8. Raising the tension – not strings

I’ve noticed while working through the Goess theorbo manuscript that a few pieces increase the tension before the final cadence. It’s something many composers have done before and after the 17th century, even now, but it is worth focussing in on how they did it back in the late 17th century.

I’ve mentioned in post #5 on Interpreting the French Courante the use of a hemiola in this unattributed courante. It’s the long bar in the second-last line:

Instead of two bars of 3/4 timing (giving 6/4) we have a 3/2 bar, showing three groups of minims. This changes the heavier beats from one every three beats to one every two beats, quickening the heart rate as it were. This is a great way to build up tension before the final cadence, which now brings even a greater degree of release and calm. Here’s its sound file:

Hautement or Hotman (both spellings appear in the Goess MS) seems to enjoy playing with our expectations as his compositions draw to a close. Notice the odd rhythm in the third-last bar, which actually starts at the end of the second-last line:

If we count eight quavers in a bar, numbers 3 and 7 are tied over, giving an odd limp to the rhythm compared to what has been going on in the rest of the piece. It’s like he has deliberately set out to trip up the dancers!

Here’s a recording to help you hear its impact:

Another way to wind up the tension is to introduce a deliberate dissonant note, surely designed to wake up any sleepy listener. Notice anything odd in this piece, again by Hautemant:

Here’s the score:

It’s that letter e at the start of the last bar of the fourth line. It has a squiggle after it, which might mean vibrato – I’m not certain. When I first played it – reading at a slower pace – I assumed it was a mistake, and looked for an alternative. One of the most common mistakes in tablature is for the scribe to place a letter on a wrong string, often adjacent to the intended string. So I tried the e on the second string – even worse! Then on the fourth string – just as dissonant with the bass.

The bass is actually doing something eminently sensible and acceptable: walking from the second note of the major scale to the dominant note before dropping to the tonic for the final chord.

If you play the melody on its own, that letter seems perfectly acceptable, arguably even sensible, as a chromatic lower auxiliary – in fact it sounds beautiful.

So, two acceptable lines coming together to clash horribly – there is humour here, I think. And placed just before the final cadence – a now familiar trope.

To sum up, we’ve seen three ways to increase the tension before the final cadence: hemiola, a rhythm at odds with the rest of the piece, and a deliberately dissonant harmony. Not all compositions in Goess do this, but some do. So listen out for such devices in especially the French baroque, as they do seem to have enjoyed them!