musicological

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Piano notes made visible for the first time

Music is beautiful isn’t it? The team at CymaScope visualized the dynamic sounds of the piano’s first strike and the eventual plateau and decay phase of different notes. You can listen to the sounds here and watch as the geometric shapes come to life.

Here is a list of the geometric glyphs for each note

Cymascope - Sound Made Visible

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Last Thursday, in a New York Times op-ed, neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks revealed that he has been battling cancer in various forms for the past nine years and that it has now metastasized in his liver. The words are as powerful as they are hard to read. Oliver Sacks’ contributions to psychology, and especially music psychology, are monolithic.

No one understood the power of music better than him — and these 11 quotes are proof.

The Ça Ira & the French Revolution

*musicologistvoice* Are you ready for an epic nerdy adventure?  If so, then you’ve come to the right place.  

So I’m going to talk about one of the top 40 of the 1790s.  I think it’s a very important part of French revolutionary culture and a highly underrated form of political propaganda that frequently gets brushed over through historians’ focus on speeches, diaries, documents, and political cartoons.  I also want to address the form of the music specifically and its connection to other types of music popular in the 18th century, namely the wind concerto, opera, and the large influence of Mozart and Haydn.

So, the Ça Ira evolved from a contredanse called Le Carillon National, allegedly composed in 1786 by Bécourt for voice and open instrumentation.  As I’ve mentioned before, little is known about Bécourt and his life – not even his first name – and depending on the source, he is claimed to have been either a violinist or percussionist at the Theatre Beaujolais. As there is little information on him, we can assume that he was a single-hit composer.  A contredanse, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is “an 18th century French development of the English country dance,” thus implying a geometric style of dancing where two or more couples dance together in a set—a quadrille, the forerunner to square dancing.  Originally, the contredanse was popular amongst the upper classes, but as the Revolution clearly demonstrates, it also filtered into the lower classes and became a symbol of propaganda and patriotism (and I say patriotism in a loose sense).  

Now here’s where music theory comes in!  By tradition, a contredanse is written in a 2/4 or 6/8 time signature, generally implying 2 beats per measure.  They are commonly written in the keys of G, D, and b minor (and possibly e minor as well, as it is the relative minor to G) and can modulate between these keys within one piece.  The modulation of G to D is quite common, as D is the dominant (fifth scale degree, or V) of G major.  Likewise, the contredanse (like most classical period/18th century music) contains a lot of primary chords (I, IV, V – the first, fourth, and fifth scale degrees and their triads), another common feature of classical period music with very noticeable cadences, namely the half cadence (?-V) and the perfect authentic cadence (V-I, both triads in root position).  Another unique feature of the contredanse is its framework.  Typically, a contredanse is comprised of two parts played twice, so essentially a main theme and its variation.  In the case of the Ça Ira, the refrain functions as the main theme while the various verses function as the variation; however, these two parts are frequently repeated more than twice.

The Ça Ira almost exactly fits this mold:

Ah! Ça Ira (Air du Carillon National)

Key : G Major

Composer : Bécourt

Year/date of composition : 1786

First publication: circa 1790

Language: French

Piece style: Classical

(taken from imslp.org)

**Some arrangements have also been transposed in D major.  

It has been published under other names: Ah! Ça ira, dictum populaire, air du carillon national ; Le retour du Champ de Mars, Air du Carillon National (texte par M. Déduit).  

Here is a version of the piece printed in England in 1792 with piano accompaniment.  I’ve done a very general (note – VERY GENERAL) analysis of the piece, so I apologize if I’ve omitted some hidden not primary chords – I just want to show the basic primary chord structure of the piece (I, IV, V); this exposes the cadences.  

I’ve noted on the score that a broken chord style is used in the bass line beneath the melody, a common trait of music from the classical period.  In textural analysis, this is called harmonic rhythmic support, allowing the chords to round out the melody while creating a sense of forward motion.  

And now…to the part that doesn’t have to do with spewage of music theory terminology!  I hope you’ve made it through.

 

The Ça Ira as propaganda

According to Oxford Music, the Ça Ira is “a tune adopted from the popular contredanse (folk song) Le Carillon National, but when the words of Ça Ira are sung to it, it becomes a revolutionary song.”  Thus the song’s origins are not rooted in the French Revolution; the song evolved through several changes of its wording.  M. Ladre, a former soldier and street singer whom there is little known about, allegedly set the first revolutionary words to Le Carillon National.  Like Bécourt, despite having written over 50 revolutionary songs during his lifetime, he was a one-hit wonder, as the the Ça Ira had become the most popular song of the French Revolution by 1790 (around the time of the Fête de la Fédération). However, as events progressed throughout the Revolution, namely the death of Louis XVI, the words to the tune became increasingly darker: Ah! Ça ira, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira, les aristocrates à la lantèrne (the aristocrats to the lampposts).  Ironically, Marie Antoinette is said to have enjoyed playing this tune on her harpsichord ; however, that is of course worthy of speculation as to whether that is true or not.  However, given the song’s popularity prior the Revolution, it would not be surprising.

Thus, the Ça Ira became a symbol of revolutionary sentiment, not only through its performance but also through print. During the Revolution, songs such as these were sometimes printed and sold on street corners in an effort to circulate a political message:

The Ça Ira as popular music

The popularity of this tune extended beyond France’s borders.  As I mentioned previously, the score I analyzed was printed in England in 1792, written with keyboard accompaniment.  The melody remains constant, but the words are not the same as what may have been heard in the streets of Paris.  

Therefore, I think 18th century composers are really worth crediting.  Their style of music was highly marketable – enough so to use multiple songs as propaganda (that likely spread beyond France!).  The music was catchy; the heavy use of primary chords and predictable cadences aids in this.  Like I’ve mentioned before, many of these composers were influenced by Haydn and Mozart – and the contredanses of the French Revolution (La Carmagnole fits in this category as well – it can be layered beneath the melody of the Ça Ira and has a 6/8 meter!) demonstrate many similarities to Mozartian concertos and opera arias.