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  • Graham Abbott

The Soul of Wit

In the second scene of the second act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet there’s a delicious scene which always brings a smile to my face because of Shakespeare’s use of language. Polonius is talking to the king and queen about Hamlet (the queen’s son) and he says:


My liege, and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,

Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief: your noble son is mad:

Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,

What is't but to be nothing else but mad?

But let that go.


Polonius is being anything but brief and I love how the queen responds to this with the classic line: More matter, with less art. That always cracked me up in Year 12...


Vibert: Polonius behind the curtain (1868)

Of course, Polonius’ words Brevity is the soul of wit have become a much-loved maxim in the English language, one of the many lines of Shakespeare to enter the general consciousness. Dorothy Parker made it her own in the 20th century when she quipped, Brevity is the soul of lingerie, but that’s another concept entirely.


Transferring to music the idea of brevity being the soul of wit, I am amazed at the ways in which composers have been able to say a great deal - sometimes witty, sometimes deadly serious - in a very short space of time. For example, the only piece of Beethoven many of us - myself included - could manage to play moderately well is in fact one of the shortest things he ever wrote. [listen]


Mähler: Ludwig van Beethoven (1815)

There have always been massive and mighty works of art, and not just musical ones. Works like Hamlet take several hours to perform in their entirety and an opera lasting three or four hours is not at all unusual. Yet in that little bagatelle, unpublished during Beethoven’s lifetime and not given an opus number, the composer manages to be touching, gallant, entertaining, moving and intriguing. I like that. Beethoven could write massive, powerful, gigantic works of art, but he could also say a lot on a very small and delicate scale as well.


In the world of piano music there are many composers who wrote large pieces made up of very short movements which are more or less self contained miniatures in themselves. Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote two sets of piano works called Prole do bébé (The Family of Children) in 1918 and 1921. This is one of the movements from that, a depiction of the character many of us would know as Punch from the well-known puppet play. [listen]


Heitor Villa-Lobos (c. 1922)

Nearly a century earlier Robert Schumann showed what could be achieved in the piano miniature. Works like Papillons and Carnaval consist for the most part of very short pieces, usually lasting a couple of minutes, often less, which depict a single idea with incredible concentration of essence. It’s not surprising that Schumann was a master writer of songs, an art form which also requires skill in saying a lot with very limited means and in a short amount of time.


Kriehuber: Robert Schumann (1839)

In 1838 Schumann composed his piano work Scenes from Childhood. It consists of 13 movements which together take less than 20 minutes to play; the longest is only about two and half minutes, the shortest about 30 seconds. Yet they are all dazzling little gems. Here are three of the pieces:


Blind Man’s Buff

An Important Event

Träumerei (Reveries)


Many composers in the early 20th century sought to take a stand against what they saw as the more “overblown” aspects of Romanticism in music. Huge operas such as those of Wagner were held up to be examples of a musical megalomania which could not continue forever. To be fair, though, Wagner - for all his grand statements on life, death and the universe - was not alone in writing music on a massive scale. Sure, no-one else wrote a music theatre work so vast that it needed to be performed over four nights (which is what Wagner did in The Ring) but music on a large scale was not confined to him.


Gustav Mahler said that the symphony should contain the world, and his symphonies are vast musical canvases, both in terms of length and in terms of the enormous forces required to perform them. Richard Strauss used enormous orchestras in his tone poems and operas, and Bruckner’s symphonies - which give the impression of being orchestrated organ improvisations - can last more than an hour in performance. In the early 20th century, right before he abandoned tonality, Arnold Schoenberg wrote his massive cantata Gurrelieder, which needs a massive orchestra, numerous soloists and several choirs to perform.


Interestingly, these prominent examples of musical gigantism came from German (or German-speaking) composers in the decades preceding the first world war. The reactions against them tended to come during and after the war from non-German composers. Perhaps nowhere was this reaction more evident and widespread than in France. This reaction not only saw composers writing very short pieces, but these pieces were often very silly as well. I call this movement in French music the “silly season” but I don’t use this term in a pejorative sense at all. Rather I use it to show that the art of the time abandoned Germanic seriousness and worthy-ness, trying to ignore the dark days before, during and after the Great War.


At the forefront of this movement in French music was Erik Satie. Satie is often regarded as a lightweight composer because of the apparent frivolity of his music, but as is often the case, a witty exterior can often be the façade of a biting and scathing purpose. Satie’s piano music, for the most part, consists of very short pieces, often in sets of three or four and often with nonsensical titles. Here is one such set, the Flabby preludes for a dog, dating from 1912, two years before the war. The four movements are titled “Interior voice”, “Cynical idyll”, “Canine song” and “With camaraderie”. None of the pieces is longer than two minutes. [listen]


Erik Satie (1920)

Staying a little longer with the world of piano music, I want to invoke the name of another gifted miniaturist, Dmitri Shostakovich. In his mid-20s Shostakovich composed a set of 24 Preludes for piano (not to be confused with the Preludes and Fugues which he wrote much later) and each is again very short; the whole set of 24 takes well under half an hour to play. They show Shostakovich’s ability to encapsulate a single mood, or sometimes even a brief narrative covering several moods, within a very short time span. Some of the preludes are less than a minute long, most are less than two. [listen]


Dmitri Shostakovich (1950)

The opus 34 preludes of Shostakovich date from the early 1930s. In 1940, the American composer John Cage developed the concept of the prepared piano and in so doing provided another set of beautiful miniatures to the keyboard repertoire. A prepared piano is one in which foreign objects - bolts, screws, erasers, sticks for example - are attached to specified strings in specified positions. It in fact turns the piano into a percussion orchestra and was born out of Cage’s need to provide music for a dance performance at very short notice in a space where there was no room for anything other than himself and a piano.


