Getting Started With Writing, Part III
(con't from Part II)
A songwriter knows that not every song that springs from their pen is going to end up being a hit. Each and every song they write ... IS what it is. In the same way, not everything we start writing or improvising at the organ is going to end up a masterpiece, and to expect it to be that way is unrealistic and harmful.
As we write something new and look back on what we've written before, we will sense, probably, that one or maybe two of them we wrote before are maybe less strong, a little weaker perhaps, than the last one. This is all part of the growth process as we gain experience in writing, little by little, and find our own voice, not a "style" exactly, but more a manner of speaking with our composing.
The greatest composers from history, even Bach, in their earliest years, were not somehow exempt from this. Each had their own share of very ordinary creations that are only remembered today because the remainder of their mature compositional output was so good. Sometimes they ended up not even liking one of their own works. Maurice Durufle, for example, was an important figure from the Modern French school of organ composition and improvisation and one of the most famous pupils of Charles Tournemire. It was common knowledge that Durufle didn't like the fiery Toccata from his Suite Op. 5. When asked why, he said its theme was "very bad" and he felt it "unworthy." He went on to say that it was a case of "much sauce, but no beefsteak." There are reports that he even confided to some people that he "hated" it. (?!) There's no question that this work requires a master organist to play it ... it's fiendishly difficult and requires every bit of color, nuance, and expression that the performer and instrument at hand can give it. But I happen to agree with so many others, that this Suite Op. 5 is nevertheless a well written masterpiece making a significant contribution to the repertoire, despite the composer's opinion.
Some of Durufle's fans and admirers, to this day, are saying that this same Toccata of his, that he himself disliked so much, is the "greatest organ toccata ever written," implying that other notable toccatas from the standard repertoire -- masterpieces written by Bach, Reger, Widor, Boellmann, Gigout, Vierne, Mulet, Dupre, Purvis, Farnam, Sowerby, and Bedard, among many others -- are inferior in some respect. One wonders if those who make such pronouncements are even familiar with the work of any of these other organist/composers. While his Toccata from Op. 5 remains a work of which he can be justly proud, Durufle, if he were alive today, would be making strenuous objection to any notion that it was the best one in its genre ever written. He was too modest and unassuming to do otherwise. But the question of which piece is "best" from a certain genre of composition cannot be answered because the performing arts do not lend themselves to any kind of contest where an absolute value can be assigned to an artist's work. We'd like to think otherwise, competitions are held, judges deliberate, and awards are given out accordingly, but they're given out based upon a fundamentally flawed premise, that composers and performing artists and compositions and improvisations are all wired the same. They aren't. Try to compare the work of any 2 of them, and the "playing field" where this "contest" is being conducted cannot be kept level. We can recognize significant individual achievement, but that's about all. So there can be no "greatest this-or-that type of piece" ever written.
We have already shown in our 2 Sketches from Op. 1 that the right kind of free theme can be worked successfully the same way that another theme was worked [see Blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part II], and while it's the theme that suggests its own form and not the other way around, it helps to learn certain patterns of working a theme which can be used again and again when the situation is right. Louis Vierne's 6-part form for improvising on a free theme which he taught to his students, for example, was exemplified in Prelude Internationale Op. 5 [See blog, Learning By Example] and was adapted and truncated as necessary to work every theme from his famous Twenty Four Pieces in Free Style, Op. 31. This isn't obvious from simply looking at the scores of this collection, but when you're familiar with his 6-part form, you strongly sense its presence.
If we're writing, we don't have to begin with Measure One. We can start anywhere in the piece, even at the back, and work our writing in reverse, filling in the sections as we go. This is precisely in fact how a double fugue (fugue built upon 2 themes) needs to be written, starting necessarily with the combinatory section near the end of the work [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part VI]. If its a fugue, we can begin with the first exposition, then complete all the expositions in all the keys desired, then go back and do the episodes to link them all together, if we wish, like a string of beads. It's perfectly all right [See blog, Ten Steps].
So, let's say, you've got an idea for an original melody, a nice, peaceful, slow, yet somber theme that just came to your mind while you were sitting there working with your music writing software, staring at a blank staff, or maybe just sitting on the bench commencing to improvise something. If you force yourself to simply sit down and do your work, even with nothing in your head at the time, that idea will come. And that's all you need. Armed with nothing but that theme, you now have a written piece. Here's how:
If we take the suggestion of Ebenezer Prout [See blog posting, What About Music Theory, Part I] at face value and use the greatest fugue writer in history (photo) as one of our models, though we can never hope to equal him, let's consider working in reverse. You'll find it helpful at this time, if you haven't already, to go to Free Stuff on the menu bar, print a hard copy of the score for Chorale in d minor Op. 9, and follow it along as you read through this narrative:
This work is the middle movement from the spacious d minor Op. 10 Praeludium, Chorale, & Fugue. Since this section, minus it's closing bridge, may be performed with manuals only (manualiter), it's posted separately as Op. 9 so that it might be played on an organ with no pedals as a stand alone prelude.
