From Phrase to Phrasing

A Classical Perspective

Chapter 1 – Prelude: Playing with style

Rather than making a doomed attempt at defining ‘Classical style’, I would like to explore the style from within. When asked to characterize Classical, most of us would probably come up with something akin to ‘melodious’ and ‘well-proportioned’. But what would that mean to a musician of the period? Or, to turn it around, what was considered to be not a proper melody, or a not well-balanced composition? Anton Reicha (1770-1836) provides an example of a sequence of tones without melodic sense:2Anton Reicha, Traité de haute composition musicale, Czerny edition, 4 vols (Vienna, 1824), ii, 590.

Figure 2: A nonsensical melody by Anton Reicha.

He is right of course, but why? Heinrich Christoph Koch (1749-1816), one of the most important music theorists of his time, defines a proper melody as a sequence of notes that:

We can check:

Before this repose is reached there is only expectation of what a string of tones might want to say; we need some sort of decline in the music (Abfall as Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721-1783) calls it4Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik aus sicheren Grundsätzen hergeleitet und mit deutlichen Beyspielen erläutert, 2 vols (Berlin, 1776), ii–i, 138.) that allows the ear enough rest to unite the previous notes in meaning–in other words: they create phrases.

The repose-moment is therefore a key-concept. Basically it is a feeling but at the same time it is a describable musical phenomenon that allows us to be more specific and, for lack of a better word, objective.

Next an example of an unbalanced composition. Joseph Riepel (1709-1782) criticises this minuet by his fictional student (‘not even worth a sniff of good pipe tobacco’):5Joseph Riepel, Anfangsgründe zur musicalischen Setzkunst: De Rhythmopoeïa oder von der Tactordnung, 7 vols (Regensburg and Vienna, 1752), i, 1.

Figure 3: An unbalanced minuet, according to Joseph Riepel.

A summary of his main objections:


Figure 4: Unvollkommen- and Vollkommen erhebende Noten, as illustrated by Joseph Riepel.

What emerges is an attempt at describing a sophisticated sense of proportion and balance. Though Riepel’s starting point is not primarily melodic, there is much in common with Koch. For example in the focus on clearly recognizable divisions as in (fA minuet usually has 8 + 8 bars.) (gThe beginning, or theme, should have recognizable divisions in two or four bars.). But also in (jUse only a limited amount of faster scale-like passages.) where continuous fast notes could obscure these divisions, and (kA minuet should mainly have alternating bars with ‘perfectly- and imperfectly’ moving notes.) where the alternation of perfect and imperfect movement creates divisions of two bars. Riepel does not mention repose-moments but since ‘dead’ notes are only allowed at cadences (iDo not use ‘dead’ notes except at cadences.), they appear at end of sections where you would expect something to come to rest. Likewise (mOften there is an ascending tendency in the first section, and a descending in the second.) where one could conjecture that if ascending means gaining energy, and descending losing energy, this would enforce the greatest repose to be neatly created at the end of the piece.

Having started the chapter with the assumption that bad examples could clarify Classical style, we can try to change Reicha’s nonsensical melody into something more Classical. Here is a my attempt:

Figure 5: (A) Reicha's non-melody, (B) my attempt at improvement. (A) (B)

Most of the pitches have been kept in place but the structure is much clearer, and paradoxically the rhythmical adaptations have made it sound more melodious. It is not a great melody yet (that requires more than rules, as Reicha, Koch, and Riepel would acknowledge) but that is not the point, the process is important. I set out to get into a more Classical mindset and by playing with the music I think I have done that.

It is remarkable that both Koch and Riepel focus primarily on rhythmical aspects rather than pitch organisation, and they are far from unique; almost all authors, when discussing phrases, give examples on one stave, thus explicitly not involving harmony. As Reicha states, melody almost always indicates the harmony it requires, but harmony by no means indicates a true melody; if you start with harmony you will usually remain a médiocre mélodist.7Anton Reicha, Traité de haute composition musicale, Czerny edition, 4 vols (Vienna, 1824), ii, 585.

Mission statement

I will summarize and explore the theory relating to the repose-moments as I understand it from eighteenth-century treatises. This should enable us to create better grounding for choosing phrases. Furthermore, the length and rhythm of phrases, and the cadences will prove to be agents in appreciating the beauty in balance and order in Classical style.

But balance is not static: you can not create balance where there is no movement. Therefore the theory can also inspire us to discover different ways of shaping these phrases (i.e. phrasing). Punctuation, breathing, language and rhetorical constructions are among the agents to transmit life into this beautiful order. Phrases are there to be creative with.

I have sought to integrate performing practice with case studies that illustrate how phrase theory sits at the heart of every aspect of music making. Though the subject matter might at first suggest a quest to quantify what is ‘correct and historically justifiable’, my ultimate goal is exactly the opposite: I want to inspire musical performance through deep affinity with the source material of music itself.

Next chapter: 2 Cadences and Punctuation