Cage composed his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano in the mid- to late 1940s. Far from being sonatas in the classical sense - where one might expect a major work of substantial length in several movements - Cage’s sonatas revert to the Baroque and Renaissance use of the word as a single movement “sound piece”. None of the 16 sonatas is more than five minutes long and all are in a single movement. The percussive nature of some of the notes somehow evokes a dream-like world; here’s Sonata XIII. [listen]


John Cage (1988)

A composer of the 20th century who made an artform out of being brief was Anton Webern. A recent recording of Webern’s complete works takes a mere 6 CDs and his music is concentrated, intense and deeply personal. He was, along with Alban Berg, one of the most important composers of the Second Viennese School to follow in the footsteps on Arnold Schoenberg in the second quarter of the 20th century. He strictly applied 12-tone technique to his music and wrote works which say what they have to say in usually a very short period of time. His Symphony op 21, written in 1928, lasts less than eight minutes; it’s one of his longest works.


In 1932 Webern said in a lecture that his intention as composer was “to pursue a different goal with each work - each piece is something different, something new.” After his death in 1945 the manuscript for his Cello Sonata (composed in 1914) was discovered. At a mere 41 bars long it must be the shortest, and most intense, cello sonata in the repertoire. [listen]


Anton Webern (1912)

Even in his songs, which are among his most beautiful works, Webern composes in amazingly short times spans. Every note, every gesture, seems to suggest the possibility of further development in the hands of a more verbose composer. But Webern allows his statements to float past, rather like a musical Waiting for Godot, and we catch them as best we may. [listen]


Of course Webern’s brevity doesn’t suggest a lot of wit; this brevity is very much at the more serious end of the humour spectrum. Similarly, William Byrd around 1600 could take the six words of the Kyrie and, in his Mass for Three Voices, set it simply and yet powerfully with none of the text repetitions which would have been usual at the time. (This movement is often sung as written - taking well under a minute - or with various repetitions and interpolations of chant; opinions vary as to the composer’s intentions.)


Yet even in church some composers found the opportunity to be both brief and witty. One need look no further than the music of Haydn, whose wit was never far from the surface regardless of what he wrote (see an earlier post devoted to Haydn's humour), to see that he could be grinning as much in the organ loft as the concert hall.


Hoppner: Joseph Haydn (1791)

Around 1777 Haydn composed a Mass dedicated to St John of God for an order of brothers in Eisenstadt called the Brothers of Mercy. This short mass (or missa brevis) contains an extreme example of a technique used by many composers at the time which enables longer movements like the Gloria and Credo to be performed more quickly. Called “telescoping” it involved having different portions of the text sung simultaneously by the different sections of the choir, but perhaps no-one did it quite so telescopically as Haydn did in this particular mass. The four parts of the choir sing four different parts of the text at the same time, meaning that the congregation would have a bit of trouble following the words, to put it mildly, until the last line where they all come together. The upside of it was that in what was probably a freezing cold church, the Gloria - a rather long text - was over and done with in about a minute... [listen]


I referred earlier to Webern’s opus 21 symphony which lasts less than eight minutes. One of the composers who followed in Satie’s footsteps in France was Darius Milhaud who also wrote a number of symphonies. Some are more conventional multi-movement works lasting half an hour or so, but he also wrote six “little symphonies”. These are all in three movements, yet none lasts more than seven minutes; the third of them is less than four minutes long. It was written in Paris in 1921 and this recording, made in 1967, is conducted by the composer when he was 75. [listen]


Darius Milhaud (1923)

We've so far mentioned miniature sonatas, symphonies and masses, but how about an entire opera? OK, the composer - Paul Hindemith - called it a “musical sketch” but it’s a musical theatre work which requires staging, a pit, the whole thing, and it takes just eleven minutes to perform. Called Hin und Zurück the piece is a very cheeky, silly piece of light-hearted fun which satirises operatic practice.


The title means “There and Back”. Roberto the tenor shoots his wife Helene when he discovers a letter from her lover. The Professor and the Ambulance Man take the body away and Roberto jumps out the window. A Wise Man now puts everything right by having the whole story reverse itself; Roberto jumps back in the window and eventually un-shoots his wife. Hindemith has the music reflect this by also going backwards, not as a strict palindrome but mostly phrase by phrase.


This video shows a vocal score with a recording of the complete work in the original German.


This video shows a television production of the piece from 1964, sung in Danish.


Paul Hindemith (1923)

Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück was premiered in 1927 in the heady days of the Weimar Republic. It showed that German composers were also reacting against what they saw as they huge and overblown monoliths of musical Romanticism by writing short, satirical works like this. Within ten years, though, Germany would change beyond recognition and Hindemith would be labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis. By 1940 he had emigrated to the United States.


There’s a lot to be said for keeping it short and sweet, and while most of the great landmarks in western music are works which are long, involved and complex, it’s nice to know that at the other end of the spectrum composers can, when required, write pieces that say what they have to say with a minimum of fuss.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2008.

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