Taken by a Tetrachord

by Libby Bishop

256px-Death_Dido_Cayot_Louvre_MR1780“Descending tetrachord?” Neither one of us had a clue. The descending tetrachord is one of many musical mysteries my husband and I have faced as we have listened and watched Professor Craig Wright's course, Listening to Classical Music, on YouTube from Yale University. Professor Wright is a self-described old white guy, talking about dead (mostly) white guys, to (mostly) rich kids, about a (supposedly) dead musical genre. It should be as exciting as watching gravy congeal. But instead, it is intelligent, instructive, entertaining, funny, and moving.

Much of the success of the course can be attributed to Professor Wright, an exceptional teacher, with knowledge that is broad and deep, yet with no perceptible arrogance from that knowledge, and a passion for his subject and the pleasure of sharing it with others. But equally important is his approach to studying music. From the first lecture, he challenges the dualism of knowing and feeling in which knowing more means feeling less. We can learn about music – its history, forms, structure, and composition—without diminishing our emotional response to it. In fact, understanding may enhance feeling, and vice versa.

Like too much of the rest of my education, my knowledge of music is uneven: the best parts were excellent, but far too many gaps remain. As a child, I learned from my mother and sister, both good pianists, guitar players and vocalists. After attempts at violin and piano, I settled on flute, which I played for several years, barely reaching middling mediocrity. But I do recall the great satisfaction I felt the moment I blew my first full, true note.

Learning music and learning about music is to learn two languages. First, obviously—or rather aurally—is the language of sound. It demands refining one's hearing to distinguish separate voices or instruments. It is like trying to separate the words when listening to rapidly spoken French. I can make out the individual words if they are spoken slowly, but in normal conversation, the words blur into indistinguishable phrases. I can “hear” it, but I cannot differentiate the words to get their meaning. Similarly with music, I can hear, but far too often, I cannot differentiate: bass from melody, oboe from clarinet.

But there is a second language of music: its vocabulary of composition and performance. This language seems less formidable, perhaps because I have too little musical knowledge and too little confidence in my ability, to hear, let alone perform. Anxiety about chanting at the end of my yoga class can undo an hour of stretching. I am drawn to the lexicon of music because, for me, words are familiar territory. Or so I thought.

Listening to the early lectures by Professor Wright, I knew the words he used, or most of them: melody, chord, polyphony. As the lectures progressed, there were words I recognised (sort of) but could not quite define: tonic, chromatic, arpeggio. Then totally unfamiliar terms came prestisimo : ostinato, ternary form, fugato, and eventually, the descending tetrachord.

Wright introduced the tetrachord with a work by Henry Purcell (English composer b.1659-d.1695). Purcell used the tetrachord in his opera, Dido and Aeneas, with the libretto based on The Aeneid by Virgil. Dido is the Queen of Carthage and was loved then abandoned by Aeneas. In the opera, she sings her sorrow in the aria, “When I am laid in earth” before she dies from grief. (In Virgil's poem, Dido stabs herself with Aeneas' sword.) These descending notes express lament, and continue to do so in much contemporary and popular music.

But what exactly is a tetrachord? In his portrait of Bach (Music in the Castle of Heaven*), John Eliot Gardiner defines the tetrachord as “(from Gk, tetrachordon, ‘four-stringed instrument'): Four descending notes contained within a perfect fourth interval, indicating where the semitone can lie.” A definition having two words (three if you count the Greek) that I didn't know was less helpful than I preferred. I can, and did, chase down definitions for perfect forth, and semitone, but I needed something a bit more accessible to get started. The Oxford English Dictionary delivered: “four notes, in a scale, or half of an octave”. This pattern of four descending notes is also called a lament bass, and was used by Monteverdi, Bach, and many other composers.

Purcell composed this music, creating a passage that comes to embody the absolute notion of sorrow, woe and heartache. Ellen Rosand described it as “an emblem of lament.” It is the ur-lament. But how? There are some technical explanations. The music descends down the scale, suggesting decline, possibly even the descent toward death. Purcell's version is chromatic, using adjacent semitones (half-notes) on the scale, and this adds tension to already sombre music. But for me, it remains a marvellous mystery that so few notes evoke such profound melancholy.

With my courage boosted after completing all 23 of Wright's lectures, and my long-standing love of Bach's music, I have persevered with reading Gardiner's Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. In it, he refers to the “famous lament sung by his Queen of Carthage”. Gardiner does not name either the queen or the opera, but I was delighted to be able to recognise this as Dido's aria. One small gap was filled.

Although my repertoire is spotty at best, there is no doubt I am drawn to solemn, some would say dismal, music. I have become curious about some of my other favourite pieces of music. Am I drawn to descending tetrachords? One such piece is Dowland's Lachrimae. I have never studied or analysed it, I just listen and savour its magnificent melancholy. After more Google sleuthing, I end up in the (for me) very unlikely site of Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology. There, in her article, “Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares by John Dowland: Tears of Lost Innocence,” Rebecca Shaw has most helpfully circled some of the many descending tetrachords found in the Lachrimae.

If I needed any more convincing, about the only the only genre of modern music to which I am repeatedly drawn is the blues. Only the Oxford English Dictionary could come up with a definition of the blues that manages to be nearly bloodless: “A melancholic style of music, typically centring on a twelve-bar sequence based around a standard harmonic progression, and having any of a number of distinguishing characteristics intended to express the performer's melancholy, such as the use of blue notes; a vocal style featuring rasping, growling, or the bending or sliding of notes; and certain recurring lyrical themes and structures.”

In contrast to the definition, blues music is raw emotion. Simple in its chords, lyrics, and melody, it is yet deeply evocative. And I have not been surprised to find that the lament bass—with its descending tetrachord—features in many blues songs, including one of my favourites, Robert Johnson's Walkin' Blues.

Has my newly found technical understanding of music weakened its power to move me? At first I was disappointed by some things I learned. For example, there can be great incongruity between the banal motivations of composers and the sublime emotions their music engenders in its listeners. Purcell wrote Dido and Aeneas not for any grand, romantic performance in the royal court, but to be performed by schoolgirls at a private boarding school in Chelsea, a suburb of London. And Dowland may have written the Lachrimae partly in response to his lifelong disappointment about not securing a post as a court lute player. But after some reflection, I actually felt reassured to know that such transcendent beauty could emerge from such quotidian experience.

Where has the tetrachord taken me? I have followed emotion to a place of deeper understanding. That deepened understanding does not diminish, but rather enhances feelings. In a world where facts and understanding—and indeed even reason itself—are all being tarred with epithets of elitism or worse, I am comforted to learn that my short journey with the tetrachord shows it is possible, even desirable, for emotion and feelings to be tempered with understanding and rationality.

* Gardiner, John Eliot. (2014) Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. London: Penguin.

Photo credit: La mort de Didon. By Augustin Cayot (1667-1722) – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=777459