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Thread: Retrogade melodies

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Default Retrogade melodies

    How common they are in tonal, non-serial music? How many can really hear the connection between the "original" melody and the retrogade version on intellectual or instictual level?
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    You can find examples of motifs played backwards in Beethoven, Bruckner, and Bach, which is where Schoenberg got the idea. There's always the "crab canon", which is played both forwards and backwards at the same time. Inversion is actually both more common and much easier to hear.

    I think that people might sense that the melodies have a kinship to each other, but for anything longer than a short motif it would probably be difficult to hear for most. Fortunately, whether or not one knows that one is hearing a retrograde or not is really not very important to following the music.

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    Senior Member Richannes Wrahms's Avatar
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    I'd guess relatively common. All the contrapuntal masters like Bach, Brahms, Bruckner, Schoenberg (including the tonal period), etc all used it (on purpose) profusely. How can you notice it? It sounds quite literally like a reverse tape of something you previously heard sounds like, though the ideal (I think) would be not to notice the effect (as if the retrograde were actually new material, as interesting as the original). You can actually play around and use a program like Free audio editor to reverse a recording of say Brahms Symphony No. 3 and notice the themes and their reverse 'swapping place'.

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    You can find examples of motifs played backwards in Beethoven, Bruckner, and Bach, which is where Schoenberg got the idea. There's always the "crab canon", which is played both forwards and backwards at the same time. Inversion is actually both more common and much easier to hear.

    I think that people might sense that the melodies have a kinship to each other, but for anything longer than a short motif it would probably be difficult to hear for most. Fortunately, whether or not one knows that one is hearing a retrograde or not is really not very important to following the music.
    But Schoenberg made a pretty big deal out retrogades didn't he? To a degree that was unheard of. The point of using a retrogade form of a tone row rather than an entirerly new tone row was to maintain some kind of unity, but if the vast majority of people can only feel a vague connection at best (and even that is questionable), wouldn't it make more sense to just vary the tone row in other ways, alter the order of some of the notes. I just find it a little bit bizarre that in serialism suddenly retrogades are given so much importance.
    Last edited by Dim7; Feb-16-2015 at 23:39.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    But Schoenberg made a pretty big deal out retrogades didn't he? To a degree that was unheard of. The point of using a retrogade form of a tone row rather than an entirerly new tone row was to maintain some kind of unity, but if the vast majority of people can only feel a vague connection at best (and even that is questionable), wouldn't it make more sense to just vary the tone row in other ways, alter the order of some of the notes. I just find it a little bit bizarre that in serialism suddenly retrogades are given so much importance.
    Why should it be bizarre?

    The point is that you can create diversity out of unity. Using retrogrades and inversions helps to ensure that the material is related. The important thing is not the technique, but the result, and of course the fact that a retrograde is used is not nearly as crucial as how it functions within a given musical context.

    Here's a clear example:
    Schoenberg op 27 4.png

    The tone row is stated twice in these two bars. In the first bar, it is distributed as follows:

    The clarinet has a pentatonic scale motif: Df-Ef-Bf-Gf-Af
    The mandolin fills in two notes (a fifth): E-B
    The muted violin has the other five notes, which also are a pentatonic scale: C-D-A-F-G

    The two pentatonic scales are the same thing, a half step apart.

    All of the melodic lines are based on the pentatonic motif of the clarinet. Schoenberg makes use of several different tone rows, but he builds melodies out of only those first five notes of each (the rest of the notes end up in the accompaniment, usually separated as above). Whether you play those first five notes backwards or forwards, even whether you invert them or not (as in the second bar), they still end up spelling out a pentatonic scale, which forms an immediately recognizable aural signature.

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    Senior Member clavichorder's Avatar
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    Retrogrades are usually easy to recognize if they incorporate the same rhythms, no? And their use certainly precedes Bach.

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    Why should it be bizarre?

    The point is that you can create diversity out of unity. Using retrogrades and inversions helps to ensure that the material is related.
    It helps to ensure that the material is "logically" related but I feel the relation is instinctually so weak that you might as well use a new tone row. Maybe a one that begins similarily but ends differently. You would be breaking the "rules" because the new tone row wouldn't be an inversion, retrograde nor a retrograde inversion, but you would make the connection more audible than between the original row and retrograde.

    Inversion is used often in tonal music because it makes sense on a gut level. Retrograde is a lot rarer (correct me if I'm wrong, that's why I started this thread) because it doesn't, at least not nearly as well. Not that using it is exactly a bad idea either, but it might be that tonal composers used it just for the intellectual satisfaction and because it happened to sound ok. But as far as I understand they didn't make it a crucial technique in their composition.


