Assignment 3 – Revision and Reflection

I was very happy with my tutor’s feedback on assignment 3; this was the first exercise in polyphony and his comments indicated that the time I spent planning the structure and how the instruments would interact with each other really helped to make it a cohesive piece of music.  It was also good to see that he agreed with my own reflection on the importance of detailed and consistent articulation and phrasing, and that I had been successful in this aim.  One point that was suggested to work on is the layout of the score (for example reducing the staff size), and so in my assignment revision I will concentrate on improving this.

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Assignment 3

Structure

This piece roughly follows my plan of an ABA structure, with a few modifications.  I decided to introduce a change in time signature to 6/8 half way through section B; I think this change from quadruple to duple meter has the effect of carrying it forward towards the climax.  I then inserted an extra bar at the end of section B as a transition point back to 12/8.  I also shortened the final section to six bars which I think works better than a full repeat of the beginning and keeps the overall time down to just over two minutes.

Reflection

This assignment was an exercise in polyphony and I really enjoyed the process of weaving together the different parts.  My aim was for all three parts to sound melodic by themselves as well as to work well together.  Each instrument takes a turn at having the focus – I did this quite explicitly in the first half of section B for example, where the main melody moves between the parts while the other instruments play an accompanying texture at a softer dynamic.

I learnt quite a lot through the development of this piece.  One thing I noticed is that the middle line (in pitch) is not as easy for the listener to distinguish as the top and bottom lines, and so is often better suited as an accompaniment.  I also found myself having to make some small adjustments to the melodies where I found that one line was ‘colliding’ with another line (e.g. the oboe moving down to the same note that the clarinet was just playing), which makes it hard to identify where the melodies are going.  This wasn’t so obvious when I was playing them on the piano, possibly because of the instrument sound but also possibly because you’re more aware of the melodies when you are playing them yourself.

On the performance side I noticed the importance of having consistent phrasing and articulation between the parts.  If a melody is passed around the instruments for example, it is much more effective if it is performed in the same way.  Similarly when two parts are playing together, e.g. in the first half of section B.

Assignment 3 Plan

The brief for assignment 3 is to compose a short piece (around 2 minutes) for three woodwind instruments in a mostly polyphonic style.

Instruments

I decided to write for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, my instrument choice being influenced by some of the pieces I listened to as part of my research.  I thought the Ferroud woodwind trio used this combination very effectively – the bassoon provides a nice bass line but can also play at a pitch closer to the oboe and clarinet to allow the parts to come close together.  The timbres of the instruments also work well together.  The bassoon and oboe have conical bores and similar sounding timbres (producing both odd and even harmonics), whereas the clarinet has a cylindrical bore which produces mostly odd harmonics, giving it a contrasting timbre.  There is some interesting information about this topic on the University of New South Wales website which I would like to follow up on in more detail in the future: Open vs Closed Pipes.

Structure

The idea I had for this piece has a 12/8 time signature and is played at a walking pace of around 60 beats per minute.  This works out to approximately 30 bars of music.  My chosen triads are based around B minor and E minor:

triads

I think my opening idea will work well as a line for the bassoon which I can then add oboe and clarinet parts to over the top.  The basic structure will be ABA:

  • A:
    • 2 bars introduction (bassoon line alone)
    • 8 bars development of this theme, including transition to next triad
  • B:
    • 12 bars based around triad 2
  • A:
    • 8 bars return to the original theme, ending with triad 3

A woodwind trio

Pierre-Octave Ferroud: Trio a vent en mi

Ferroud was a French composer who wrote this trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon in Paris in 1937.  I like the combination of instruments together – the oboe and bassoon have a similar timbre but provide a contrast in pitch, and the clarinet has a different quality of sound which adds another colour.

The first movement is quite playful with lots of fast runs and grace notes.  It has a cheeky ending with a bar’s rest to build up the anticipation followed by a single, loud staccato note played in unison.

The second movement is in 2/2 and starts with a walking crotchet bass line in the bassoon which then moves to the clarinet, but played upside down.  The feeling of steady movement is maintained throughout the piece; usually one of the instruments is playing a continuous line of crotchets or quavers and the phrases indicated in the score are also quite long.

The third movement is again fast paced (indicated interestingly in the score as ‘quasi presto’ – seemingly fast?), with two of the instruments always providing a driving rhythm on the main beats of the bar.  The emphasis is on the second beat, shown in the score as a tenuto rather than an accent.

Some more polyphony

Thomas Tallis: Spem In Alium

This is a motet (sacred vocal work) written, impressively, for eight 5 part choirs.  It starts with an individual line and adds in more one at a time, quickly becoming a very full and rich sound.  As the work progresses different voices can be heard coming into the foreground and then dying away back into the harmony again, producing quite a hypnotic effect.

Stravinsky: Octet for Wind Instruments

Although entitled ‘Octet for Wind Instruments’ this piece in three movements is actually written for a collection of wind and brass instruments: flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trombones and two trumpets. During the piece you get to hear most combinations of instruments playing together which provides some nice contrasts.  On the woodwind side I thought the use of two bassoons was an interesting choice (usually just one bass instrument is more common in small groupings) but it seemed to work well.  In the middle movement which is a theme and variations, one of the bassoons is given a fast running repeated motif so is not just used as a traditional simple bass line.  Overall, the piece has a playful feel and doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, quite different to my previous encounters with Stravinsky.

Villa-Lobos: Quatuor for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet & Bassoon

I came across this by chance in my search for scores written for wind quartet.  It was written by the Brazillian composer Villa-Lobos in 1928, and is in three movements.

I really liked the contrasts between the sections where the instruments are playing together rhythmically, and the sections where they are more independent.  In the second movement three of the parts are playing the same triplet rhythm while the fourth has a different melody, which I thought worked really well.  Sometimes the instruments are playing the same melody an octave apart; one section in the middle movement has the clarinet and flute playing in octaves with the oboe playing a fifth in the middle.

There is quite strong use of imitation throughout the piece, with the different instruments often following each other with the same phrase (sometimes at a different pitch).  It ends with all the parts playing in octaves which gives a definite sense of closure.

 

Thomas Morley

As part of my research for Part 3 I listened to an album of Morley’s music called ‘Ayres and Madrigals‘, a collection of secular, mostly unaccompanied songs from the sixteenth century. They are quite varied – some very jolly with often funny lyrics (‘Arise, Awake, You Silly Shepherds Sleeping’!), and others quite sorrowful.  In the latter category I very much liked ‘Phyllis, I fain would die now’, which is sung as a kind of conversation between two groups of singers, one all female and one all male.

Some general observations below:

  • The different vocal parts frequently imitate each other both rhythmically and melodically
  • The parts take it in turns to have the first entry, often coming in a fifth higher than the previous one
  • There is often no identifiable ‘main’ melody, rather all the parts are equally important
  • The most contrapuntal sections are often in the refrains between verses, e.g. sung to ‘fa la la…’ rather than words
  • The melodic lines finish together at the cadences
  • Passages running up or down the scale are quite common, often with one part continuing where another part has just left off
  • The music is very much written to reflect the words e.g. ‘stay heart’ (sung slowly) followed by ‘run not so fast’ (a fast passage)
  • The minor songs often resolve with a major chord which seems quite typical of this era of music
  • You can sometimes hear sustained bass notes while the harmony changes in the upper parts