Breakdown: Souvenir de Porto Rico

This series is called Breakdown. In this series, I will break down the technical part of a song that I have learned to play as my years as a musician

Souvenir de Porto Rico by L.M. Gottschalk is one of the more prominent pieces in developing my personal passion for classical music. While familiar with classical music as a child due to playing piano, I never really liked classical music until I heard Souvenir de Porto Rico. As such, I figured that Souvenir was the perfect choice for my first breakdown.

Souvenir de Porto Rico, Op.31 by L.M. Gottschalk, is a solo piano piece that was composed over a period of four years and published in 1860. Op.31 is a stylistic piece in the form of variations, written in 2:4 time and in Eminor, a rather jazzy key. According to wikipedia, the piece was inspired by the scenery of Puerto Rico during Gottschalk’s stay in Puerto Rico, and the piece is influenced heavily by a Christmas folk song, Si Me Dan Pasteles.

Upon listening to Souvenir de Porto Rico, the first attribute that strikes me is familiarity. Ever since the first time I heard Souvenir, the song sounded familiar to me; unlike other classical compositions, this piece is very easy to understand and to follow. This makes sense due to a number of factors. First, this piece is from the mid 1800s, and so  it is much more modern than a piece composed in, say, the 1600s. Second, this piece finds influences from Latin and African music, which is pervasive in modern music in America. These roots are the same roots found in ragtime and jazz, and so the piece dissipates a rather jazzy feel. Third, the technicals of this piece are largely based around octaves and triads, both of which are pervasive in popular music. Everything that happens in this piece can be found in your local Metallica song, and so one doesn’t need to have a ph.d in music theory to listen and enjoy this piece.

Souvenir is a double variation; there are two themes, hereto referred to as A and B. Each variation becomes a more complex take on the initial theme. The piece strongly utilizes dynamic range; loudness is often a relative quality, and as such, the song starts out very quietly, and with each variation becomes louder and more lively, until the piece climaxes and dies out. Without further adieu, let’s assess the piece.

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The first variation begins as Moderato ma con moto. This sets the tempo as moderately fast, but also explains that the piece is played with rhythm. As such, this gives a ‘swing’ feel to the piece, a quality more akin to jazz than to rigidity of classical music. This swing highlights the Latin American roots of the piece. The piece starts out as pianissimo, or soft in loudness. In terms of notation, the piece swings from E♭ to Gplayed in three octaves. This rhythm is in the pattern of traditional march rhythm, with the timing being long, long, short, short, long. A B is played as a transition between repeats. It is worth noting that EGB makes up an Etriad.

At the second repeat, a ‘lick’ occurs where a ghost note appears before a B triad that adds complexity to the initial theme. This addition of complexity is repeated throughout the song, and signals a transition into a new ‘pseudo-theme.’

Next, the piece is played at four octaves, rather than three. The part is denoted misterioso, meaning mysterious. The highest octave is always an E, and is played simultaneously with all E♭, and held on the swings from E♭ to G♭. This highest octave changes to a D natural at the ‘kick,’ which is supported by an inverted B♭ triad and once again signals a change in complexity.

At this point, we add the melodic part of theme A, which consists of an E♭ major which transposes up and down the scale. This is noted to be played bien rythme, with rhythm. Here we see a divergence in theme A; throughout the rest of the piece, theme A is central around the rhythmic right hand, played between E♭ major and A♭ major. The rhythm  is as follows; build up, build down, build up and end on the tonic major, build down and end with a B♭ triad. The rhythm is repeated twice, then evolves. After repeating the rhythm four times, the piece moves into theme B.

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In the first variation of theme A, we note that the bass is used only to keep the rhythm. The bass plays an E♭ in march rhythm; long, long, short, short, long. At the end of each rhythm is denoted by playing a B♭ rather than an E♭. After the theme evolves, where the piece is denoted ben legato, we add a fourth octave, similar to before. Here, our octave plays in sequence with the marching rhythm, and plays a D natural after the second repeat; this  sequence mirrors the first part of the song, and leads into theme B.

