At the Piano

Roberto Chapela — inguesu
(Symphonic poem for orchestra, 2003)


An analysis of Roberto Chapela's inguesu, a work that I found very interesting, besides being very effective and ... well ... fun and exciting! The work depicts a soccer game: the tumultuous and dramatic final match of the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup that Mexico won 4 to 3 against Brazil.

The idea of a symphonic poem was pretty much defined, or at least initiated by Franz Liszt, during his period of extensive experimentation and writing for orchestra at Weimar. He was mostly concerned with the problem of the audience interpretation of a piece of music, and the suitability of music to express extra-musical content. In Liszt's own words the problem is that "the poorest of apprentice landscape painters could give with a few chalk strokes a much more faithful nature picture than a musician operating with all the resources of the best orchestras". And, I might add, a verbal description could be even more precise and detailed. It is the main problem of music in respect to other arts: the fact that it it is very hard to figure out what an instrumental piece "means": instrumental music is semantically extremely poor.

Liszt at first was mostly suggesting to do what many composers do now all the time: "to give in a few lines the spiritual sketch of his works and, without falling pray of petty and detailed explanations, convey the idea which served as the basis for his composition", mostly to avoid "faulty elucidations ... idle quarrels ... endless commentaries based on nothing". But the idea took hold very quickly and in just a few years Franz Brendel could state that (starting from Liszt) "content creates form". And this back than was quite a revolution, since the idea explicitly freed composers from the shackles of standard musical forms.

This is the interesting side of inguesu: how the content (the soccer game) generates the musical form?

To see how first click here to get a description of the game. As in any soccer game the big events are the goals, and in this game we have seven: a lot for a typical soccer game. The sequence always sees the Mexican team going ahead, that is quite unusual against Brazil. The progression is 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, and than Brazil evens the score to 2-2, so the game is back to square one. Than Mexico scores 3-2, 4-2, and Brazil gets closer, but not enough, scoring to 4-3, the final result for Mexico. How does Chapela converts this quite dramatic game into a musical structure? The first problem is length: a soccer game is in two halves, 45' each, plus a 15' break in between halves. A total of 105' minutes that is very short for a Wagnerian opera, but very long (unheard of, really) for an orchestral piece. Pragmatically, the solution is to eliminate the break and scale the game events sequence using a ratio 1:10. The result is a 9' orchestral piece, with musical events that are related to game event, in principle, as shown in this . The structure shows the time line of the piece, with letters corresponding to the piece rehearsal letters, and game events superimposed as they appear in the score. The bottom line of the graph shows the actual musical form of the piece that is characterized by two sets of materials A and B, that are treated in rather conventional fashion. Set A is first exposed and then repeated after a short transition, followed by set B, a much longer transition and what can called an episode, a repetition of material B, and then a coda.

Leaving aside a detailed discussion of the thematic and wonderfully reach rhythmic material, what is interesting from a structural point of view is the difference of treatment of the soccer game content. The first section of the piece, , corresponds to the exposition and repeat of material A, and it reflects almost perfectly a sequence of events that appears to be custom made for musical realization. There is chaotic expectation (the beginning of the game), followed by a goal (a big emotional event), followed by more expectation and a second goal: that is a sequence of introductory material /exposition, transition and repeat. The sequence of events in the game works its way into the score after the second goal with the introduction of the new material that leads to the Brazilian goal, a penalty kick. This is nicely realized by the introduction of a tenebrous motive of sort (double-bass glissando) that little by little climaxes to the penalty kick in favor of the Bazilian team, and the 2 to 1 score.

After rehearsal L, in the , things get a bit more chaotic. The real game has still a long way to go, there are 4 goals left, and the composer decides to detach the narrative of the piece from the sequence of real events. From rehearsal L to rehearsal M the listeners would be quite hard pressed to detect the occurrence of the 2:2, 3:2, 4:2 and 4:3 goals. Those are marked in the score but have little, if any, correspondence with recognizable musical events. The composer chooses instead to musically distinctly mark two collateral events: the referee admonition of Juao Carlos (yellow card, 4'34"), and his expulsion toward the end of the game (rehearsal U, 8'33"). Both events are marked by a sort of mocking motive played by the bass trombone, and the conductor showing a yellow and red card to the player.

The coda, rehearsal V, recovers the correspondence with the overall flow of the game building a final rush toward celebration and a bit more mockeries of the Brazilian team.

So there it is in a short summary: a symphonic poem based on a soccer game. Could the audience follow the game story by listening to the piece? Probably not. Even assuming one could do so in the first section of the piece (up to L, or maybe to the 2:1 score), this would be impossible in the second section of the piece, simply because the composer actually chooses not to follow the sequence of the main game events with his music. Most audiences would also be quite baffled by the appearance of the mocking motive, and by the conductor gesturing to the players. This corresponds to a switch of the focus of the narrative from scoring events to a mixture of events related to referee decisions and only loosely so to scroing events. But unfortunately instrumental music is very weak in specifically telling what it is actually describing, and therefore the moment of the switch is perceived just a new, structurally very recognizable, musical event.

Disappointing? Perhaps. The piece is actually very exciting, and could easily stand on its own without much more than a cursory reference to the soccer game that served as its inspiration. But compositionally the main idea, of a real life event enforcing the form of a musical piece, is quite fascinating. It is an idea that has been present in instrumental music from time immemorial, starting from simple mimicking of natural events, to many of examples of full length pieces in the classical repertoire. Just to cite a couple of examples: Debussy La Mer, Beethoven 6th Symphony. Despite the many textual references to the game present in inguesu, its treatment of the subject ends up being as metaphorical as pieces that admittedly take just inspiration from real life events. Perhaps this is unavoidable and intrinsic to the descriptive limitations of instrumental music.


at the piano