the still, small tone of disquiet
May 16, 2014 9:23 AM   Subscribe

A soft, sustained high note floats over a musical texture. The music moves on underneath (slow, sad, troubled, tense - anything but happy examples) while the high note continues, insistently. Help me (re)find examples of this trope in pieces of classical music and solve something that's been needling me for a long time.

10-15 years ago I heard someone describe this particular compositional technique with reference to a musical example, and then heard the piece in context - which with that setup was very, very moving. I've had an ear out for the trope ever since, but have never been able to find what the original piece I heard analysed was. (My memory says this was part of a BBC documentary, but that might neither be here nor there.)

It's an extremely effective technique and used a lot in music for film and TV - imagine the soundtrack to a crime thriller at a point where someone is quietly about to discover something shocking, and how the music keeps you absolutely still and on edge until the story's next moment.

The high note is usually strings, sustained or very quiet tremolo. High woodwinds are also an option, though. Musically, the note functions as an extreme inverted pedal note to any harmonic movement underneath it and lasts for at least several bars. It's chilling, plaintive, eerie.

The d′ ′ ′  pedal at the beginning of RVW's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is very near to this (but shifting between eerie and sublime!). The e♭′ ′ (′ ) octaves which persist through most of the first five minutes of part II of Mahler 8 are definitely one example, on a very large scale.

I have a feeling I'm looking for small-ensemble music - quartets, chamber ensembles - but orchestral pieces or even choral (the 'floaty far-off angelic soprano note' effect) also count. Can you help me track down these pieces, and maybe even hit on the original which got me searching?
posted by lokta to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like there's definitely an example of this in the movie "Fantasia", but am not sure where.
posted by Melismata at 9:54 AM on May 16, 2014

There are sections of the second movement of the Philip Glass violin concerto where you can find this sort of thing.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 9:59 AM on May 16, 2014

I'd recommend Gorecki's Third Symphony, "The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" here.
It takes a while to get going, but the cumulative effect is gutwrenching.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 10:15 AM on May 16, 2014

Have you checked out Mahler's 1st Symphony?
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:24 AM on May 16, 2014

Counterpoint or contrapuntal, perhaps, is the style of music you are looking for, as your pieces have a couple melodic phrases progressing independently.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:37 AM on May 16, 2014

In the movie Amadeus, Salieri talks about the high note coming in in Mozart's Serenade for winds (third movement).
posted by foxjacket at 10:58 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came in here to cite the Mozart Serenade as well. And here's the part in Amadeus when Salieri describes that long high note.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:01 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is called an inverted pedal point.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:02 AM on May 16, 2014

Adagio from Gayane. Near the end, especially.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:43 AM on May 16, 2014

Sibelius Violin concerto in D

The technique your talking about is used in spades in musical especially when there's an introduction or exposition especially if there's tension.

You can look at the introduction to Brigadoon (Once in the Highlands) or Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific or You Are Beautiful from Flower Drum Song and you can hear that style: put the strings up high in a single note or chord and run the melody in the alto/tenor range: intrigue!
posted by plinth at 1:31 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings sort of what you're looking for?
posted by zoetrope at 2:50 PM on May 16, 2014

There are a couple of spots in the Adagietto movement of Mahler's 5th Symphony, where there is a sustained C through several slow chord changes. In this Bernstein recording, the C starts in the cellos at 9:28 and doesn't resolve until 10:20. It's a very moving moment leading to the climax of the piece.

Also, there is the Immovable Do by Percy Grainger, with a sustained C throughout the piece.
posted by mefireader at 9:09 PM on May 16, 2014

Larger piece, of course, but Beethoven's 4th symphony is the first thing that comes to mind.
posted by klausman at 10:44 PM on May 16, 2014

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