On musical structure and storytelling

If a novel is like a symphony, a well-crafted short story is like a piano piece by Chopin
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

1746 words · 9 min read

I’ve spent much of my early life trying to be a classical musician—a pianist, or a conductor, perhaps—before spending a lot of time thinking of becoming a writer and actually doing something about it. So it may sound strange to you, but I often think of fiction in musical terms. A novel is a symphony, while a short story is a short piano piece by Chopin.

As someone who loves orchestral music more than piano music, let me say from the outset that I’m not fond of Chopin’s music. He was, no doubt, a great melodist, a good contrapunctist (if that’s a word), and an innovator of piano technique, but he didn’t seem to understand large-scale structure the way great symphonic composers did. And he knew he wasn’t good at it: in an era where composing a symphony or an opera was a statement of compositional prowess, Chopin avoided writing them altogether. His largest works are the two piano concertos, which are neither his best works, nor the best works within the repertoire. His only large-scale works worthy of mention are the last two piano sonatas. His third sonata, in B minor, is perhaps one of the best piano sonatas ever written after Beethoven (the other is Liszt B minor Sonata), but the second sonata, in B-flat minor, always makes me scratch my head.

The second sonata is in part modelled on Beethoven’s Funeral March sonata op. 26. Chopin’s Funeral March sonata opens with two octaves separated by the same interval as in the two octaves in the beginning of Beethoven’s very last sonata op. 111. After a brief introduction, we hear a five-note motif in the furious exposition. The same motif will be developed throughout the sonata in an almost Beethovenian manner. While the recapitulation doesn’t return to the first subject in tonic, as the convention required, the ambitious first movement makes a big promise. The second movement followed through the grandeur set out in the first movement, culminating in the moving Funeral March in the third movement. At this point, one might expect Chopin to put something substantial in the fourth movement.

If the late Beethoven had written this sonata, he would have ended the sonata with a massive fugue in the fourth movement, as he did in op. 106 Hammerklavier sonata in B-flat major, or op. 110 in A-flat major, or as in his original conception of the String Quarter op. 130 in B-flat major1.

Instead, Chopin’s second sonata ends with a minute-and-a-half of indistinct murmur that leads to two large chords.

No respectable symphonists would have written a finale for a symphony like Chopin did for his second piano sonata. Indeed, if one of the great symphonists had done that, he wouldn’t have been a great symphonist in the first place. Imagine Beethoven had in fact written a three-minutes finale for his 9th symphony, in which the first three movements lasted for 30 minutes in total. Such a symphony would be the most ridiculous symphony in the history of music.

There were symphonies written before Joseph Haydn, but he was the composer who first formalised Symphony and established the Austro-German tradition of symphonic writing. He laid the foundation of what would become the symphony as we know it today. In Haydn’s rule book, a symphony starts with an allegro-sonata form movement, followed by a slow movement, then a minute, and finally a fast movement, very often in Rondo form. His symphonies were meant to be entertainment for his princely employers, most notably Prince Nikolaus Esterházy.

Today, a symphony is meant to be experienced in a concert hall as a single work without any interruptions or applause in between movements.

In the early days of symphonies, however, audience gave applause routinely between movements, and often demanded immediate encore of the movements they liked. Even Beethoven himself approved of this practice2 despite the fact that he was perhaps the first composer to put together a symphony with some sort of a narrative structure on top of it. The practice of interrupting a symphony in between movements didn’t go out of fashioned until the 20th century. As such, a symphony was probably thought of more as a collection of four separated but related pieces than a coherent whole with four parts.

But once a listener can make sense of the overall structure of one symphony, there is no going back to viewing a musical masterpiece as a mere collection of four pieces. Applause between movements is not just a reflection of your not knowing classical music, but also an annoyance for more learned listeners.

At this point, I am at risk of becoming unforgiving in the eyes of less experienced listeners of classical music. So I shall now turn my attention to Chopin’s piano pieces.

Chopin is one of the few composers who gravitated towards only one end of the size spectrum. Even some other composers who wrote almost exclusively for piano, such as Charles-Valentin Alkan, wrote music for the piano in a much grander scale that made more structural sense, such as the Symphony for Solo Piano within his 12 Etudes in minor keys.

Other major composers had written important pieces in various forms and sizes: Brahms' symphonies, for instance, all seem epic and monumental, but his late miniature piano pieces are absolute gems within piano literature despite their small scale; Franz Schubert, likewise, was able to compose monumental symphonies such as The Great in C major, while at the same time left was with thousands of songs, or Lieder, each one of them lasting for only a few minutes.

