need to connect that cadence to the rest of the piece that contains harmonies seldom heard in liturgical music. To put all this in a broader context, I think it is worth exploring the many other examples of bells in music. Might this short work have a distant relationship with another instance of bells being heard, and if yes, where can we find that connection? Is it in Schubert’s Zügenglöcklein, Berlioz’s bells at the end of the Symphonie fantastique, Liszt’s Les cloches de Genève, or the many bells in Russian music?
I don’t claim to have definite answers to any of these questions, but I do believe that asking them makes the experience more wholesome, for performers and listeners alike. And besides, I believe that the questions we ask about short and overlooked pieces such as this one are often the same ones we should be asking when dealing with the more “iconic” pieces of the repertoire.
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