    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    Whether you play those first five notes backwards or forwards, even whether you invert them or not (as in the second bar), they still end up spelling out a pentatonic scale, which forms an immediately recognizable aural signature.
    IMHO, you might as well use the same notes of the pentatonic scale in any order and you'd feel pretty much the same connection.
    Last edited by Dim7; Feb-17-2015 at 01:48.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    It helps to ensure that the material is "logically" related but I feel the relation is instinctually so weak that you might as well use a new tone row. Maybe a one that begins similarily but ends differently. You would be breaking the "rules" because the new tone row wouldn't be an inversion, retrograde nor a retrograde inversion, but you would make the connection more audible than between the original row and retrograde.

    Inversion is used often in tonal music because it makes sense on a gut level. Retrograde is a lot rarer (correct me if I'm wrong, that's why I started this thread) because it doesn't, at least not nearly as well. Not that using it is exactly a bad idea either, but it might be that tonal composers used it just for the intellectual satisfaction and because it happened to sound ok. But as far as I understand they didn't make it a crucial technique in their composition.
    The technique and the piece are not one and the same. The tone row is the material for the piece, and its derivations are material as well. The music does not consist of an arrangement of tone rows any more than a tonal piece consists of a succession of scales.

    You still seem to be under the impression that the listener needs to be aware of how a piece was constructed on the level of rows? Why? Most composers emphasize particular parts of rows, either as motifs or as individual intervals. The row is not a theme that the listener needs to follow.

    If it works, nothing else matters, right?

    IMHO, you might as well use the same notes of the pentatonic scale in any order and you'd feel pretty much the same connection.
    You will find examples of this kind of thing being done, with the row being broken up into segments and making the succession of those segments into an analogue for the row. The reason for not doing it all the time is it loses the row's identity as a succession of intervals, but obviously the row is broken up all the time anyway.

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    How common they are in tonal, non-serial music? How many can really hear the connection between the "original" melody and the retrogade version on intellectual or instictual level?
    Machaut's three-voice rondeau, Ma fin est mon commencement, is a retrograde canon (I think two voices are involved in the canon. Don't have the score handy.)

    The clearest and most readily audible example I know in common practice music is the Menuetto al roverso from Haydn's Symphony no. 47; it completely retrogrades the minuet and trio sections.

    One movement of Bartok's Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste, the third I think(?), has a significant passage that is immediately retrograded, the transformation clearly audible.

    Around the "hinge point" in the second movement of Webern's Symphony, Op. 21, the point where the first half of the movement begins to retrograde, the reversal is obvious to the ear. The second half of the row for the symphony, by the way, is the retrograde of the first.

    In orchestral music retrograde passages, serial or otherwise, are readily recognized when, as in the Webern and Bartok examples, the relationship is underscored by parallel orchestration.
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Feb-17-2015 at 16:18.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    A retrograde in tonality is different than a retrograde in a tone row. A tonal retrograde uses note-identities; a serial retrograde uses quantities.

    For example C-E-G is a major chord, easily recognizable. The retrograde would be G-E C, which is heard as a C major chord in second inversion.

    C-E-G, in serial terms, is the set (0, 4, 7), and the reverse, or retrograde is (0, -4, -7) which is C-Ab-F, or F minor.
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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    C-E-G, in serial terms, is the set (0, 4, 7), and the reverse, or retrograde is (0, -4, -7) which is C-Ab-F, or F minor.
    Wouldn't that be an inversion and not a retrograde?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    Wouldn't that be an inversion and not a retrograde?
    C-E-G, G-E C; that's a reversal, or retrograde, in tonality. It also happens to be an inversion.

    Sets in serial theory are not attached to pitch names; they are quantities. So the retrograde of (0, 4, 7) would be...(7, 4, 0). Is that better?
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Feb-24-2015 at 01:06.
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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    I meant isn't C-Ab-F (f minor) the inversion of C-E-G?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    I meant isn't C-Ab-F (f minor) the inversion of C-E-G?
    Yes, serially. But in tonality, an inversion of a C major is another C major. They call them "first inversion" and "second inversion."
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    Wouldn't that be an inversion and not a retrograde?
    Sorry to ask what might be a very basic question, but what is the exact difference between the two?

    Using the example of Rachmaninov's 18th variation in the Paganini Rhapsody, is it an inversion and not a retrograde simply because he shifts to D-flat major?

    RahmaninovPaganiniInverzija-eng.PNG

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