This post is the first in a new series I’m planning called “Creating stories through music”. In my study of pedagogy, I’ve learned that there’s more to learning an instrument than technique. There’s music history and appreciation, interpretation and story-telling, development of creativity through composition, etc. I will touch on all these subjects in future blog posts but the subject for today is story-telling and visualization to enhance musical expression.
I’ve spent some time these past months (a lot of it actually), working on the Concerto in A minor by Jean-Baptiste Accolay. Let’s follow along with some young talent.
This is a concerto in a single movement, but it has a number of distinct musical ideas laid out into a very clear structure:
- 0:55 Opening Theme
- 1:59 Spiccato triplet passage
- 2:22 Second Theme
- 3:28 16th note passage
- 4:50 Return of Opening Theme
- 5:26 Triplet passage
- 6:08 Return of Second Theme in a new key
- 7:13 Second 16th note passage
- 8:01 Double Stops Coda
Right away, we start off with tension and suspense. I like to think of this section like an opera, with all the over-the-top drama you expect from an opera. Every dramatic opera has a heroine who is thwarted in love. Perhaps in our story, she is exclaiming over her lost love, lamenting that her father has separated her from her lover because he’s not suitable.
In the middle of this section, we have a short passage of double stops. I imagine our heroine stamping off in a huff, with a very clear 4/4 beat and then throwing herself on her bed as the E chord trails away softly.
Then the theme is echoed more softly and in a lower register. Her initial frustration is spent, and now she’s singing that her heart is broken.
The section ends in a series of rising broken chords: Perhaps her lover is knocking at the window, they converse in excited tones and she slips out the window to be with him.
The lovers sneak out through the garden, hand in hand, giggling over their sense of freedom tinged with danger. The dynamics change as they have to be quiet passing below her father’s window. Then we climax with a happy escape.
Here the music shifts to the relative major key, C major. The lovers sing of their feelings for each other and their happiness at being together. They briefly worry about their families’ disapproval, but then return to the theme of love.
16th note passage
Here I like to imagine the lovers running. They are rushing home before her father wakes to find her gone. Again, there is a softer section, perhaps where they run by a house. The music builds to a climax as the lovers passionately declare their love for each other.
Return of the Opening Theme
After a short break, we are back to our heroine once again singing of her love, but a little bit more relaxed this time around. She knows that he loves her and she allows herself to hope that it will all work out in the end. Once again, he comes to her window and we end in a series of rising chords as she finally decides to leave with him for good.
The emotion in this second triplet passage is decidedly different from the first. It’s the escape! They are darting between buildings, trying to avoid being seen. Towards the end, the music builds in excitement. They have almost reached safety.
Return of the Second Theme
Here the music relaxes with the return of the second theme, but this time in the parallel major key: A major. Once again, they are singing of love and happiness at being together.
16th note passage
The shape of this sixteenth passage is very reminiscent of waves. The music rises and falls, with long legato bow strokes. The lovers are making good their escape on a boat. The rising arpeggios hint at a chase on the high seas and then resolve to the high E harmonic.
The coda is where we step outside the structure established up to now and put a finishing touch on our story. Jubilation reigns, the lovers are excitedly planning their future and living happily ever after.
Putting it all together
Once you have an understanding of the story the music is trying to tell, it’s much easier to give full expression to the emotions being conveyed. It ceases to be just a series of notes, bow strokes and shifting. It becomes alive.
One of the joys of music is that you can tell the story differently if that’s how you imagine it. Listen to yet another young talent. In the double stops sequence in the intial theme (1:17), I think she’s telling the story a little differently. Also, she plays the triplets at the end of second triplet passage (~5:25) with a little bit of a swing, making it almost like a dance.
I just want to finish with another great pedagogical reference available on YouTube. Check out Roy Sonne’s School of Violin Artistry, where he gives detailed tips on a variety of student repertoire, covering everything from technique to expression to practice strategies. Here’s a taste, video 1 of 5 in his series on this Accolay concerto: