Ether Etude for sextet, opus 77 (2009)
Ether Etude was composed in 2009 for Ensemble Offspring. It is a two minute work scored for sextet of flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet and string quartet and takes its musical material from a snippet of Beethoven’s piano music. The work was commissioned by MLC School Sydney for their Australian Music Day that year. Part of the commission was to write detailed analytical notes so that students at the school could better understand the process and structure of the work.
Subsequently Alyssa Rothwell produced an animated video film of the work called Joyride. Both the analytical notes and the YouTube video appear below.
Ether Etude – Analytical Notes
It’s called Etude (or study) because the piece is a study on triplet motion and also a study on a phrase of music by Beethoven; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 – the second movement, “Arietta”, bars 89-102.
The ‘Ether’ of the title suggests two things – the high floating gassy ether of the sky and the knockout gas; hence the high passage-work and the slightly wonky, unsteady character of the piece.
The piece falls into three sections:
A: bars 1-17
B: bars 18-31 and
A1: bars 31-41
with the A1 section being a transformation of the A. The B section has direct or slightly varied quotation of the Beethoven material and the outer sections, in turn, derive from this same material. In that sense the opening section functions as a development of the Beethoven material but also as an exposition of new material as the Beethoven reference is as yet unheard – a paradoxical form. We hear the triplets and interleaving ideas of A as though it is new material but it becomes clear as the work unfolds that it is a kind of ‘pre-development’ of the B material.
The A section (bars 1-17) itself breaks down into two primary parts plus a codetta;
a (bars 1-9) parcels out scraps of the Beethoven in an A Minor tonal area. The triplets of Beethoven’s music are broken down and presented in a kind of scherzo manner as playful fragments in the flute accompanied by counter-figures on violin 1 harmonics, violin 2 pizzicato and lower strings’ col legno. Important for the future use of the material are the dynamic contrasts as at bars 4 and 6 and the continual little glissandi giving the music a kind of tipsy quality.
a’ (bars 9-17): the tonal area moves down a semitone to be based around A flat via the transitional passage at bar 9. The melodic chromaticism of the flute part at bar 8 creates the ‘possibility’ of this movement – a downward semitone drop is implicit in the thematic idea which consists of three groups of triplets each a semitone lower than the previous. Hence, the ear accepts further motion of this sort on a larger scale. The material from 1-9 is presented in a varied repetition with flute and clarinet in canon at the octave and the accompanying figures in viola and cello and the two violins also in free canon between the upper and lower strings. From bar 13 the violins and then the lower strings join the canon with flute and clarinet creating an increase in intensity, textural density and excitement leading to a brief codetta pattern at bars 16-17.
codetta (bars 16-17): the codetta figure is a simple gesture consisting of triplet arpeggios outlining a chordal pattern – namely, an F major chord – C major chord – A flat major chord. This is a chordal pattern that is defined by the outer parts moving inwards around a common tone (ie. f-c-f ––e-c-g ––e flat-c-a flat). Finally, the codetta has three punchy chords at bar 17 with the same harmonic progression. The pizzicato ‘e’ on violin 2 that underlies these chords in fact anticipates the next section – the two sections are dovetailed creating a smooth transition into the B section.
The B section (bars 18-31) is quite delicate and has an expression marking to suit: “go lightly”. The section breaks down into two subsections and a codetta and sits in a tonal region around C Major and the dominant of C Major
a (bars 18-25) has material that is essentially the Beethoven quotation transcribed from the piano version of the original to the version here for sextet. The repeated quavers of Beethoven’s left hand are passed between the clarinet, violin two, viola and cello with a wide range of perky colors and sonorities (including cello harmonics, viola pizzicato and clarinet staccato) to create a sense of playful motion. In addition, the clarinet slightly embellishes the repeated notes with little chromatic runs at bars 18, 21, 23 and 24. The runs are themselves taken from the chromatic triplet figuration that the flute plays at bar 8. The flute and first violin pass Beethoven’s triplet passagework between them.
a’ (bars 25-28) is a continuation of a except that the accompanying quavers become more harmonically driven and of longer duration as a mood of lyricism starts to become evident. From the second beat of bar 25, the triplet figuration changes in its phrasing from groups of three to groups of nine, also creating a kind of lyricism. As it descends in pitch the triplet figuration is shared with the clarinet (see bar 27) as well as flute and first violin. At bar 27 and bar 28 the first violin and clarinet embellish Beethoven’s original triplet semiquavers with diatonic crushed notes almost suggesting the melodic world of Stravinsky. The flute takes on an accompanying role as the triplets descend – this also enables the cello and viola to have time to brace themselves for the challenging passagework about to arrive at bar 29.
codetta (bars 29-31) is the moment of harmonic arrival in Beethoven’s original and a fine moment it is in the original piano version. It is more challenging here though as the transcription relies on the viola and to a lesser extent the cello to achieve a sense of momentum – that is of still going forward. This passage is used as a bridge to turn the material back to the A Minor of the start of the work whereas at the same moment in the original Beethoven goes forth in arpeggiated C Major chords. A different turn is taken as it were.
Marked “wild” the energetic and canonic A1 section (bars 31-41) continues the same structural pattern as before as it has two subsections and a coda.
a (bars 32-36) is a loud passage which returns in a transformed version some of the material from the work’s opening. The scoring in this passage breaks into three groups of two players: flute and violin one; clarinet and violin two; and viola and cello. The flute and first violin play the work’s opening triplets in the flute with an accompanying figure in unison triplet rhythm in the first violin. At the end of each set of triplets a shrill melodic figure is played (C-A; C-A-G sharp-A-B and so on) which is presented with wild glissandi between notes and a drone open string A. This figure is based on the melodic material first heard in pizzicato violin two at the work’s opening. Here it is presented initially by clarinet and violin two so that the flute and violin one are in canon with the former. Accompanying this material are triplet scalic runs and emphatic downbeat double stops in viola and cello; harmonically, this material derives from bars 15-16. Rhythmically each run starts a quaver earlier than the previous creating a stretto effect compounded by the close canons in the high upper parts.
a’ (bars 36—38) is a brief passage that functions as a moment of arrival from the previous passage but also provides a transitional or bridging role into the next section. The material at bar 36, with its combination of wild trills, tremolos and glissandi is a transformation of the trills from bars 4 and 6 and is a kind of apotheosis of the work. The exuberance and dissonance of bar 36 allows the following passage of running triplets (from the last quaver of bar 36 to the end of bar 38) to provide a kind of “escape” – ‘with one bound he was free’. The melodic passage from 36-37 is based on the flute part at bar 8 and the answering fragment (bar 38) comes from the flute part at bar 5. The underlying pizzicato chords at bar 38 anticipate the full chords of the coda.
coda (bars 39-41) takes material from the opening codetta (see bar 17) and extends it through repetition and greater rhythmic emphasis. The repetition of the figure signals that the work is concluding. The final chord (bar 41) cements the tonal region in A Major, takes the col legno device from the opening and adds a quirky harmonic glissandi in the first violin as the music evaporates into the ether.
© Andrew Schultz, 2009