ASSIGNMENT 2, Uncategorized

OCA Assignment 2: Elegy for Solo flute

One-page score:

Elegy for solo flute – Score

WAV file from Sibelius samples:

This is nearly two minutes long in performance.

Reflections on learning about melody scale and application to the ‘Elegy for Solo Flute’

This note forms part of the Assignment 2 coursework for module 1 of the OCA course ‘Composing Music’. This is written after the best part of a year away from the formal course, but during which I have been studying and reading on my own initiative.

I cover here three points:

  1. Some material read and the most important points I have learnt from it
  2. Current opinions I have formed on what style of writing I most value – tonal vs atonal
  3. Approach taken to the flute Elegy and its possible technical challenges.

1 Background reading

Amongst other works the most substantial have been:

  • Reginald Smith Brindle ‘Musical Composition’ (OUP 1986)
  • Aaron Copland ‘What to Listen for in Music’ (1944; first edn publ Doubleday)
  • Imogen Holst ‘Tune’ (Faber, 1962)
  • Edward Bairstow ‘Counterpoint and Harmony’ (MacMillan 1945)
  • Biographies and analysis of works by Zemlinsky notably the book by Antony Beaumont (‘Zemlinsky’ Faber and Faber, 2000)
  • ‘Bela Bartok: A Celebration’, by Benjamin Suchoff (The Scarecrow Press, 2004)
  • A number of reviews of renaissance counterpoint e.g. ‘The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance’, Knud Jeppesen (Dover 1970) – rather harder going!
  • Works on machine composition and its current limitations, by Cope and Rowe.

From Bairstow and Brindle in particular I have picked up the idea of melodic line (‘voice leading’) being more important than, but never independent of, implied harmony. In works of both Bartok and Copland, folk song is incorporated either directly or to create the framework of harmony or rhythm. This reading prompted some reflection in ideas of absolute music, creativity and where music ideas come from. To what extent is the composer following a culturally or self-imposed set of rules, where a machine could ultimately take over; to what extent are they recycling previously used musical material, and how important are, or should be, extra-musical influences?

On the last point – extramusical nuclei as a starting point for development – I have been surprised by the number of autobiographical, romantic and even cabalistic and numerological allusions in works that I had first got to know as ‘absolute’ music – e.g. the FAE sonata (frei aber einsam); Brahms songs with ciphers for AGATHE; and in the Zemlinsky second string quartet, use of the ‘magical’ series of semitone levels 2,3,5 and references to his sister MATHILDE who married Arnold Schoenberg.

2 My values on harmonic style

In Berg’s violin concerto (written as a Requiem for Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler who as Alma Schindler was also the inspiration for much of Zemlinsky’s early music), the 12-tonal formal tone row ends with the same row of four whole tones as the start of Bach’s chorale ‘Es ist Genug’. This seems to me to combine three things of value:

  • A formal scheme as source of discipline
  • Allusion to conventional harmony, which for 99.9% of likely listeners will be how they perceive any new pitched work
  • An emotional content; here also enhanced for those ‘in the know’ but where the extra knowledge is not essential to an appreciation.

The conflict in twentieth century music has been between the search for the new and the possibility for new music to be appreciated. The collective ‘ear’ has the power of adjustment to works that seemed at first to shock – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring being a notorious example. But my feeling is that the rate of abstraction and the flight to complexity and academism, for example in much of Webern’s work, has left behind too much of the likely audience. ‘What is music for?’ after all: this blog gives a very wide range of possible and mostly plausible answers:

Though I enjoy playing and sometimes listening to the ‘nationalist’ music of what was then Bohemia and Slovakia, trying to write in a national style seems outdated and false. Nevertheless there is one ‘nationalistic’ composer I rate very highly, who still has quite a select audience. This is Bela Bartok.

Bartok, and arguably JS Bach espoused all three of my proposed ‘values’ above:

In terms of the assignment, Bartok’s use of ‘cells’ is relevant. Scholars have identified in his music frequent use of the ‘X cell’ (successive semitones, relative pitch classes 0,1,2,…), ‘Y cell’ (successive tones, pitch classes 0,2,4…) and ‘Z cells’ comprising a fourth, semitone, fourth, semitone (pitch classes 0,5,6,11,12 – NB the octave is class 12 counting from zero).

