Music in Time; Time in Music

There are many ways in which composers takes us out of time, or make us imagine time is moving faster when actually it has not changed. A characteristic of Bach is to increase the amount of detail when he gets towards a cadence; Beethoven will repeat a segment over and over, then shorten it and carry on repeating, building up immense excitement, as in the centre of the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony, and at an equivalent point in the first movement of the “Waldstein” Sonata.

Another trick of Beethoven’s occurs (though not exclusively) in his late works: the use of the trill. We tend to think of trills as a wobbling away on two alternating notes – though we make a fuss about whether to start on the upper note or the principal note. Beethoven raises this mere ornament to a higher level, realizing that it contains both rapid movement and stillness at the same time.

At the conclusion of his piano sonatas Op.109 and 111, he uses the extended trill to project different emotional atmospheres. Both movements attain a unique religious and visionary peace. The long trills first in the left, then in the right hand help create an amazing intensity, as if one were staring into the sun, and finally calm down as we move to a recurrence of the opening theme. In the second movement of Op.111, trills are used in an even more sophisticated way from the beginning of the coda onwards. At first, there is a forbidding vision, where the trill starts loud, introducing the movement’s opening motive in the left hand. Things go quieter, and we are led to a long triple trill which rises and falls dynamically, and continues into a rising chain of trills, in a passage of almost unique mystery. The trill returns in yet another guise pianissimo in the treble sometimes above and sometimes below the final return of the main theme.

In Russian music, an entirely different treatment of the notion of time occurs. It is a tradition that starts with Kamarinskaya, in which the single theme is repeated over and over again. In one way, the sense of movement is increased, because repeated themes, like repeated notes, make you long for the next repetition. In another, movement is stalled, because there is no leading on from one phrase to the next.

Messiaen introduced, with his first published piece for organ, Le Banquet Célèste, an entirely new way of perceiving time in music. Each chord in this, in 1935, unbelievably slow music, is an event in itself. There is no progression, just (as the composer himself explained) something like watching the sun pass behind a stained glass window. Whether Messiaen would have thought of it this way, it is the ultimate of what Schubert and Bruckner achieved in slowing music down. In Mozart and Haydn, it was page to page, bar to bar; in Bruckner it is five-minutes to five-minutes; now with Messiaen it is chord-to-chord. There is, of course a parallel in minimalist music, where the movement can be imperceptible, or it can do all the things we have already mentioned: the repetitions creating stillness and anticipation at the same time.