Let's start by first writing the last section of the piece. You need to settle upon a key for the final reentry of the theme, along with a time signature and tempo. Let's say, you've settled upon the parallel key -- D major. Undaunted, you proceed to enter your theme in the low soprano range. Next, you need to invent a tenor or bass line that intertwines and makes consonant harmony with this theme, always moving in shorter note values whenever the top line is either stationary for a moment or moving in longer notes. What you're wanting to aim for is a singable line in mostly contrary motion between these 2 parts (similar motion is okay if it provides a more singable line, contrary motion being preferred). Let's say, instead of a bass line, you construct a tenor line to work with the soprano. You now have your soprano and tenor lines completed.
All you need to do now is fill in the alto line between them to make good 3-part harmony and then add a simple bass line below the tenor to complete a 4 part texture. This voice leading is subject to the general rules of part writing which can be learned easily enough from any good book on harmony, such as Kostka and Payne, Piston, or Prout [See blog posting, What About Music Theory, Part I]. You now have a finished section harmonized in 4 parts. Now, if need be, go back and tweak this section; work those 4 voices, if necessary, until they each make singable melodic lines, all by themselves. This section, in all its wondrous charm, will be the cherry you give the listener at the end. If you want, you can write a short tag ending at this time, or you can leave it for later, your choice. You're now ready to set this section aside for now, and save it for later. So far, so good.
Once you have this, you need to make some decisions, if you haven't already, about the form your piece will take, the key changes that form will suggest or require, and whether you're going to keep D major as the tonic key. Now you make the decision, let's say, that D major will be the parallel major key, with the tonic key being d minor. As for form, you've got a lot of latitude here. Among a great many possibilities, you could relegate the section you've already completed to 1) the B section of a 2-part, binary (AB) form, 2) the last A section of a 3-part ternary (ABA) form, or maybe 3) the final, returning A section of a 1st rondo (ABA)BA form where the initial part form of the rondo is ABA in this case (which doesn't necessarily demand a literal repetition at the end and could be curtailed to nothing but the A portion), or maybe even 4) the final returning A section of a 2nd rondo (ABACA) form. Let's say, you decide to select the 3rd option, i.e. (ABA)BA where the initial part form of the rondo is ternary ABA. Now you need to ask yourself, are you going to use the same thematic material from the 1st B section for the 2nd B section? In this form, technically, you don't have to. But let's say, for the sake of simplicity, the answer is "yes." Now, don't get scared at this point, you're not in any deep water here.
Next comes the question, where are you going to go for the secondary theme or melody line for the B sections? Here you're not stuck by any means. Remember, if you've got 2 other singable lines written into that final A section of yours, then, if you want, you're able to work either of those 2 lines (bass or tenor) as your secondary theme for the B sections, transposing it to, let's say, the dominant key (a minor) for the first B section and the subdominant key (g minor) for the second B section. Let's say, you decide to select the bass line of that final A section for the melody of the B sections. There's nothing wrong here with keeping that melody in the alto in the first B section and keeping the harmony in 3 parts, beginning with adding a bass line and then filling in the tenor line. Now you've got your first contrasting B section in the key of a minor, a somber but melodically related (and therefore interesting) passage.
Since this Chorale is part of a larger work dedicated to J.S. Bach, we might even try inserting his melodic signature of 4 notes (Bb-A-C-H in the German language) into the alto line of the harmony in this first B section (we're in the right key to do it). This will pay homage to the dedicatee and add additional interest.
Continuing to work the piece from back to front, let's skip now to the very front. That same first theme for the final A section you've set aside might now be used as a bass solo to introduce itself at the outset, unharmonized this time in the tonic key of d minor. What could be more simple and yet, at the same time, arresting to the ear? It takes almost no time at all to enter this theme into the bass voice. Then, you might repeat this first theme (to help solidify it in the listener's ear) in the same key, let's say in the alto line again, harmonize it in 3 parts again by adding a bass line and tenor line, and there ... you're more than halfway home! All you have to do now is connect this with the first B section in the key of a minor that you've already written. The 3-part harmony of this section with the alto line on top will move easily and unnoticed into the first B section, which is harmonized the same way.
Now, with this much of the piece finished, let's go back and look at the 2nd A section to finish off the initial ABA part form. When that A section is reintroduced the second time, the first thing that comes to your mind is that this section might be a literal reiteration of the theme in the bass, transposed this time to a related key, or perhaps even to some unrelated key. Remembering that all great music does what's unpredictable, there's no reason why you couldn't experiment a little here, if you like, let's say with mediant relationships (just as Vierne was inclined to do) by moving that A theme to, let's say, the raised 3rd scale degree, and see where it takes you.