Most of the remaining output of Chopin that I haven’t touched upon are piano pieces, the shortest of them probably last for a little more than half a minute (e.g. the 1st of 24 Preludes op. 28), and the longest one doesn’t last more than fourteen minutes (e.g. Fantasie in F Major op. 49). In the world of classical music dominated by large scale symphonies and endless operas by Wagner, Chopin pieces seem to insignificant.

Except his pieces are by no means insignificant. In fact, to play them well is incredibly difficult.

Let’s take Mazurka op. 24 no. 2 in C major as an example. On paper, this Mazurka, as in so many other of his Mazurkas, looks almost silly: a four-bar introduction leads us to a two-bar motif with the harmonic progressive of IV-V7-I (V7 with a missing G?), which is repeated in a in A minor, for two bars. The four-bar sequence just now repeats itself, thus forming a eight-bar phrase, before we hear a fanfare-like four-bar segment, which repeats itself. Then we hear a new four-bar sequence, which is then repeated with a slight variation in the second time. That forms an eight-bar phrase that repeats itself once, with some more variations, before returning to the first 16-bar fragment (excluding the introduction).

Let me stop the analysis here and comment that this is a spectacular amount of repetition within a very short space of time. Indeed, there are neither many different musical motifs in this Mazurka—or indeed, any of Chopin Mazurkas—nor are there any substantial development of musical motifs beyond ornamental variations. If structure complexity and wonder in music interest you, there is almost nothing to see in Chopin’s Mazurka.

But it is almost impossible to play them well. Indeed, it’s because it seems easy and silly that it’s difficult to play it well with good taste and meaning.

A short piano piece like this is certainly not a symphony, which, in Gustav Mahler’s mind:

…must be like the world. It must embrace everything3.

And that brings me to the problem of short stories, which can be a few pages long and be read within a few minutes. The scope of a short story has to be smaller than a novel by virtue of its size. The three-act structure of storytelling, one of the most basic and fundamental ways of storytelling, is harder to develop in a compact story. There is no question that a short stories are unable to contain the world in a way a full-length novel can, yet that doesn’t make a short story easy to write, nor does its small size render it meaningless or irrelevant. In much the same way a miniature piano piece is hard to play well despite looking easy on the paper, a well-crafted short story is able to convey multiple layers of meanings and complexities with very few words.

Raymond Carver is the master of short story writing. Some of his stories are just a few pages long, and there is no build-up of high drama and resolution of tension in a cinematic sense. All the emotion seems subdued under a calm surface, no matter how big the crisis was underneath. In “The Bath,” Scotty was hit by a car on his birthday. After returning home, he was taken to a hospital, where he slept and couldn’t wake up. The parents, however worried and distressed they were, didn’t behaving over-dramatically. In the end of the story, when his mother received a phone call, and it was “about Scotty.” But who was it? Was it from the hospital? Or was it the baker from whom his mother had ordered a birthday cake? Readers don’t get any resolution concerning the fate of Scotty. In “What we talk about when we talk about love,” the four characters—two couples—sat at a table and talked about love; mostly their own past relationships and stories they hear from elsewhere.

If a story has to conform to a certain well-defined structure in order to be a “good story,” then there are no ways these and many other short stories of the New Yorker variety can be “good stories.” Yet they are moving in their own ways, they give something for readers to chew on, and they tell us about life, death, love, and other human emotions just like any other well-crafted novels. They cannot contain the whole world, but inside their micro-universe, they are wonderful, very much like Chopin’s Waltz op. 34 no. 2: there is no huge dynamic range, fast passage, or dramatic device in this particular Waltz, but it is nostalgic and full of longing.

  1. Because the fugue was deemed incomprehensible, Beethoven was compelled by the publisher to write a less substantial finale↩︎

  2. The second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, for instance, was reportedly encored immediately in the premiere. ↩︎

  3. Gustav Mahler said this to Jean Sibelius when the two met. ↩︎

 Essays    16 May, 2016
 Music    Art    Fiction  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2019

Peter Y. Chuang


Peter Y. Chuang is a novelist, short story writer, and a music critic. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably listening to classical music or tinkering with his computers. He uses Linux (current distro of choice: Arch Linux). Read more about his Linux stuff.

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