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  • by Mary Barton

Context, Context, Context!

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

When words are taken out of context, often the meaning is changed and makes little sense in the situation. It’s the same in music. When a passage or phrase of music is isolated or separated from it’s surrounding context, it can seem off, out of place or even unpleasant, especially if not particularly melodic or if dissonant.

Music, like literature, always tells a story. Even if simply communicating a mood, it will have a beginning, middle and end. Or it should. Good music will always lead us somewhere. A twist or turn might reveal a sudden valley. A stormy opening might give way to a sunny meadow. But left on its own, a twist or a turn without some sort of destination may leave the listener disappointed and hanging. A storm without a sunny breakthrough may be too intense. And unresolved dissonance may deposit a bad taste in the ear, so-to-speak.

But poised at the right moment, a musical phrase can prepare, set up, and enhance whatever comes next.

Handel’s brilliant opening to the famous Hallelujah! chorus demonstrates a perfect musical setup. Though modern orchestration often tends to blast through the first three measures, which are instrumental, Handel originally used sparse instrumentation, and later on when he apparently enlarged the orchestra for some Messiah performances, he instructed “senza ripieno” at this point, meaning, without the full orchestra. This reduction of orchestral forces creates a gentle lead-up and sense of anticipation, and further thinning of the last three notes of the third measure exposes soft musical footsteps that immediately happen upon the unexpected majestic chorus. It’s like turning a corner in the forest and stumbling upon Banff’s Lake Louise. It’s so majestic, unexpected, and beautiful, one just stops and stares in wonder. Or in this case, listens!

Another masterful setup is found in Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, affectionately nicknamed London because it premiered in London (1795) during his second visit there. It is the last of twelve symphonies composed for a London audience, and the outpouring of a lifetime of craftsmanship.

In the first movement of this four-movement, sonata-cycle work, a fanfare-like introduction storms onto the scene with full orchestral unison on an ascending perfect fifth, followed by a plummeting perfect 4th, flecked with majestic dotted-notes that hint of French-overture style, slowly set in moody D minor.

Fermatas sustain the formidable presence, homophonic texture keeps things pounding, and whispering chromatic passages create suspense as the listener awaits the next clasp of thunder.

But, ah, the sun comes out with D major in the expositional theme, the elegant, frolicking, diatonic melody so much more appreciated now. Violins softly outline the happy tonic triad in symmetrical phrases, suggesting all is in order as the increased tempo has one imagining squirrels scurrying about the wet grass.

Separated from its sunny counterpart, the stormy intro might be somewhat unpleasant to listen to, but in context, it perfectly prepares the listener to more fully appreciate not only the sunny exposition that follows but also the climactic victory over a gathering storm later in the piece. Like the right frame setting a picture, or one colour intensifying another, together the stormy opening and sunny aftermath are perfect companions that enhance our enjoyment of both.

Next time you’re listening to a piece of music, notice where musical passages lead and enjoy the journey!

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