Blog/Archive

May. 25, 2018

Because of its inexhaustible lungs -- it's ability to sustain a note indefinitely -- and its sheer power and range which exceeds a symphony orchestra, composers are well aware that the organ is specially suited to the expression of contrapuntal music, and that a musical theme which lends itself well to such contrapuntal manipulation will have certain characteristics [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXXIV].
Musical themes have strengths and weaknesses too, just like people, and their strengths lie in different directions; from a composition or improvisation standpoint it's important for organ scholars to recognize this and give every theme the chance to grow in the direction best suited to it, including its instrumentation.
The following story illustrates what happens when individual strengths and differences are ignored:
Once upon a time -- the animals of the world decided that they must do something heroic to meet the problems of "a new world."
So they organized a school.
They adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming, and flying.
To make it easier to administer that curriculum, ALL the animals took ALL the subjects, and the same level of performance was demanded by all.
The DUCK -- was excellent in swimming, in fact better than his instructor, not bad in flying either, but he was very poor in running.
Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running.
This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming.
But average was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that except the Duck.
The RABBIT -- started at the top of the class in running, but had a nervous breakdown because of so much make-up in swimming.
The SQUIRREL -- was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the tree-top down.
He developed "charlie horses" from over-exertion and then got a "C" in climbing and a "D" in running.
The EAGLE -- was a problem child from the word "go" and was disciplined severely.
In the climbing class he beat all the others to the top of the tree, but insisted on using his own way to get there.
At the end of the year, an abnormal BAT that could fly exceedingly well -- and also run, climb, and even swim a little -- had the highest average and was valedictorian.
The PRAIRIE DOGS -- stayed out of school altogether and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum.
The apprenticed their child to a BADGER and later joined the GROUND HOGS and GOPHERS to start a successful private school.
Seriously, there's a moral to this story, for composers:
A musical theme cannot be chosen at random; it must be suited to the task at hand.
Being poorly or well suited to serve as one thing does not mean a musical theme is poorly or well suited for something else, or for everything; in terms of organ composition, a theme starts out being either a workable free theme or a workable fugue theme; if it seems to be neither, and it cannot be changed or otherwise tweaked to get it to serve as either one, then it's possible that it might still be developed using the forces of a chamber or full orchestra, concert band, stage band, a smaller string, woodwind, or brass instrumental combination, or perhaps another solo instrument such as violin, cello, or piano.
The same thing might be said for individual composers ... the right kinds of themes will put their skills on display because, just like the themes themselves, composers are all wired differently.

May. 17, 2018

(con't from Part XXXIV)

Upside down gardening.
With the proper technique, a right side up tomato plant, for example, can be grown a new way ... upside down ... and produce the same type of yield as right side up (photo).
This principle can also be applied by an emerging composer to the production of another Fugue from a previously used Fugue subject.
Some of the scores posted on this web site demonstrate how a subject worked in one Fugue (Op. 25) can be inverted and employed as the subject in a second Fugue (Op. 26).
It can also be demonstrated that a subject from a previously composed Fugue (Op. 27) can be inverted and employed as a countersubject in another Fugue (Op. 28).
If an emerging composer hasn't yet tried to do something like this in their compositional work, the opportunity is beckoning them.
In the Fugue from Prelude and Fugue in D Major Op. 28 the subject from the Op. 27 Fugue is inverted and employed not just as a countersubject but as the 1st of 3 countersubjects which are maintained throughout, in quadruple counterpoint [See blog, Inversions].
When multiple countersubjects participate in a Fugue like this, the counterpoint becomes thrillingly dense, and even more miraculous sounding when all voices are clear, independent, and mutually complimentary.
Historically, coordinating this complexity so that the final unity is aesthetically successful, for composer or performer, has been an achievement of high art.
The paired Op. 28 Prelude, in its turn, might also be constructed upon a single theme in Vierne's 6-part form and in some manner previously untried by the composer, such as by using the Fugue's 3rd countersubject for a theme.
This idea is not new; as early as Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1542-1621), the so-called "father of German organists" whose work straddles the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, we find a composer who loved to take secondary countersubjects and use them fugally in his Fantasias.
The Op. 28 score will be posted soon on this web site.
In the exposition of this Fugue the subject, which begins on the 1st scale degree, enters in the tenor and is answered in the alto in the dominant on the 5th scale degree, as expected; here the (1st) countersubject in the tenor line is the inverted subject from the F Major Op. 27 Fugue.
After 2 additional bars of transition which allows a smooth return to the home key the subject then makes its 3rd entry in the soprano as the alto carries the 1st countersubject and the tenor the 2nd countersubject, in order.
The 4th entry has the subject in the dominant again, this time in the bass with the 1st countersubject (1CS) in the soprano, the 2nd countersubject (2CS) in the alto, and an additional counterpoint in the tenor which, as the Fugue progresses, is maintained throughout and thus becomes a 3rd countersubject (3CS).
Modulating episodes of 4 bars each, based upon snippets of the subject and countersubjects, separate the various entries throughout the course of the Fugue.
The 2nd entry finds the music in the relative key (b minor) where the subject enters in the tenor, the 1CS in the bass, the 2CS in the alto, and the 3CS in the soprano.
The 3rd entry is in the dominant key (A Major) and has the subject in the soprano, the 1CS in the tenor, the 2CS in the bass, and the 3CS in the alto.
The 4th entry modules to f# minor where the subject enters in the bass, the 1CS in the tenor, the 2CS in the soprano, and the 3CS in the alto.
For the 5th entry we find the music in the unrelated key of a minor with the subject entering in the alto, the 1CS in the bass, the 2CS in the soprano, and the 3CS in the tenor.
The music then makes a turn into G Major where the subject enters in the soprano, the 1CS in the alto, the 2CS in the tenor, and the 3CS in the bass.
The 7th entry has the music in e minor where we find the subject entering in the tenor, the 1CS in the alto, the 2nd CS in the bass, and the 3CS in the soprano.
For the 8th and final entry the music returns to the home key (D Major) where, following many examples left to us by J.S. Bach, the final entry of the subject is in the bass, in the lowest octave of the pedals, with the 1CS in the alto, the 2CS in the tenor, and the 3CS up high in the soprano, paying homage to its place as the theme of the Prelude.
A coda of 8 bars follows during which imitations of the head of the subject are heard in the top three lines over a dominant pedal point; the music finishes in 7 voices with three big reiterated chords under an inverted pedal point.
(more later)

