1 August 2013 in Music

What good is Roman Numeral analysis? I think about this sometimes and grow despondent. What good does it do me? My pencil has hovered over Benjamin Britten’s “Cuckoo!” all summer long, and I’ve reached no confident, numerically pleasing conclusion.

“Cuckoo!” is a simple song, written for young people to sing in two parts. The “cuckoo” part doesn’t vary from start to finish: two pitches lob back and forth as if over an invisible tennis court net. Cuc – koo. Cuc – koo. Twenty-four times. Taken out of context, the pitches of the “cuckoo” motive fail to suggest a key. One might guess A-flat major as easily as f minor. The little bird  mocks me for not knowing for sure.

Donald Mitchell* remarks that “this is certainly not music over which one wants to pour a flood of inappropriate words,” and he’d likely scold me for “pouring” words here. But, pour I will.

With its pile of half a dozen phrase segments, “Cuckoo!” is almost folk-like, and Britten has an easy time of faking me out. The opening measures are harmonically static, but to my ear at least, they suggest A-flat major. As soon as the story begins, however, the bass line clambers down the minor scale (with one yummy altered tone). Playing the piano part, I roll the “sonorous” left hand triads, demarcating the lowest tone with rhythmic regularity. F, E-flat, D-flat, C, B-flat, A-flat, G-flat (!), F. The triads built upon these tones are openly spaced (why, if chords were trees, there would be room enough for a bird to alight and sing its tune) and the open sonority is especially comforting. At the return of A-flat major, who’s to notice that Britten has completely sidestepped the dominant, the strongest indicator of key? The piece is an f minor sandwich. F minor sandwiched between two slices of of its relative major. I’ve got a sandwich (and a tree) and a tennis match; a lot of good Roman Numerals do me!

But wait, look now nicely the harmonic scheme mimics the cuckoo’s motive, lobbing back and forth. Major, minor, major. Cuc – koo. Cuc – koo. And the poem, an epigram really, expresses the same nonchalance and ambivalence:

In April I open my bill;
In May I sing night and day;
In June I change my tune;
In July far-far I fly;
In August away— I must.

I scold the song for not adhering to traditional, functional harmony, but it is the bird who deserves my frown. The whole song repeats (yet another lob) and the vocal parts switch (and another). Britten lulls me into accepting all aspects of the little story, from delight over the bird’s arrival, to disappointment in its capriciousness, to melancholy when it flies away. It all works rather perfectly, Roman Numerals or not.

*Donald Mitchell, Britten and Auden in the Thirties (2000).