Excerpt from a graduate seminar on analysis, January 1996In the year that he died, Derrick Puffett gave a seminar to graduate students at Cambridge University during the course of which he described the way in which he went about analysis. The subject of the seminar was the work he was doing at that time on the Adagio of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The following remarks have been transcribed from a tape of the seminar.
I was talking to one of you a couple of weeks ago about how to set about analysis, and I asked him what he would do. He said he would break the work down into sections, and I said 'No, what would you do before that?' And he said, ‘Well, I would have to read everything there was on the piece’, and I said, ‘No, what do you do even before that?’ And after a long pause he said, ‘Oh. I would listen to it'. I realise this may be a subversive thing to say in analytical circles, but I think it is quite important that you should hear the piece that you want to analyse and get to know it pretty well in that way before you start looking at the score at all.
Before I sit down with the score, I just like to listen to the piece lots of times. I really like to get the piece inside me and to feel that I could almost play it through in my head. Now of course with a piece of this complexity [the Bruckner IX Adagio] you can’t possibly hold it all in your head. But you can keep the shape of the whole thing in your head, you can get a kind of trajectory of the piece from start to finish, and where the climaxes are. You can often hold quite extended passages in your head when the harmony is not too complex. There’s one particular chord progression in this [piece] which I haven’t been able to hear internally at all, but I keep trying.
I go on listening to it until I think my response to it is coherent enough for me to be able to formulate some sort of interpretation that can be expressed in analytical terms. That doesn’t mean starting at bar one and working through it chronologically until I get to the end, but I try to get some kind of shape of the piece, where it goes, where the climaxes are, where the main sections come, and after that I start counting the bars and dividing the sections up, and then comparing the sections in detail from the point of view of balance and all that, and then looking at the tonal structure and all the other things that analysts are supposed to do. But for me ... that comes at a fairly late stage of my getting to know the piece. A lot is going on in my head, quite a lot of thinking is going on, or perhaps not even that, just ingesting, taking it in and trying out certain alternatives in my mind, before I put anything down on paper at all. I think this can be quite useful in letting your own interpretation and your own responses to the piece mature a bit.
‘I suppose the way I try to form a view of the piece by listening is an old-fashioned one. I listen to the piece and ask myself what has made the greatest impression on me. What has moved me the most about it, what has excited me the most, what it is I want to write about, what sets my mind working, what sets off my imagination. This varies from person to person; we don't all have the same background. But I think if you start from that, however naïve it might seem ‒ sometimes it might just be one loud chord or something, but you need to start somewhere, you need to find some way into the piece, and it almost doesn’t seem to matter where you start, so long as it is something that has gripped you ‒ if you can find a way into the piece, through something that has made an effect on you in that way, you will find something to say about it, as sure as eggs is eggs, because you are the sort of person you are, and your training and background have made you the sort of musician you are, and you will be led to say something individual about it.
That’s the way I always approach analysis. Not by reading about somebody’s theory of motivic analysis or what Réti said about the thematic process in music, or what Schenker said, or anybody else, although I think all those things are important and one ought to know something about them for the sake of one’s general education, apart from anything else. But I wouldn’t ever start analysis of a piece that way, by trying to apply a method of some kind, because you end up with something impersonal that doesn’t mean anything to you at all; you’re just applying a method that has come to you from outside. Unless you have actually got hold of something in the piece ‒ and you try to explain to yourself why that music means to you what it does ‒ you are never going to make an analysis of it which means something to you. And if it doesn’t mean anything to you it won’t mean anything to anyone else either.