Ragtime and Rhetoric: William Bolcom, "The Garden of Eden, III. The Serpents Kiss"

William Bolcom’s The Garden of Eden is a set of four piano rags, completed by Bolcom in 1969. Illustrating an abstract narrative from the Abrahamic Genesis-creation, the four rags encapsulate Bolcom’s third-stream Americana style, incorporating into a virtuosic piano piece intense melodic, harmonic, and formal composition with traditional rag rhythms, chromaticism, and expressive nuance. While the four rags of The Garden of Eden present a diversity of musical styles, it is in the “rag fantasy,” The Serpent’s Kiss, that Bolcom makes his most interesting use of form, incorporating many contemporary compositional idioms over a traditional rag template.

A modification of the Sousa march, the rag incorporates idiomatic polyrhythms usually in the confines of either 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant strong-beat, left-hand bass pattern and an accompanimental, syncopated, weak-beat right-handed pattern. The right hand typically defines the characteristic of ragtime music with its specific type of syncopation, in which melodic accents occur between metrical beats, usually anticipating or following the metrical emphasis of the accompaniment. Furthermore, traditional ragtime pieces usually contain several distinct themes or “strains,” four being the most common number. These themes are typically highly balanced 16 bars periods, which are divided into four-bar phrases of repeated and reprised patterns. Typical patterns are AABBACCC′, AABBACCDD and AABBCCA, with the first two strains in the tonic key and the following strains in the subdominant. (Berlin)

The term “fantasy,” which Bolcom applies to the third movement of the Garden of Eden set, is somewhat unusual in the rag genre, however not unheard of. The term, according to the New Harvard Dictionary of Music, means “an ingenious and imaginative instrumental composition, often characterized by distortion, exaggeration, and elusiveness resulting from its departure from current stylistic and structural norms.” We can then reasonably assume that Bolcom, when calling this rag a “fantasy,” is claiming some level of compositional “distortion” or formal “elusiveness” that departs from what would typically be considered a rag form. What has Bolcom done in this piece to depart from its perhaps trite rag foundation and give it a modern and creative twist that imbues it with compositional intrigue and interest, achieving a level of artistic expressiveness perhaps greater than would be found in a standard rag?

In order to gain a more artistically dramatic effect, Bolcom has greatly expanded the traditional ragtime form in this piece, making it far more reminiscent of the dramatically transformative piano music of late Romantics like Liszt than the rags of early 20th century American composers like Scott Joplin. He has essentially borrowed the feel and form of rag and superimposed it over Romantic programmatic and thematic developmental processes.

The first identifiable “fantasy” expansion of traditional rag style is Bolcom’s use of drastic musical shifts, specifically in dynamics, tempo, tonality, texture, and musical expressions. In The Serpent’s Kiss, Bolcom frequently changes musical expression and texture from one strain to another, creating great contrasts between sections. Dynamics rapidly and drastically change, usually without gradual crescendo or decrescendo. Tempo is not consistent throughout the piece, as would be typical in a classic rag. Tempo shifts are highly expressive and dramatic, lending a narrative quality to an essentially programmatic piece. Freely changing tempos are not typical in traditional ragtime; however, Bolcom’s D-strain in The Serpent’s Kiss features frequent tempo variations, presenting numerous performative instructions indicating these changes. Some of these eclectic tempo instructions include “Languorous; freely,” “poco accel.,” “Now really speed up!” “Take off!” and “ancora accel.”

Tonality, while easily identifiable as D-centric, is highly chromatic and frequently modulatory. While most rags will explore the tonic and sub-dominant, Bolcom’s rag contrasts the tonic (d-minor) with its flat supertonic and the parallel major – very atypical keys for a rag. The texture in Bolcom’s rag also frequently changes, varying from rhythmic ostinatos, contrapuntal melodic ideas, homophony, melody with simple harmonic accompaniment, and pointillistic, percussive effects. All of these tonal and textural shifts are briefly outlined in Figure-1 below.

The second identifiable expansion of traditional form in rag is the use of melody and melodic development. The general form of this piece is [AA-B-Transition-A’-C-DEE-A-Coda] with each letter representing a different “strain” or theme. As a typical rag would unfold, a strain should be about 16 measures; some of Bolcom’s strains, however, are much longer and even contain multiple themes rather than only one. Refer to the structural diagram above in Figure-1. In it, one can see that Bolcom has allowed for irregular phrase lengths, as in strain D, and has allowed for drastic expansion of certain strains, such as in strains A and E. The greatly expanded A-strain encompasses twenty-two measures with two contrasting sub-themes. The first sub-theme has repeating sixteenth notes in a percussive ostinato-like figuration centered in the key of D minor (Figure-2). The second sub-theme features broken chords combined with chromatic non-chord tones (Figure-3). Bolcom’s “fantasy” treatment of the A-strain this early in the piece becomes significant as one traces his use of thematic transformation of the strain throughout

Bolcom applies thematic transformation (a technique not commonly used in traditional rags) in The Serpent’s Kiss to provide unity throughout the whole piece. The musical motives introduced at the beginning of the rag, primarily in strains A and B, are transformed throughout into different musical ideas in later strains. For example, the material from the above excerpted themes from stain A becomes reinterpreted at least twice during the course of the piece, first with the return of strain A (A’ in the structural diagram) and second during the coda. The first transformation in A’ is quite evident given its strong relation to the original A material, containing the ascending broken chords. In this transformed return, Bolcom allows the left had to participate in the broken figurations while giving the right hand a more lyrical melodic figuration, now lacking the original added tones of the implied harmony (see Figure-4). The second transformation, in the culminating coda, is far more abstract than the transformation in the A’ strain. The measure-by-measure broken harmonies between the left and right hand, however, are clearly reminiscent of the patterns from strain A. Notice how Bolcom is emphasizing groups of three sixteenth notes in the two hands; this is similar to his slurrings in the original second sub-theme of A, which outlines groups of three sixteenth notes, two alone and one as a dyad (see Figure-5).

Another prominent example of this technique is Bolcom’s extensive use of the B-strain. The motive of the theme in the B-strain (Figure-6), which features tied syncopations, is transformed into the theme of the transition (Figures-7), and then is expanded and used as the theme of the D-strain and one of the coda themes (Figures 8 & 9 respectively).

While clearly a fantastical piece of music through Bolcom’s use of highly varied styles, textures, rhythms, dynamics, tempos, and tonalities, this piece finds its unity in Bolcom’s use of a classical and highly artistic compositional idiom: thematic transformation. While using the style and format of a form of “low-brow” art in American music, Bolcom has achieved a piece of art that is “high-brow” in its own rights, creating a dramatic narrative in a piece tightly composed of interesting, formally dynamic, and fundamentally interrelated musical ideas.

Works Cited

Berlin, Edward. "Ragtime”. The Grove Music Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2015

Ness, Arthur J. “Fantasia”. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1986

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- Jordan Alexander Key -

Composer, Musicologist, Organist, Bagpiper

Email: jordanalexanderkey@gmail.com

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