I have based this assignment on two such cells or relative pitch sets (0,1,3,4) and (0,2,4,6), the second being the Bach/Berg series above. These are both part of the ‘unfamiliar scales’ listed in the current module and yet also part of the minor scale (leading note to mediant) and both the major and melodic minor upwards scale (mediant to leading note). Hence the two together could form a complete scale starting on the leading note in the minor. This is quite close to, but not identical with, the ‘Locrian’ church mode. This full scale is one I have not sought to use in Assignment 2.

3 Composition of the Elegy for Solo Flute and its possible technical challenges

The framework of the piece is, I trust, quite transparent:

  • ternary form with slow start and end
  • the use of two four-note scalic motifs, each sampled from the unconventional scales covered in this assignment the first ‘compressed’ C (semitone, tone, tone, semitone) and the second ‘expanded’ E four notes of a whole-tone scale. The role of these motifs is reversed during the work; initially C is slow and gentle with E as a a rude interruption. In the central section the two become integrated in longer melodies such as at bars 7 to 10. At bar 26 the slow theme C becomes the fast interruption. In the recapitulation the whole-tone version E is completely assimilated into the slow music.
  • Both motifs appear, each iterated into the full ‘Middle Eastern’ (octatonic, or ‘diminished’) and ‘Whole tone’ scales over the range of an octave, at bars 31-32 and 40, respectively.

There is no fixed key: an apparent start in E minor but brief excursions into D sharp minor (bars 2,3), D (harmonic) minor (bars 5,6), F minor (bars 8-12), and then more pervasively F sharp minor (bar 26 and explicitly during bars 35-36) but also D minor in the ‘interruption’ from bars 26-27. A repeat of the whole movement would allow some kind of ‘closure’ after the final F sharp, seen as a leading note in the relative major key of G. So the total effect is perhaps an imperfect cadence.

Though the short piece is built in short phrases (to allow catching of the breath), the leading note trailing from one phrase may connect with the start of the next phrase e.g. at bars 7, 15; or there is a semitone descent e.g. into bars 17/18, 26, 31.

Selected notes from within the first of my two motifs, are well established in famous minor-key works such as Cesar Franck Symphony in D minor (arranged as 1,0,4) and Wagner’s ‘Fate motif’ from the Ring Cycle (1,0,3).

Bars 11 and 12 have a first ‘accidental’ and then when repeated, deliberate, reference to the (Dmitri) Shostakovich motto DSCH, transposed here. I also included a motivic self-reference but leave detection of this to the reader! The bar where it appears is a prime factor of my current age, 62. This is a coincidence and perhaps salutory that just by chance, if one tries enough combinations some apparent numerological sources can be found in music, as in the Bible or other religious texts.

Hence, in summary, though set as an exercise on alternatives to the conventional eight-note scale, there are frequent tonal implications in the piece, arrived at mostly subconsciously by ear

To help to understand better the acoustics and practical fingering issues of woodwind instruments I have been learning to play the cornetto at a basic level. This brought home a important practical point covered also by the orchestration manuals: the need to leave time in the musical line for the wind player to breathe…

Some concern I had about about the practicality of tremolos across the C sharp to D ‘break’ on a flute, used in bar 5, was allayed by reading about alternate fingerings and use of right hand ‘trill’ keys, for example pp18 and 19 of this source: Matt Luoma MA thesis Ohio State University (1946). According to my reading material, renaissance players would deliberately choose trills and fingerings lying ‘across the break’ in order to make a greater effect.

In fact, I have started to form the concept of this piece as possible ‘study’ material exposing some of the intermediate and more advanced and ‘extended’ possible techniques in learning the flute e.g. flutter tonguing at bar 30, whisper tones in the final two bars. I tried not to make the mistake of using these ‘for the sake of it’ without regard to the musical concept and the listener; this short musical flight should be a journey not an aerobatic show.

The last four notes require ‘whisper tones’ (sometimes described as ‘whistle tones’), played very quietly and with a more puckered embouchure, and it may well be that for practicality the emerging sound will be one or even two octaves higher. These are the basic fingered notes. After advice from a real flautist, I may add more text notes to clarify this point.

At the end of the day new music has, in my view, to pass two tests:

  1. After a first hearing, would you wish to listen to it again?
  2. Is the performance satisfactory by the player(s) – not necessarily easy, but leaving them with the feeling they have spent their playing time well and the composer has a sympathetic feeling for their instrument, keeping them somewhat challenged but not too challenged.

It will be good to get feedback on both these points in due course.