Assignment 1 – Reflective Commentary

I have used the Assessment Criteria to help me reflect and evaluate my first assignment:

Technical Presentation
My technical knowledge of Sibelius 7 is improving week on week and I enjoy working with the software.  I have made intermittent use of the Community support forums for any queries that I have experienced, most of which have been concerned about exporting files to compatible formats to include in my blog (I did not keep an online blog of my learning at Level 1 and wanted to change this for Level 2 and 3).  I feel that my work looks clear and professional, and I am especially pleased with the text inclusion in Assignment 1 that enabled me to demonstrate my setting of Pam Ayres’s poem “Woodland Burial” to music.

Compositional skills
I built my composition for Assignment 1 carefully.  Firstly, I selected a suitable poem and then worked on the rhythmic structure.  This latter stage took various attempts before I was happy with it (switching various times between 2 and 4/4).  I had to determine where the emphasis lay and be guided by the words and their syntax rhythm, working with the syllabi.  Having looked at a few pieces that featured melismatic word settings, I decided against this technique as I didn’t think it suited the words.

I took all my clues creatively for this assignment from the poem itself and was very much guided by the words and the feelings they conjured up.  Initially, the poem paints the picture of a plea, a plea against stereotypical burials where one might be placed into the ground without thought as to what has gone before.  This immediately encouraged me to open the piece in a minor tonality and I set a steady tempo of 80 bpm to ensure that the piece wasn’t rushed but would maintain momentum.

Because I knew that the mood was going to change in the 3rd line, I made sure that I moved towards a major tonality modulation; I set the tone by taking the piece into the dominant of the major key in bar 12 to ease the listener into a warmer feeling to accompany the words “Lay me in some leafy loam”.

I decided to keep the accompaniment completely separate in style to that of the melody; the left hand part is arpeggiated, flowing broken chords; the right hand is predominantly sustained chords.  Occasionally, I have picked out elements of the melody in the right hand (e.g. bar 24), or I have harmonised the right hand with the melody (e.g. bars 25, 37). Both techniques were designed to create interest and develop the accompaniment gently.

When I listened to pieces analysing accompaniments, I found that I didn’t like those parts that lead the melody line of the singer/performer.  It always implies to me that the singer can’t be trusted to remember where the melody is going and needs help. I prefer accompaniments that support and provide harmonic and rhythmic structure; this is what I tried to emulate.

The revised version of this assignment witnessed a couple of changes, which I’m confident has improved the composition in various ways:

1) I used a wider range for the soprano voice, which made it more expressive and opened up the melody line more.
2) I changed the rhythmic setting of the words in bar 22 because the original setting didn’t fit the four syllables; I wrote it against 3 beats, which made the setting difficult. The revision has enabled the words to flow more.
3) I didn’t understand the best technical way of showing the key changes and therefore, in my original assignment, included many differing key signatures throughout the score. In my revision, I kept the first modulation to G, showed it with the double bar lines but thereafter, wrote accidentals. This made it far easier to read.
4) I changed the layout of the lyrics attribution under the title of the score on page 1 by moving it to the left hand side; the composer remained on the right hand side. I didn’t realise that this was the correct format and it now looks more professional.

Stylistic Awareness

Listening, reading, research: 
I have accessed with interest a couple of different websites, all of which concerned themselves with setting words to music, whether in a contemporary “song” sense or in a more classical form such as opera.  I didn’t feel it made any difference as the principals behind this are the same.  Herewith the references I used:

I have also been reading Eric Taylor’s “AB Guide To Music Theory Part 2” with interest; this felt like a big revision on previous knowledge but it was good to revisit.  I read chapter 23: traditional modes.

▪    Lional Bart’s “Food, Glorious Food” from Oliver!
▪    Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Born To Dance
▪    Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera

My notes upon listening to these three melodies were nominal and I hadn’t settled into analysing the music I listened to at this point. I did note that the words in these songs were set very closely to the syntax and rhythms of the sentences and words, i.e. syllabic.

There was no melisma to be heard anywhere!

I later went on to expand my listening for Part 1 as follows:

Benjamin Britten’s Folksongs: ‘The Foggy Foggy Dew
This was a very simple song with solo piano and male voice.  The accompaniment part didn’t play the melody line, merely chords.  The melody itself was scalic and arppeggiated in nature and had many repeated phrases.  There was a variety of dynamics, often climaxing at the higher registers of the voice before dying down again.  The harmony was diatonic throughout and moved through very simple progressions (I-IV-V).  The song tells the story of a man who falls in love with a maid he ‘kept from the foggy foggy dew’.
It’s a very simple, charming piece and the words are set syllabically to the music.

Benjamin Britten’s Folksongs: ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher
This was a lively piece containing lots of dotted notes in the rhythm.  Again, the piece consisted solely of solo piano and vocalist. The piano part was very different to the melody line and many of the harmonies explored sounded diminished. It maintained the rhythmic pulse of the piece.  The melody line was very scalic and skipped along very happily – the words told the story of a poacher and his adventures with local farmers.  The dynamics always seemed to follow the higher reaches of the vocal part, building accordingly.  A simple harmonic structure again, diatonic throughout, and aside from some interesting chords in the piano part occasionally, it was very traditional sounding.

