I heard this in fifth or third grade, I think.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, by Claude Debussy, performers unknown.
We had a teacher that used to hold up pictures of fauns (little satyr guys playing handpipes) when she played music for us and we were supposed to let our imagination run wild. And Impressionist music like this is probably well-chosen for that purpose.
What mysterious, music, eh? We're not going to get into all the fine points of what makes Impressionism Impressionism, today. But we will look at one of the things that Debussy and other composers used in works like this to achieve their affects. In particular, the use of alternate scales.
We are all familiar with the the major scale by now, the usual do-re-mi scale. It's the white keys on the piano, starting at C and doinking your way from right to left. The minor scale, too, which is do-re-mi but starting at A. And last week we looked at all the other cool modes, scales that play the white keys starting at the other six white keyboard notes.
Those are all diatonic scales, meaning that you can play them using the seven white key notes of a piano. But there are other scales that musicians can use that CANNOT all be played on white keys. For instance, the whole-tone scale, which Debussy and Ravel used in many of their works, including this one, at the very beginning.
The Whole-tone Scale
It's called the whole-tone scale because all the notes are evenly spaced one whole note apart. It's very neatly symmetrical and would look even neater on a piano keyboard if pianos weren't designed for traditional asymmetrical scales like C major, which has a clump of two and three black keys sitting there like little islands in a sea of white. However the whole-tone scale doesn't make as much sense harmonically to human ears because it doesn't have that perfect ratio fifth note. Every note sounds sweet compared to the one just before and after it, but it quickly creeps into a kind of mystical dissonance.
Also, that symmetry makes it a little boring, so you'll never hear any works completely in the whole-tone scale. (Watch somebody prove me wrong, now). It just doesn't go anywhere by itself. For instance, if I were to change key from the C whole-note scale to the E whole-note scale, it would be hard to tell, because you would have to use all the same notes! The C whole-note scale is the same as the D, or E or F# or G# or A# whole-note scales. If you play around with it on an instrument, it's interesting at first, sounds all very French and Debussy, but then you start to run out of interesting things to do with it by itself.
But Impressionists like Debussy were not daunted. They liked alternate scales and modes, and lots of 'em and they mixed and matched them as needed for effect. And the effect in Prelude is a very spooky but pleasing one.
Now for a very small scale, a five-note scale, the pentatonic scale.
The Pentatonic Scale
I've portrayed it here as being all on the black keys, although I could have easily put it on the white keys by just leaving some of the usual do-re-mi notes out. In fact, if we sang the pentatonic scale, it would sound like this: "Do Re Fa Sol La Do!" But I prefer to show it on the black keys because when I was kid, my dad taught me, Lil' Boy Dumbo, my first song, called Knuckles that can be played just on the black keys. Using your knuckles. A well-named song.
Of course, the character of the scale depends on which of those five black keys you start from. So the pentatonic scale has its own modes, something not worth going into detail about here.
Where have you heard pentatonic music? Well, in the music of Dvorak (the New World Symphony, asian music (remember that hit song Sukiyaki?), hymns, and more than any of that, big budge cowboy flicks.
Theme song to The Big Country, by Jerome Moross
Does that have a familiar sound to it? Try the Magnificent Seven theme. (If you're old enough, you know as the Marlboro Cigarette ad theme).
Theme for The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein, Cincinatti Pops.
[Extra credit to anybody who can find the original Marlboro cigarette ad. It appears people keep posting it and somebody at Youtube keeps flagging it.]
Of course, western film composers knew what they were doing. They found their influences in Aaron Copland (Billy the Kid Suite) and Dvorak's symphonies. For instance, compare the above to the finale from the New World Symphony.
Antonin Dvorak's Symphony #9 in E minor, 4th Movement, performed by Herbert Von Karajan
Sounds a little different, eh? Well, it's the pentatonic scale, but it's in a minor scale mode. But even with that change, you can still feel the prairies and smell the cowflops. Those cattle ain't a-gonna rustle themselves!
Honestly, I have a hell of a time identifying what mode or scale a particular piece is using, and I only try to do it lately because I am doing this series. But identifying pentatonic music is usually very easy, because it has that hard, bold, no-nonsense sound to it. It's still major and minor key music, but by shrinking the palette of notes available, the music gains harmonic firmness. That's what you are responding to.
Another scale: The blues scale. Which arguably is or isn't a scale. I drew my own conceptual graphic with the "blues" notes in blue.
The Blues Scale
The first thing you'll notice is that it has all the usual major key notes. But, wait, there are those funny blue squares on some black keys, too! What's that about?
We are all familiar with the blues scale from rock and jazz and pop music, although some types use it more than others.
Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Paola Bruni on piano.
I'm posting that vid even though I don't like the way the clarinetist muffed the opening slide.
One of the characteristics of blues music is that the "normal" major scale notes are switch somewhat freely from blues to major again. And as I hope everybody learned in school, those blue notes find their origin in African music and the music of early American slaves.
It is reported that George Gershwin once met impressionist Maurice Ravel and told him that he had wished that he had gone to music school so he could have been a composer like Ravel. And Ravel told him, I wish I had learned how to compose like Gershwin! He asked Gershwin how much he made; Gershwin told him, and Ravel sobbed and walked away.
And as I'm running late again, one last scale, the octatonic scale!
The Octatonic Scale
A rather strange one you'll rarely hear and will have trouble identifying unless somebody tells you what it is, and it's not clear why you would care except for a geek's curiosity's sake but it does have its own weird sound. For instance, late Romantic composer Rimsky Korsakov used it frequently. I fell in love with this one particular aria from his opera Le Coq D'Or (meaning Gold Cock or something like that). I chose this one not for the exceptional singing but for the translation on the clip.
Hymn to the Sun from Le Coq d'Or by Rimsky Korsakov, sung by Olga Trifonova
Next Week: It will be either Impressionism full blast, or it will be film music. It's getting close to Oscars, there are lots of film awards coming out, and I don't want to miss the boat.