May. 15, 2018

(con't from Part XXXIII)
There may come a time where an emerging composer might wish to enter a contest in organ composition, let's say by writing a new Prelude & Fugue based upon themes submitted by the judges.
Contests like this can be a great incentive to display one's compositional skills, creating something new and beautiful and, in the process, succeeding possibly in securing a wider circulation for all of that composer's work.
Contests like this can be wonderful and tremendously helpful.
Sadly, in certain situations, the way they're run, they also can be disappointing.
The theme provided for the Prelude and the theme provided for the Fugue should lend themselves to free development and to fugal procedure, respectively.
A potter, in order to create something beautiful and artistic using their own imaginary skill, first and foremost has to start with a sufficient quantity of purified clay having the necessary characteristics, in a lump properly shaped to be workable (photo).
The workability of a theme, to a composer, is also its most important trait; it may be dull as paint otherwise, without color, without light, without shade -- it may not gladden, it may not distract -- it may be plain as a lump of raw clay; the difference is, if it can be manipulated contrapuntally, it's a good theme; this is because contrapuntal manipulation of a workable theme leads to intricacies, the inevitable by-product of which, typically, is some beautiful music.
This truth was proven and made abundantly clear by J.S. Bach in his Art of Fugue, where he took a very plain little 10 second theme, subjected it to contrapuntal manipulation, and, through his sheer mastery of the techniques of composition, used it to create an hour and 10 minutes of some of the most beautifully intricate music ever written.
Composers also, in such a contest, in order for it to be a fair and equitable measure of their skill, have to start with themes which are workable by everyone participating.
For example, the given free theme for the Prelude may be melodious enough but rhythmically static, i.e., nothing but a repetition, measure after measure, of the same rhythmic pattern, predictable with every move it makes ... or it could simply reiterate 2 different notes alternating back and forth, measure after measure, never going anywhere else, with no rhythmic variation whatsoever -- or its notes may seem to be floating in some unrecognizable region of musical space with no sense of tonal center.
Sorry, but this does not a good free theme make.
Similarly, the given Fugue theme may provide the listener with some limited sense of key but may also have a huge upward leap of, let's say, an augmented 9th, which would be, for all intents and purposes, unsingable ... or maybe it has a huge upward leap of, let's say, a major 10th, which is equally unsingable and surrounded by a limited number of randomly selected pitches belonging to no recognizable key, thus atonal and leaving the listener at a loss to know what key it's in -- or maybe it's extreme range would make voice crossings, violations of voice ranges, and surrender of clarity inevitable when it's worked in 4 voice (SATB) counterpoint.
Sorry, but this does not a good fugue theme make.
The secret to getting the passages of a 4 voice organ Fugue to sound in smooth harmony is to make every moving line singable throughout the entire work and, above all, to maintain the clarity of the moving lines upon which the entire effect of a fugue depends.
As 2 independent voices sing together, they meet, "point by point" (counterpoint), to create a mutual blend, a higher level musical coherence, a 1 + 1 = 3 situation.
In order to do this, the lines must be singable ... which means, for a workable theme, these characteristics: 1) sufficient length, 2) key, or tonality, 3) circumscribed range, 4) no awkward or compound intervals, and 4) generally varied rhythmically using notes of different durations.
This becomes abundantly clear by looking at the subject and 3 countersubjects from this composer's D Major Op. 28 Fugue, a piece written from front to back in quadruple counterpoint where the subject or any of the 3 countersubjects may serve as a bass to the others.
Each of these "themes" is 5 bars long; each is in a definite key; three of them range within a minor 6th and one ranges within a minor 7th; there are no awkward intervals; and within those 20 bars (5 bars X 4) of thematic material there are no less than 16 different rhythmic patterns.
Such themes -- when they're independent, mutually complimentary, workable, and singable as just described -- may not look like much all by themselves, but they're charged with potential.
The most workable themes for contrapuntal manipulation have a tessitura (range) which falls within the octave, typically within the span of a 7th chord, and on the short end ranges across at least a minor 3rd between highest and lowest notes; themes outside these limits become less workable the further away they get; that's just a fact of life.
