Friday, July 8, 2011

A Course in Composition

First, an assignment. Make a piece using just two notes. You can repeat them, of course and transpose them to different pitch levels. But the music must be overwhelmingly based on those notes.

Dum, dee dum, dee dum. Finished? OK, let's see what you have. A page and a half?

Here is what one guy did with two notes:

That just wasn't fair, was it? The thing about good composers is that they are trying to achieve focus, inevitability, concentration. Most young or inexpert composers are afraid of not putting enough in. So they put everything in, including the kitchen sink. This is the best way to write bad music! Instead of bringing order to the musical universe, you are making chaos. Beethoven's 5th symphony is a masterful demonstration of how little you need to write a great symphonic movement. Two notes. Few composers have done so much with so little. As Buffy said once, "variety is the spice of bad".

The first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony is a tour-de-force of focus and concentration. The falling third interval and even more the characteristic rhythm of three short and one long (called in classic prosody a quartus paeon) permeates every part of the movement--and even returns in the scherzo.

Here is the first movement of another 5th Symphony:

This first movement takes us on a much longer journey than Beethoven. Shostakovich had a great deal at stake when he wrote this. After a ban on his music imposed by Stalin due to his dislike of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich withdrew his 4th Symphony before the premiere. Everything depended on reaction to his next symphony--not just his career, but possibly his very life. So he wrote this, a very great symphony, that received an ovation of over half an hour at the first performance. There is more material in this first movement than in Beethoven, but it is also twice as long. It begins with a canon in the strings on a leaping motif. A contrasting theme is one that meanders downwards using a long, short, short rhythm (called a dactyl in classic prosody). From these the long movement is constructed.

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