Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich

I was inspired to read this autobiography after learning about the censorship composers like Shostakovich had to contend with in Soviet Russia in the early twentieth century.  It’s a fascinating insight, not only into Shostakovich’s life but also that of many other composers and musicians – Glazunov and Prokofiev to name just two.  It reveals a very human side to these people, and tells of the fear and desperation they endured in a political climate in which many felt forced to write ‘denunciations’ of fellow composers simply in order to survive.  It’s also engrossing to read from a musical perspective, describing how Shostakovich composed, his opinion of other contemporary composers and how he felt about the receptions of his works.

The Study of Counterpoint

This fascinating book is the English translation of Johann Joseph Fux’s ‘Gradus Ad Parnassum’, first published in 1725.  It was written as a dialogue between student and master about the art of music composition, and counterpoint in particular.  It was a very influential work and is known to have been studied by eminent composers such as Bach and Beethoven.

The book lays out a method or a set of rules for writing counterpoint, with lots of examples and exercises for the student to complete.  It was interesting to read the author’s observation in the foreword that:

‘..music has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself..’

It just goes to show that musicians have always been rebelling!

Here are a few examples of the rules given for two-point counterpoint:

  • Avoid difficult to sing intervals such as tritones
  • Never use similar motion towards a perfect cadence
  • Never leave the unison / octave consonance by a step-wise motion
  • Dissonances are permissible only during step-wise motion

The first is I think still very relevant, even when writing for instrumental music.  After experimenting a little with the second two I tend to agree that this approach ‘sounds better’, although that could very well be because my ear is used to hearing music where these rules are followed.  The last one really needs to be analysed in the context of when it was written – at the time the perfect fourth was considered dissonant, so it would be interesting to explore this further.

Another piece of advice I found quite useful is that the student is encouraged to think of the line as a whole, not just note by note, for example there may be parallel fifths or octaves that are obscured or hidden by an inconsequential note in between.

 

Temperament

Iscoff, S. 2002. Temperament. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

This book has the subtitle ‘How Music became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilisation’, and is a fascinating perspective on the development of the equally tempered scale.  The history of this development is intertwined with science, art, politics and even religion; I had no idea just how polarising the subject has been over the centuries.

As a pianist the story is especially interesting, since the keyboard played such an important role.  I would love to get my hands on one of the prototype keyboards designed to try to overcome the tuning problems by having multiple keys per ‘note’ – as if playing the piano is not hard enough!

As a composer the subject opens up many pathways for exploration and research.  Just what is it that makes the frequency ratios 2:1, 3:2, 4:3 etc sound so ‘right’?  Many musicians from the time found even the slight deviations from these pure ratios required for equal temperament abhorrent; our ears are accustomed to them but are we missing out on something as a result?