Entering an organ composition contest where a contrapuntal work is expected, a deadline is imposed, and poor themes are supplied to participants is like signing up for a cook-off where the cooks are placed in the kitchen, they're provided with only a bag of flour, then told they have one hour to use that bag of flour to drum up a recipe and create a good meal without introducing any changes; to argue that this "still provides a lot of freedom" to the cooks would be ridiculous.
As to freedom, it has just the opposite effect; in effect, it binds and gags the composer, locks that composer in a trunk, then locks that trunk in a cell, all the while expected the composer to show their strengths as an escape artist, not as a composer.
In just the same way, trying to construct a good Prelude & Fugue on poor themes would be like trying to construct the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks; it becomes even more absurd when a time deadline is superimposed.
This reflects not merely the author's view but the distillation of common practice norms developed by many important composers over a very long time and largely shaped by examples left to us by the strongest fugue writer in history (J.S. Bach) and his acolytes, one of whom (Louis Vierne) taught organ improvisation to his own pupils by separating the themes he gave them for improvisation into 2 groups -- free themes and fugue themes -- and taught his pupils to approach both groups of themes differently according to the theme's shape, rhythms, range, and other characteristics.
The rock solid premise of this teaching of his was, not every theme makes a good Fugue theme.
Organizations which sponsor such contests typically have very noble and admirable objectives in mind and are to be commended, in conducting them, for displaying the vision to provide an incentive to emerging composers to push the boundaries of their art in this manner.
Unfortunately, in some instances, the less than mundane, wholly unsuitable themes which have been provided participants after the entry fee was paid, themes in which no changes could be made without penalty of disqualification, did NOT provide the participants with the freedom of development claimed.
The judges of such contests typically prohibit any tweaking of the themes provided on the grounds that, if this were done, the participants would be creating their own themes.
Which would be true -- but only because the "themes" provided weren't themes at all, had none of the characteristics of themes, and were thrown together in a way that removed the usual goal posts and foul lines of the playing field inward to a space where there was no room left to maneuver.
This kind of game is over with before it starts.
The themes given to participants should be well suited to development and, in the process, provide a more accurate measure of the skill of the participants as composers and, in exchange for the entrance fee, an equivalent in return which would speak well of the sponsoring organization.
When the themes provided in such a contest are true themes in terms of length, range, recognizable key, intervals, and rhythmic variety, we need not hesitate to participate with our fullest attention and energies in such a contest.
It's good for us.
It's good for music.
If, however, the so-called "themes" provided are so poor that they'd have a certain cantankerous old wig-wearing schoolmaster from Leipzig outraged if not tearing his wig from his head and throwing it at his scholars, were they to be a party to such a proceeding ... we refer here to the bringing together of a limited number of disparate musical elements as if mixed in a blender, calling it a "theme," and then going through the absurd motions of asking participants to construct something musical upon a counterfeit mixture like this masquerading as a theme ... then perhaps it's time to reconsider, especially when payment of the entry fee is required before the themes are disclosed.
That same wig-wearing schoolmaster, who as we said happened to be the strongest fugue writer in history, was very particular in the creation of his fugue themes ... and with good reason -- because he knew as well as anyone that the entire construction of a fugue is tied up in, and determined by, the nature of the theme, just like it is in every other piece of music.
The fact is, a poor theme ... one that's poorly thought out, rhythmically predictable, incoherent tonally, and steeped in poverty in terms of development ... no matter who says otherwise, does not, repeat NOT "still provide a lot of freedom" to participants who are writing for the organ.
It does just the opposite.
What makes a theme valuable to a composer is its difference; nothing in this world begins to take on any value unless or until it's different from something else.
Wisdom is not knowledge.
Wisdom is the ability to discern difference ... the difference in a moment, the difference in people, the difference in countenance, the difference between a good decision and a bad decision, the difference between a free theme, a fugue theme, and a non-theme.
Composers have the wisdom and compositional skills to be fully capable of developing a certain type of theme exceedingly well if given more than just a bag of flour with which to work [See blog, Themes].
A workable theme frees the composer's imagination -- and will take them places they never even dreamed of.
(con't in Part XXXV)