So, let's say you decide to transpose the theme upward, to f# minor, and write it into the bass. Since a reduction of the theme to a single voice in the middle of the piece would mean an undesirable drop in the energy level of the solo line, you might consider introducing the theme in canonic imitation here, for 8 measures or so, at the interval of an octave, then supply a 3rd free voice. As it turns out, your A theme is workable as a 2 part canon at the octave at a distance of one measure. The concept of a follower and a leader is now written into your music by setting your theme in canonic imitation like this. You fill in the 2 middle voices with mostly "sweet" intervals of 3rds and 6ths, keeping the canon in the outer voices (from where it can be heard most clearly), and find that all is well. The next step would be to couple the final entry (the A section for 4 voices in D major that you worked out and saved at the beginning) with what you've already got by means of the returning B section.
Now then, after you make your turn from the 2nd A section (the canon in f# minor) into the subdominant key (g minor) for this returning B section, you might put the secondary B theme in the soprano line this time and work from a 4-voice texture. You can use your imagination and get creative here, to whatever extent strikes your fancy. For example, when the secondary B theme returns you might speed up the tempo very gradually to add a little interest, let the tension heighten a bit by gradually increasing the dynamic level as well, then, as the listener senses this musical vehicle picking up speed, you might decide to make the wheels fall off by making the bass, tenor, and alto lines unravel and drop out, leaving the soprano line stranded all by itself and reduced to a sequential motive (motif). You might then treat that sequential motive in single notes in the top line like a falling leaf, slow it down gradually, have it lose momentum, volume, and altitude, let it lose energy and float down to be repeated in the alto, then in the tenor, and finally descend into the bass where you might let it linger there and pause for a moment on a single low note before moving right into that charming return of the A section you first worked out. A transition here to a new key, new dynamic, and new tempo is not only necessary but good for the listener, to hear this buildup of tension and then the release.
If you've had 8-foot foundation stops in mind for tone color throughout this piece up to this point (which is what this music suggests), then the registration might be changed here with advantage to 8-foot string celeste tone for the final reentry of the theme in order to signal the arrival of something new and special (that cherry mentioned above) and to help separate this final A section in the parallel key registrationally and throw it into higher relief. You might then very gradually increase the volume with this final return of the A theme, make it rise to a forte peak, then let it fade out gradually, ending in a hush. With everything in the minor key up until now, this final return of the A section in the parallel major when you make ends meet will open beautifully, like a tender ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, with the secondary B theme returning in the tenor line to combine like magic with the A theme in the soprano.
Notice how straightforward this is, and how easy things will connect when you begin writing the piece by working in reverse, from back to front, starting with nothing but a theme. This was the plan and procedure used to compose the score for the d minor Op. 9 Choral, and the same general form and manner of handling the theme, once you find something like this that works, can be used in other pieces as well [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XV]. This work can be used for a prelude to a worship service or as an offertory where a mostly somber, quiet piece without a pedal part but having a certain charm at the end is desired. This one sounds like an improvisation, and we can use the same patterns of construction in other improvisations or written pieces with workable themes, if we want to.
When performing this work as the middle movement of Op. 10, a 4 voice bridge section of 17 bars in triple counterpoint continues this Chorale and links it with the Fugue which follows. During this bridge the music undergoes a gradual crescendo and passes through the keys of b minor, e minor, and a minor before landing finally in d minor and a half cadence on the dominant chord at a forte dynamic. The 3 countersubjects of the ensuing Fugue are introduced sequentially in the bass line of this bridge, in the same order in which they enter in the Fugue, providing a hint at what is to follow. The only thing missing from this bridge is the Fugue subject which, when the Fugue introduces it, blends right in with these 3 melodic lines in quadruple counterpoint.
This writer is living proof that it doesn't take a genius to write something like this. You don't even have to be particularly clever. You just have to employ a little imagination, know what to avoid, and have the resolve to get there -- to summon the courage, discipline, and determination to go where Resistance and the Lizard Brain are both arm-twisting you to never go [See blog, The Lizard Brain, Parts I-VII] -- you just have to have the GUTS to take action and the grit to keep at it, in little bits every day, to sit down and do your work, to be generous with yourself but doggedly determined (a little like the stubborn man in the photo) to win against whatever could be holding you back from doing your work, and slay that inner dragon anew, each and every day, that keeps lying to you [See blog, The Book]. As Pablo Picasso rightly pointed out, inspiration comes, but it has to find us working.
(con't in Part IV)