Jun. 14, 2017


When you're writing a fugue, it's necessary to follow certain steps, one of which includes making an outline showing the number of expositions, their keys, and the order of entry of the voices in each one in order to keep things straight and avoid duplication as much as possible [See blog, Ten Steps].
Without this outline you're like someone trying to find their way through a maze from a starting point without knowing where the finish point is or what you have to do to get yourself there (photo).
The same is true if you're contemplating writing a symphony for organ, which is one of the most ambitious tasks you can undertake.
If you've already learned to write shorter pieces in different styles and feel like you have a solid enough grounding in music theory and the principles of composition to give this a try, you should be brave and give it a try.
This involves the planning, writing, and editing of your work, and an outline is necessary during the planning phase.
During this planning stage you need to listen to composers you admire, if you haven't already, and practice writing your own music the way these composers wrote theirs.
Different composers have different styles of writing and use different techniques.
It isn't plagiarism to be inspired by someone else, and that inspiration fused with your own point of view will make it so that your music will sound completely your own.
In your outline you need to list everything you want to pin down about your symphony, and don't be afraid to make the form your own; the finished form will be determined by the nature of your themes, not the other way around.
This planning stage must be long enough to settle everything in your mind in advance; its not unusual for this to occupy weeks, months, even years in some cases for things to gestate in a composer's mind before the actual writing begins.
This is "where the rubber meets the road" in your symphony; everything hangs or falls in the planning.
Strictly speaking, a "symphony" is a sonata for orchestra and is traditionally made up of 4 separate movements which have different forms:
The 1st movement is always in Sonata-Allegro form, fairly fast, but usually more stately than hurried; it's in 3 parts: Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation.
The normal Italian tempo term it assumes is Allegro, which means "lively."
In the Exposition the themes are set forth; typically there's a 1st theme, usually grand and memorable, and a 2nd theme contrasting with the 1st theme, often slower and more lyrical and usually in a different but related key; much other material including other themes, may appear between and after the 2 main themes.
This conflicting interplay between the 2 contrasting themes each jockeying for preeminence in this movement is what provides the interest.
In the Development one or more of the themes from the Exposition are played around with and mutated, made faster or slower, louder or softer; they're almost always played in different keys and chopped up in little pieces and tossed around, often in insistent repetitions of the same tiny phrase or motif.
The Development is usually tense and dramatic, and here the themes may even be inverted and played upside down or backwards {See blog, Inversions, Retrograde].
The Recapitulation is essentially a repeat of the Exposition, but with some changes, the chief one being that both themes now appear in the tonic key and are often combined; there may be a coda or tailpiece here, but not as long or insistent as the one at the end of the Final.
The 2nd movement is slower and may be in a variety of forms, usually Sonata-Allegro form, theme and variations, or ternary (ABA) form.
The usual tempo terms are Andante (slow), Adagio (slower), and Lento (slowest).
The 3rd movement is generally a Scherzo and is always fast and dancelike with the typical tempo mark being Allegro vivace (very lively); this movement is often in ternary (ABA) form with a contrasting middle section called the Trio (because in the earliest orchestral sonatas it was played by only 3 instruments).
In the 18th century this quick movement was a Minuet, a genteel dance of the day; Beethoven made it louder and rougher and called it Scherzo, which means "joke."
This Scherzo may also be in Sonata-Allegro form in which the return of the 2nd theme in the Recapitulation is curiously absent, hence the "joke."
Sometimes the order of the 2nd and 3rd movements are switched, with the Scherzo coming first and afterwards the slow movement.
The 4th movement termed Final is fast, often hurried, is there to create some closure, and may be in a variety of forms, but commonly it's in Sonata-Allegro (1st movement) form or Rondo form, in which a recurring main theme alternates with other themes; normal rondo patterns include ABACA, ABACADA, and ABACABA.
Current tempo terms for the Final include Allegro molto (very fast) and Presto (even faster).
Almost always this Final ends with a coda or tailpiece in which the home key is presented with a stamping insistency.
When the symphony begins there may be a slow and stately Introduction in a different tempo than the rest of the 1st movement; having such an Introduction is optional.
There are many symphonies which have 5 or 6 individual movements, some have only 3, and very rarely, there are just 2.
Composers for the organ have taken this generic framework and adapted it to suit their purposes and the nature of the themes chosen -- which is how it should always be; the themes determine the forms best suited to them.
The first 8 of the 10 so-called organ "symphonies" of Charles-Marie Widor, for example, are actually groupings of stand alone pieces which are more properly termed "suites" (Widor himself called them "collections").
For a better study of large scale sonata form it will repay you to first have a close look at Cesar Franck's Grande Piece Symphonique from his Six Pieces, which is in 3 large sections; the middle of the 2nd (slow) section, because of its quick tempo, functions as a Scherzo.
The 6 organ symphonies of Louis Vierne are also outstanding models of symphonic writing for the organ; they're all in 5 movements, except for the First Symphony, which has 6.
Vierne was a master of sonata form.
To summarize, the planning phase involves creating your themes, the outline for the number of movements which will bring out the best in those themes, the forms for these various movements, and the keys through which they will travel.
Which means that you won't know exactly how many movements your symphony will have or what forms they will take until you have your themes.
Then and only then, after you have your themes, after you consider the forms best suited to them, and after you map the road over which these themes will travel in various keys, comes the actual writing phase, where you set up your music writing software, if you haven't already (See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part I], and actually execute your plan.
You should never attempt to settle on forms and afterwards try to come up with the themes to fill them; this has everything "bass ackwards" where you're forever trying to get a square peg to fit a round hole [See blog, Square Peg].
Finally, after this blast of effort with writing has passed and it looks like you're nearing the finish line, comes the editing phase.
Give yourself a couple of days away from your work and use this time to think about and do other things; taking time away from your music writing like this will allow you to come back to it with fresh ears, so you can edit it with a clear head.
Using your music writing software playback feature, play your music back and take out anything that doesn't jar with your artistic vision; if something seems too long or too short, adjust it accordingly; listening to it all the way through will give you many insights into whether or not it needs any finishing touches.
Lastly, you might want to entertain inviting your friends and other musicians you trust to give you feedback on your symphony; they may have suggestions or changes you can make that you might never have thought of yourself.
Don't be overly sensitive or defensive about these suggestions, if they're offered; your friends are only trying to help and you're not bound to utilize any of their feedback if you don't agree with it.
Bear in mind that you're not under any obligation to meet a time requirement and that composing a symphony for organ can take hundreds of hours; take your time and work at your own pace.
If you're newer at this, start writing or improvising simpler pieces and work your way up to a multi-movement work.
Study the scores of organ symphonies you like, listen to them constantly, and analyze their form, melodic movement, and tempo.
Don't give up on trying.
This is a huge undertaking.
Be proud of yourself for even giving it a try.