May. 7, 2018

Redundancy.
A word generally understood to mean the quality or state characterized by profusion or abundance, most often implying superfluous repetition.
If we were to see a sign posted which says, "This office will not tolerate redundancy in this office," or "Department of Redundancy Department" we can bet the redundant wording is there to alert people that those who work in that office at least have a sense of humor.
Sometimes however we may come across other signs with redundant wording posted in public places seemingly without any deliberate attempt at humor, such as "Museum of Prehistoric History" or "Library is Closed until Opening Time" (photo).
In these cases the redundancy is probably there for a different reason, that being to merely reiterate, and thereby elaborate on, the message being conveyed.
Fugue writers down through history, for still another reason, have employed at times during the construction of the expositions of their fugues, something called a "redundant entry."
This is an additional entry, usually in the original opening voice, in the alternating tonic-dominant or tonic-subdominant sequence, before the exposition ends.
Its purpose, after all the voices have entered once, is to further display the double counterpoint between the last 2 voices to enter; the subject meanwhile is reiterated, usually in the same voice where it first entered, and becomes the redundant entry.
For example, let's say we're thinking of taking a stab, for the first time, at writing a fugue exposition with a redundant entry.
And let's say this stab of ours makes us think to construct an exposition in 4 voices in this order of entries: soprano, tenor, alto, bass ... S-T-A-B ... Oh No! (groan)... with the ordering of keys being tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant ... or I-V-I-V.
And let's say further, after the subject enters in the bass in the dominant at the 4th entry, that we'd like to see the 1st countersubject follow in the bass (with a return to the home key) so that it might be heard in double counterpoint with the alto line which we'd also like to see carry the 2nd countersubject at the same time; by this means the alto and bass would be given additional (and more equal) participation in the exposition.
These additional appearances of the countersubjects in the exposition would necessitate a 5th entry of the subject in an otherwise complete 4 voice exposition.
If the exposition is continued in this manner, the subject would be reiterated a 5th time (in the home key) while the alto and bass carry the countersubjects, and it (the 5th entry of the subject) would become the redundant entry ... redundant because the exposition is already complete with the 4th entry.
This (5th) redundant entry of the subject could be assigned either to the original voice (soprano) or to the remaining voice (tenor), as these are the only possibilities; since most redundant entries are made in the original voice, we find it assigned here to the soprano and the free voice assigned to the tenor.
Any redundant entry like this would be there simply to display some additional aspect of the counterpoint and comes about merely as one more by-product of the exercise of poetic license [See blog, Poetic License].
The score for the A Major ("Jig") Fugue Op. 13 posted on this web site [See menu bar, Free Stuff, 8 Pieces for the Organ Op. 10-17) is an example of a fugue with a redundant entry.
As a further exercise of the composer's ingenuity, a 4 voice fugue may include in its exposition a (5th) redundant entry in which the subject and both countersubjects are inverted [See blog, Inversions]!
This is exemplified in the Fugue score of the D Major Choral & Fugue Op. 18 posted on this web site [See menu bar, Free Stuff, 6 Pieces for the Organ Op. 18-23].
As it so happens, in both of these examples, the 5 entries of the subject in the exposition follows the same order: S-T-A-B-(S).
Are there times, while a fugue writer is writing, that they might write something redundant while they're writing? ...
The wholehearted answer is, a wholehearted yes.

Apr. 29, 2018

"Works of art make rules. Rules do not make works of art."
-- Claude Debussy

The rule book is and always has been a friend ... a system of common practice derived from the successful workings of a vast number of Western composers on back through many centuries of music writing.
The rule book then, as thus defined, is in place to guide and serve composers of the present day, not to intimidate them, not to enslave them, not to be poised ready to crush them in an instant for the slightest deviations.
In the case of organ composition, composers first learn the rules and learn to live within the limits they impose so that, if the opportunity ever happens to present itself, they will know how to bend or break one of those rules like an artist.
It's a provable fact that no composer of eminence ever arrived at a level of ultimate mastery without having passed through a period of strict discipline with respect to the rules of composition and part writing ... just the sort of thing one would find laid out in the rule book.
It's also a provable fact that the artistic bending or breaking of a rule, at times, can lead a composer to discover beauty where they were told, or led to believe, that there was none [See blog, Monotony, Getting Started With Writing, Part XX].