May. 15, 2018

Getting Started With Writing, Part XXXIV

(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 syncopated notes alternating back and forth on weak beats 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)