This is an exploration of anacrusic elements in Tchiakovsky “June” (Bacarolle), Op. 37 No. 6. It is one of those pieces that’s poignant, even elegant, in its very simplicity. There’s nothing very complicated in its melody or harmony, making its beauty all the more dependent upon a sensitive performance.
Here’s a look at the melody of its opening, which cannot be separated from its rhythm and phrasing, of course. It’s marked “Andante cantabile,” which gives us a sense of pace, an approach to the melody as a singing line, and combined, a rhythm for breathing.
Looking at its phrasing, we find a dactylic pattern: Long, short, short; then another long, short, short; and a single long phrase to cadence.
Along the way, we might notice that each phrase is identical in one regard: they all begin with three anacrusic (“upbeat”) eighth notes. This pattern continues throughout the entire “A” section.
But what’s up with those phrasing marks? Why are the three anacrusic eighth notes separated from the rest of the phrase? Would you really want to breathe there, or lift your hand from the keys in playing? If not, why did Tchiakovsky separate the anacrusis from the crusis?
Let’s start by clarifying them. To understand the anacrusis or “upbeat,” we need to know the nature of the crusis, or “downbeat.” Common wisdom says the downbeat has a special strength, even accent; it’s where you tap your foot or nod your head; it’s the beat conductors beat hardest; it’s where some band directors literally stomp into the floor!
But simple physics tells us that a motion initiated at the lowest point in space can’t stay there – it must move upward (or else it’s stagnant and has no movement at all). The “downbeat” begins “down,” but has to move upward from there, if it moves at all.
We think of the “stomp” as the strength of that beat – it’s the earthy “boom” of the crusis’ initial force that we perceive as its essence. Common wisdom says the “downbeat” is all about “down” — and some musicians seem to have the idea that the harder we pound it downward, the better!
In physical terms, however, “down” is merely a point in space. (There is no “down” movement, because movement requires a direction — there is movement beginning “up” in space and moving downward, and there is movement beginning “down” in space and moving upward.)
In terms of music, “down” is an infinitesimal moment in time. Dwelling on that moment stops time, in the same way dwelling on that point in space stops movement. The sense of arriving and stopping has a real effect on the sound we make in music. Combining the elements of space and time (the essence of Eurhythmics), we recognize “down” as a point in space we touch upon as the ictus of new momentum — a moment in which we change direction, immeasurable in time, yet immeasurably significant.
The idea of changing direction is powerful in itself. At the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, we learned to move toward, toward, toward each shape – always with the goal of a position in mind, but never with the idea of dwelling there. Similarly, ballet teachers might admonish, “Don’t sit in your plie!” (and it’s been said that you can tell almost everything about a ballet dancer from watching them perform a first-position grand-plie, with the change of direction an important point); yet in the next breath, the very same teacher may coach, “Hold that picture before you move on! The picture is what the audience pays for!”
These are two very different views of one art form: the picture – static visual shapes – vs. the movement in-between those shapes, which is where all the music happens.
The difference between the anacrusis and crusis is physically represented by the single most powerful change of direction there is: a change from falling to rising again. Symbolically as well as physically, there’s enormous strength in the moment of rising from a fall. It is the subject of resurrection, of winter’s change to spring, of death and rebirth.
This very phenomenon was the basis of the modern dance technique of Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman (connected with Denishawn, and thus connected with Eurhythmics): fall and recovery, and the sensation of “suspension” or “release” in-between — the moments after a crusic rebound, and the next anacrusic fall. In a philosophical sense, everything that happens between those polarities, those instantaneous touch-points, is where the energies of dance and music have life.
In Jack Stevenson’s teaching of Eurhythmics, the same principles apply. Conducting patterns, or the patterns Jaques-Dalcroze invented for his “arm-beats,” are series of points in space that mark changes of direction. Thus the focus is not on the “arrival” to some static point, but rather on the journey from one point to the next.
So, is the nature of crusic strength really about pounding down into the ground, driving energy into the earth as hard as possible? Isn’t that what power, accent, and strength are all about – stomping our feet? Beating down? Pushing along with gravity?
No – on all the levels described. It’s about the energy inherent in resisting gravity, in rising from the fall, in changing direction from downward to upward. The moment of touching the base is indeed powerful, but emphasizing that and fixating energy there makes your music is all about the next “down,” and the next and the next (a tragic requirement of many dance accompanists).
Music soars between them. It’s why some piano teachers speak of drawing the sound upward, lifting it out of the instrument. It’s why dancers can only lift from the ground by first releasing downward into gravity. It’s why inhalation and exhalation need each other; it’s yin and yang. It’s about moving between the polarities of Humphrey-Weidman’s “fall and release,” and embodying every single millisecond of the magnificent time between them with complete consciousness,
How does this connect with Tchiakovsky’s “June?” Look at those phrase markings again. They seem intended to delineate a change between the anacrusis and crusic parts of each phrase. Indeed, they are different in their energies. The standard idea of phrase markings telling us when to breathe or lift, however, doesn’t apply here. Instead, it seems like an effort to define those separate energies, sounds, ways of playing. Perhaps it relates to Tchiakovsky’s inclinations as a composer for dance; perhaps not. But this notation denotes a difference between anacrusis and crusis, and places renewed emphasis on each crusic beat within each phrase.
Tchiakovsky seems to be telling pianists of his day, “This is different from that.” (“The anacrusic part is different from the crusic part.”) Of course, if you’ve already experienced crusis and anacrusis through movement, you knew that. From that perspective, these phrase markings are equivalent to “courtesy accidentals.” And our response is the same: “We knew that anyway. But thanks for the reminder.”
(We’ll take up the syncopations in the “B” section next June!)