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Theme B is played legato, meaning smoothly, and malinconico, meaning melancholy. The theme begins with an E♭ triad followed by a B♭ then an A♭ triad. The 2:4 time signature is emphasized here; ONE two ONE two ONE two ONE two, similar to iambic pentameter in poetry. After the A♭ triad, a C♭ is followed by an A♭7 and a melancholic dance which leads into a diminuendo, meaning the piece becomes softer. The diminish is followed by a B♭7, followed by an F, followed by an E♭ triad which leads to a mirror within the theme. After the E♭, another A♭7 is played, but this time with the highest pitch voice on the E♭ rather than the A♭; this is important, because the ear is naturally drawn to the highest pitch, so the ear hears this second variation as ‘below’ the first variation of Theme B, which lends a melancholy sound to the theme.

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At the next repeat of theme A, the complexity takes a step forward. Here, the song is played entirely in the bass cleft. It is labeled mercato il basso, meaning the bass dominates, and is denoted ben misurato, meaning very strict timing. The right hand plays only the main melody, and the bass carries the action in the second variation of theme A. Immediately interesting is the timing in the first measure, where the bass is played between notes of the rhythm. This is very rubato and jazzy. Also note the accent above the B♭ in the first measure; this is a percussive accent stating that the emphasis is on the second note. This adds a dynamic fluidity to the piece, adding the sense of improvisation; again, very jazzy, and not something that is often found in European Classical Music.  After the first ‘march,’ we note a crescendo in the bass that occurs with a downscale movement; this is also interesting. Typically, we expect crescendos with increasing pitch, but a crescendo with decreasing pitch contrasts two separate feelings.

This crescendo transitions into a very smooth playing. Here we see our first variation in the rhythmic right hand, playing G♭ and C♭ rather than the A♭and C♭ we’d normally expect. Additionally, we have a nice downward chromatic run in the bass that occurs simultaneous to the end of the first ‘build up’ referenced previously. The theme ends on the tonic, and leads into Theme B, which is not varied upon with respect to the first time Theme B is introduced.

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After the theme B is played, we come back to a more intricate version of theme A. This version is played with a downward chromatic run in the bass which runs from the tonic to the fifth during the main melody. After each chromatic run, the tonic is played in the right hand, which adds a very delicate touch to the piece. After the first repeat of the main theme, the right hand is slightly varied to breathe more life into the piece; this gives a good jumping off point for what’s about to happen in theme B.

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As we see, we lead into theme B by playing a scale into an E♭7. This immediately jumps into a chromatic run in the bass as the main melody of theme B is played. As the bass builds upwards it jumps into the right hand, where another chromatic run is played from A♭ to C natural. This then jumps into an E♭, supported by a D♭ in the bass, which jumps down to a D♭ to an E natural. This is then followed by a small fall, a B♭ to A♭ supported by it’s fifth, F♭, then a greater fall which starts at the tonic E♭ and ends at a G♭ an octave and a half lower. It’s worth noting that this part is played elegante, brillante, and sounds heroic. The fall is played alongside a dimunendo, which gives a ‘rise and fall’ effect to the music. It’s also worth noting that the bass ends on the tonic E♭, and the corresponding note in the right hand to the bass notes are the thirds of each note played. After the fall, the piece builds again, but transposed to a pitch. After the next chromatic run, the piece takes a different direction that the first time, where a crescendo is met by a decrescendo. After the decrescendo, the piece borrows from the melody of theme A and ends on the tonic E♭.

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The next variation on theme A begins on eighth notes of the fifth, B♭. This leads to a the main theme, which is backed by a bass note followed by quarter notes of a high E♭ and punctuated by the E♭ even an octave higher. This gives a roaming quality to the piece, and playing it will lead you to agree; the left hand does quite a bit of traveling on this part. At the end of each variation, a B♭is played rather than an E♭. The whole variation ends on a grand E♭ triad, which leads into theme B, which is played the same as before.