Benjamin Britten’s Folksongs: ‘The Ash Grove
The last of the Britten folksongs I listened to, this had a very gentle piano part which echoed the vocal line and harmonised the melody, which was very lyrical.  This was a famous piece that I recognised and the tune was scalic and sequential.  All the words were set syllabically to the notes with no melisma detected.  Harmonically, a very simple piece and diatonic throughout.  The piano played a minor tonality against the major tonality of the vocal line at 1’ 38 which was initially odd to hear but it did work and it resolved back to the major again.

John Rutter: ‘The Turtle Dove
A solo tenor voice entered with the rest of the chorus humming very softly beneath.  The piece was in a minor tonality and the chorus soon all sang together. It was a very slow, very peaceful song, with all words set syllabically to the music.  It had a very pure quality to it and I really enjoyed it, especially the tierce de picardie at the end.

John Wilbye: ‘Draw On, Sweet Night’
This had a staggered entry with the voices; sopranos and altos came in first with the tenors and basses following, all with their own lines making for a polyphonic texture. Owing to the long sustained notes in various parts, some clashed and formed suspensions which I LOVE!  I want to write more of these into my pieces.  Wilbye also wrote many accented passing notes which again created that feeling of tension in the harmony.  Each part overlapped with the tune in sequences and also used imitation.  There was some homophonic texture but it was predominantly polyphonic throughout.   The harmony is diatonic throughout and does move through some inverted chords.  The clarity and purity of tone is very noticeable once more; beautiful.  I really enjoyed this.

Thomas Weelkes: ‘As Vesta Was’
This has a homophonic texture upon opening with lots of passing notes within the parts which changes the texture to a more polyphonic feel.  It has a diatonic minor tonality that does seem to change often to the relative major and back again.  It is very imitative and initially, the piece is in quite high registers.  It’s hard to hear the words but I can hear enough to detect that they’re set syllabically throughout.  The voices harmonise quite often in 3rds or 6ths and at times feels like a carol.  I did like this piece.

Patric Sandford: A Christmas Carol Symphony’
Andante tranquillo
This had a very soft solo violin opening which was accompanied by woodwind.  The lines were chromatic and strikingly rich in texture; warm and pastoral feeling.
There were occasional diminished notes in the harmony that hinted at a minor tonality.  What was also hinted at throughout was the carol ‘Away in a Manger’, which was very cleverly woven into phrases.  Different sections took part in alternating various motifs.  Harmonically there were lots of interesting parallel diminished / augmented chords.

The texture remained predominantly homophonic and there wasn’t one identifiable solo instrument that played a melody line as such.  The texture opened up to a more polyphonic feel towards the end with all sections taking it in turns to ‘hint’ the carol theme.  A sudden sfz towards the end of the piece brings a dramatic close to the piece.

Schubert: ‘Impromptu, Op.90, No. 3 in G-Flat Major
This opens in the key of G-Flat major, a nice strong tonality which very quickly changes to the relative minor of E-Flat minor in bar 2.  The piece is characterised by the very lyrical, shimmering semiquavers moving between the outer melody and lower bass parts.
Schubert moves us via inversions around various chords before bringing us back to G-Flat again. This is a very beautiful piece that is always on the move harmonically.  It’s texture is rich and it sounds virtuoistic for the pianist.  We move constantly both harmonically and melodically through sequences.  Schubert likes to reprise themes in low registers, high registers, at contrasting dynamics.  A second theme in the minor tonality enters at 1′ 19 which is very dramatic.  Eventually the opening theme reprises at 4’ 58 to conclude the piece to close.

This is a lovely piece to listen to; it’s very difficult and challenging to play and one of my favourite impromptus.

I then explored two ‘melismatic’ pieces to understand them more and to see whether it was a style that I wanted to try in my own pieces:

Handel’s Messiah: For Unto Us A Child Is Born‘ (Part 1, No.12)

The strings open this piece; it is very happy and joyous sounding.  The first discernable melismatic phrase talks place at 0′ 32 in the sopranos and altos.  At its longest part, 57 notes are sung to the word ‘born’.  It seems to be a highly decorative technique that suits the Baroque period perfectly.  It’s very ornate, very show-stopping in it’s virtuoso qualities, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was exhaustive to listen to and it’s certainly hard work to perform it.  Therefore, my initial feelings about melisma as a technique were not favourable but the listening continues.

Mariah Carey: ‘Vision of Love
Stylistically, Mariah Carey has always favoured singing many notes when one would suffice.  This hit from 1990 was the best early example of this.  She likes to use 3 or 5 notes on the last words of the phrases, often sounding like a vocal ‘flick’.  I think I detected the longest melismatic moment at around 2′ 23 to the words ‘sweet destiny’.  It’s highly expressive and very decorative.  I’m still not sure I like the technique.


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