The Most Beautiful Melody: Misty

The A section is pretty straightforward, largely arpeggios and some conventional scalar passing tones.  There’s little dissonance beyond major sevenths.  However, although the phrases are arpeggiated, the overall line starts out chromatic: landing on the major seventh, going down a half step to the third of the minor v, then down an half step to the third of the IV.  It takes a whole step down for a brief suspension on the fifth, and then it goes to a 3-note motif in the major scale: 3-4-5 on the I, 3-4-5 on the vi, 3-4-5 on the ii (with an octave jump and implying the 4) and 3-4-5 on the V to end on the 3 of I.

All of that is rendered more interesting by chord substitutions and turnarounds, but the melody on its own stays pretty tightly in the key.

The bridge, on the other hand, creates tension and keeps it building on a single chord for two bars, resolves for two, builds tension on a single chord for two, and spends two bars in a normal turnaround.  I do a lot of substitutions, but they don’t change the tonality: instead of Bbm – Eb7b9, I do an edim-Bbm, and for the amin7sus I do some diminished chords that all spell out the same.  The A section comes back in predictably.

Overall, it’s probably the use of arpeggios with mid-stream octave changes that obscure the simplicity of the melodic idea without losing its comfortable familiar consonance.  It wouldn’t work without the tension, and cramming all of that into a few bars in the B section is perhaps overcompensating.  I don’t really see a lyrical reason for the contrast, but it makes a nice overall arc to the song.

The Most Beautiful Melody: Rachmaninoff variation 18

The 18th variation of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was used as the theme for the movie “Somewhere In Time”.  The original was sprightly and minor; both Rachmaninoff and Brahms wrote variations preserving its nervous nature in virtuoso piano arrangements of extraordinary difficulty.  For the last variation, however, Rachmaninoff inverts it, plays it slowly and rubato, and alters the mode from minor to major.  At this point it becomes a lush movement of triads and diatonic passing tones, particularly gorgeous when set for string orchestra.

The question is, which melody contains the beauty?  Frankly, the melody is almost lost in grand arpeggios in the 18th variation, and the harmonic minor chord progression also is lost in the transposition.  What the song communicates in mood and spirit is significantly different, and the commonality between the original and the 18th variation is obscure.  The question I haven’t managed to answer is whether the beauty is in that commonality or simply in the two separate but equally simple chord progressions.  If they are two sides of a coin, then it’s safe to say half a coin is a thing of imperfect beauty.

Looking instead at the other selections I’ve made in this series, it’s a little more obvious what I at least find beautiful, which is in fact the lush triads of the variation and the fact that the melody supports and defines them rather than fights with them.  There are passing tones, which help the definition by establish the scale mode, and there are some suspensions which express themselves more in the resolution than in themselves.  Perhaps I’d be happy listening to nothing but slow stacked chords, like Bach’s Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Most Beautiful Melody: Rutter’s For The Beauty of the Earth

I have a pretty good handle on what makes this one work for me, and it’s tied into why I don’t like any of the recordings I have.  It’s a little hard to find a performance that’s done in a flowing style, because most of the choirs I’ve seen are taking care to be precise, take it too fast, or have a wretched canned soft rock beat.  You can dig up a decent boy choir or SATB version, such as the St. Phillips Boy Choir (aka Libera).

This is all about suspensions.  Going by the melody itself you hardly need to change chords at all–“For the beauty of the earth; for the beauty of the skies; for the love which from our” all fit on the tonic chord.  But instead Rutter defines chords with a descending figure over a root pedal point: I – V/I – IV/I – I, putting a suspension decoration on the last I.  Then in the two repetitions of the phrase “Over and around us lies,” the melody is a figure on major seconds that must inevitably suspend against any given triad.

In the chorus, “Lord of all, to thee”, on “thee”, we go from a I chord to a suspended I chord (dominant 9 with a suspended 4), to an inverted IV with a suspended 2.  The final phrase, “This our joyful hymn,” is a 4-3 suspension, a step on the root, and a 6-5 suspension, all over a second inversion I chord that resolves to a Vsus4, then to a Isus2 and back into his descending figure over a pedal point.

He just never lets you enjoy a simple chord without overlaying either its predecessor or its successor.  That works with the legato melody, the sequentially arpeggiated accompaniment, and sustained harmony lines to establish a continuous smooth flow.  So the secret here is that it isn’t the melody but the arrangement that makes this one.

The Most Beautiful Melody: Nessun Dorma

OK, I’m not actually going to pick a song and say it’s the most beautiful; but if I asked someone else that question and they answered Nessun Dorma, I’d accept that as a defensible choice.

Nessun Dorma is the tenor aria from Turandot reawakened in public attention a few years ago by Paul Potts on Britain’s Got Talent and earlier by Pavarotti at the 1990 World Cup.  Everybody’s sung it.  I’m not going for a definitive analysis of a well-studied aria; I’m calling attention to some points that I’ll reference later in connection with other songs that I’d entertain as good answers to the question.

What is it that makes the key parts of this song so wonderful?  When you break down the melody itself, it’s mostly simple.  Most listeners don’t speak Italian.  It’s usually heard out of context.  After eliminating all that, I’m left with the use of the tenor voice, the orchestral accompaniment, and a few meager thoughts on the melody.

It’s all about the shape of the phrases.  Ignoring the words, plot and characters from the opera, I’d conclude it was a song about climbing, reaching, holding, standing.  The first part–the A section, if you will–has the tenor pushing to the major seventh (“o, Principessa”; “guardi le stelle”).  Then in the more recognizable B section, it’s a rising and falling scalar figure.  What makes it work for me is the motion to inversions in the bass, which along with strings doubling the melody manages to suggest parallel sixths that aren’t really there (“Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me, il nome mio nessun saprà!”) culminating in an opposing figure that takes the V chord to a first inversion of the (momentary) tonic with the melody holding on the high fifth (“sulla tua bocca”).  It’s just a ii-V7-I, no extensions to the chords and hardly a passing tone to be found; but I could name that tune in one note if it was that note, and I wouldn’t even confuse it with Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev” (which sits itself characteristically on that same inversion).

However, I can pick out three specific chord-melody interactions that I think are important, and I’ll make it a little more clear why in later posts on other melodies.  In order of impact, at the end of the B section, it resolves not to the tonic but to the subdominant (applying those terms as if the piece were in D rather than G) ; in the A section, there’s a substitution very like a jazz altered dominant 7; and near the end of the B section where the melody is a simple descending D major arpeggio, it changes to the Gmaj7 on the F#.

The change from first inversion D to Gmaj7 is simply letting the leading tone in the bass drive the chord change.  The altered substitution uses an F# against the D in the melody to suggest the V, has a Bb to suggest the minor–I’d almost call it a blue note–and puts an Eb in the bass.  An altered D would be D-F#-Bb-C-F, and here we have D-F#-Bb-C-Eb; with the Eb and Bb in the bass, it sounds like an extended Eb minor, and it’s essentially a G harmonic minor scale, but it fills the role of a D7.  The resolution to G is a continuation from the inversion:  D/F# – Gmaj7 – D/A – A, and to G instead of D; that’s followed by the altered chord at the top of the A section, which re-establishes G as the key.

Enough armchair analysis; what do I take from it?  First, that one way to get a strong circular motion between an A and B section is to have a bimodal key center in fourths.  Second, that if you go from the tonic to another chord and back again, with most of the time on the tonic, that transition chord–whatever it may be–can be substituted for the dominant elsewhere in the piece.  Third, that the melody doesn’t have to dictate the chord changes, especially when the bass has good ideas on where to go.