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Theme B ends on the tonic E♭, but immediately jumps into a percussive fortissimoThe fortissimo is played as B♭ in the right hand, but a descending B♭ to G♭ to F to E♭ in the bass; this grants a concluding sentiment to the piece. In what feels like the climax of the piece, the main melody is supported by the root note an octave below, and the jazzy bass from the second variation makes a return with more oomph and a greater role. The chromatic run from the second variation is again varied, now including octaves to give a more powerful effect. The theme ends on a martellato, a forceful hammering of the keys that leads into theme B.

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Here it is; the true climax of the piece. Beginning on tutta forza, with the most force, the piece reaches its greatest complexity. The beginning of theme B has a bit of a stutter compared to how it has been in the beginning of the song, which can be exaggerated for artistic effect since this is a solo piano piece. Ignoring the facilite version, or the easy, alternative version, this essentially is two gigantic chromatic runs, much like before, except with octaves and triads and a couple of 7 chords thrown in. Breaking down this part would be a post in itself, so I invite you to just listen and enjoy the virtuosity (I would like say that I have not yet learned this part, and have no intention of learning this part in the near future; it is above my technical level, and would require an inordinate amount of practice to successfully play).

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 12.19.41 AMHere an interesting thing happens; a well timed key change! The song switches to B Major, and the song takes on a different feeling. The variation is played giocoso, playfully, and in addition to the major key, gives a triumphant if carnival-like emotion to the piece. This part is fun and is similar to the previous variation, but with a more complete-sounding tone.

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After yet another chromatic run, the variation jumps up an octave, yielding an explosively happy tone. Eventually, the piece switches back to Eminor, and is played agitato. This is eventually followed by a large diminuendo, as the piece slows down and eventually dies out. For the rest of the song, nothing that hasn’t already been introduced is introduced.

Through this post, I hope I have shown how deceptively simple, in theory, this seemingly-daunting classical piece is. The song abides by a few rules and doesn’t throw anything really heavy in theory-wise. As far as chords go, the song relies mostly on octaves, triads, and the odd 7 chord; typically the three simplest chords that can be played. A key switch does occur, going from Eminor to B♭ major; both of these keys are fairly easy to play on piano however. The song follows the same marching rhythm; long, long, short, short, long. This pattern can be seen at any point in the entire song.

The song is based on double variations, varied around two themes. Theme B is a bit more complex than theme A, but both themes are fairly simple. The volume of the piece varies throughout the piece, with a climax in the center; this gives the piece a fair bit of dynamic motion, and enables the piece to evolve into a burst of triumph. The piece stays at the same time signature and tempo throughout, and is written in the incredibly familiar 2:4 time signature. 2:4 is almost identical to 4:4 time, and 4:4 time is the time signature for just about every single piece of popular contemporary music.

The piece becomes more lively and smooth as the song evolves. This gives an interesting contrast to the beginning of the piece, which is very abrupt in style and very faithful rhythmically. While the piece doesn’t deviate from the rhythm, it begins to fill in the gaps between silences.

What makes this piece interesting is two-fold; first, the dominance of rhythm. This is a very Latin American/African trait. The dominance of rhythm is what makes this piece sound so familiar to anybody that has grown up in America or around American music, where most pieces, especially pop songs, faithfully follow 4:4 time, often captured by a metronome-like, hard hitting percussive bass drum. Second, this piece has a lot of syncopation. While I hinted at syncopation during the second variation of theme A, it becomes much more pronounced as the piece becomes more and more complex. Syncopation, ‘off-beat’ playing, is a very jazzy quality; it gives the piece a free-flowing and improvisational quality, despite being rigidly reproduced by a sheet of paper. This is a sharp contrast to the very strict, rigid image many people get when they think of classical music. While it may not be entirely fair to compare Mozart to a composer who came 100 years later, the contrast is striking; as impressive as Rondo Alla Turca is, it sounds very machine-like, almost like a computer is playing it, whereas Souvenir has a very human quality to it.

Thank you for bearing with me here; next up will likely be Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy, once I’ve finished playing through the piece. Please leave feedback regarding my breakdown; if what I said was too confusing, not confusing enough, too technical, etc… I’d love to hear it.


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