Assignment 2 – Reflective Commentary

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

Technical Presentation:
Like every piece of software, your working knowledge improves with use and I feel this is true with my experience of Sibelius.  There is still a long way to go and I am still manually dropping the notation onto the staves rather than composing with my midi keyboard to a click track, but this is something that I aspire to and will aim to achieve for the next assignment.

Compositional skills:
For the first time since I started studying composition with the OCA, I wrote almost the entire assignment and then decided 5 days before my deadline, following more research and consideration, to start my piece again.  Initially, I thought I was mad but I also felt that I was being more true to the style of the piece and that I wasn’t just “making do”.  I had already chosen “A Carol” as the text that I wanted to write for and approached the composition with the rhythmic setting of the words.  Once I was happy with the rhythm, this helped me to form the melody line.  Once this was in place, I wrote the bass part.  The middle two voices then followed.

I drew upon notes outlined in the article I read “Introduction to Contrapuntal Music” to focus upon the important elements of contrapuntal writing.  I summarise these as follows:

1) The music should be singable and comfortable for each voice.
2) The melody should have direction and focus, usually the highest note.
3) I should stay within one key, major or minor, and use diatonic notes not chromatic tones.
4) I should write using step-wise motion using leaps for melodic interest.
5) I should consider the movement between the voices carefully; contrary motion sees lines move in opposite direction and helps to maintain an independent melody.  Oblique motion sees one line staying steady whilst the other parts go up or down.
Similar motion has lines moving in the same direction but not by the same amount; this happens with parallel motion.

My Grade VI theory really came into action on this assignment, and whilst I was able to be creative with the rhythm and melody lines, the middle two voices were then very much dictated by the soprano and bass lines.  The rules of 4-part harmony had to be obeyed and in order to make sure I got this right, I undertook a lot of careful reading.

I spent a lot of time checking the relationships between the parts to make sure I didn’t break any of the conventions of parallel 5ths or octaves.

One of the reasons I decided to start over with my assignment was because I wanted to change the opening texture.  My first version opened in a homophonic texture.  Having listened to a few madrigals and looked at some scores (see below), I realised that perhaps I needed to change this to a more polyphonic opening.  I also wanted to incorporate imitation between the lines, which I added to the lyrics “Awake the voice, awake the string!”.

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

1) I created an alternative line for the upper voices on the last 4th beat of the second line of text, ‘Awake the voice, awake the string’. To create a stronger imitative texture, I swopped the voices over so that the lower parts entered with this phrase first, with the upper voices the following.
2) I again focused on the lower voices in bar 9 by moving the lead section to them instead of placing it with the upper voices. I had them follow the lower voices, and it really helped to create contrast that was needed.
3) I put an accent on the syllable ‘wake’ in bars 13-14 which was a better choice for emphasis than my originally notated sfz; this was too harsh. I also changed the dynamics from mp to f.
4) I reviewed the dynamics throughout the piece, ensuring these were especially notated at the start and ends of all crescendo and diminuendos. Consistency was the key here and upon revision, the score became much clearer and contained more contrast as a result.
5) I changed the tempo from ‘Con moto’ to ‘Andante’, which was more specific.

Stylistic Awareness:

Listening, reading, research: 
I drew on my previous Grade VI theory syllabus knowledge to write the four-parts.  However, I did further reading and listening research to broaden my knowledge of madrigals and counterpoint.  These are my references:

I listened to the following during Part 2 to help me look more closely at the madrigal and contrapuntal writing:

John Dowland – “Come Again”
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – “First Book of Madrigals”
Monteverdi – “Altri canti d’amor, tenero arciero” (Madrigal from Book VIII)
Yes – “Madrigal” Tormate, A Celebration 1969-1999
Thomas Morley – “Madrigals”
Thomas Weelkes – “Tan Ta Ra Ran Tan Tant”
William Byrd – “Puer natus est nobis”
Steve Reich – “Electric Counterpoint (Third Movement – Fast)”

After these initial pieces, I looked more closely at the following pieces:

Anonymous: ‘Adorate Deum’ Gregorian Chant
This is a piece for a capella male voices who sing in unison throughout. It is a very simple Gregorian chant where the melody line moves very slowly in step-wise motion. The phrases are long and the words and sung syllabically in Latin. At 1’ 07 a solo voice sings a phrase which breaks up the texture, but within a few bars the remaining voices join in once more. Tonally, the piece centres around modes rather than keys, and because it is unaccompanied, there is no 4-part, homophonic harmonies to be heard – the sound is thus very pure. The piece is very serene, very peaceful and quite relaxing. The reverb from the recording suggests it was sung in a cathedral or abbey.

Anonymous: ‘Gregorian Chant for Good Friday
Tractus: Domine, audivi
Once more we hear all male acapella voices singing together in unison. The melody line is slow, chromatic and stepwise in motion, and the phrases are very long. It is often hard to hear a specific rhythmic pattern and a melody line is almost impossible to determine. Gregorian chant is relaxing and peaceful to listen to, but after a while (and having listened to the ‘Adorate Deum’), I found myself becoming irritated by its lack of structure and lack of harmony. It sounded like it was just going round and round the modes aimlessly.

Anonymous: ‘Russian Divine Liturgy
This liturgy is made up of 16 pieces entitled ‘Meeting & vesting of Bishop’.
I listened to the first piece. All male voices sing in harmony in homophonic texture. The harmony is diatonic and incredibly beautiful. The tempo is quite slow and stately and the words are sung syllabically in Russian.
I enjoyed this more because I could hear the tonality in the harmony; I could hear the chord progressions, the contrary motion between the parts, and the melody line could be determined. There were lots of suspensions created between the parts, especially at cadence points and the piece was very repetitive and imitative.

Poulenc: ‘Stabat Mater
Movement 1: Stabat Mater Dolorosa
This opens with a high sustained note on the flute or piccolo and strings. The tonality is minor and it feels very pensive. It’s harmonic progression descends, making the atmosphere even more dark, and we hear both bassoon and harp in amongst the orchestral arrangement. It is very rich in texture and the rhythm is slow and simple.
Male voices enter in unison singing latin before the females join in to reiterate the main theme, which is very chromatic. This is a very lyrical piece and I found it very emotional. There seemed to be a lot of 7th chords in the harmony, sounding romantic in style, and with the chromatic shifts between the chord changes, the harmonies moved with subtlety. This is a lovely piece and I enjoyed listening to it.

Szymanowski: ‘Stabat Mater
Movement 1: Stabat Mater Delorosa
A solo flute plays at the start with a second flute harmonising. An oboe soon takes over with strings following shortly after. There is an atonal feel to the harmony and there are many chromatic moments in the accompaniment. We soon hear a violin solo with strings and bassoon; the music feels menacing. It felt to me like a film score. At 1’ 44 a solo voice (either female or tenor) starts to sing a very simple, very high melody. Other voices join in acappella and the tonality shifts from major to minor continually. The soloist sounds at odds with the accompaniment at times, clashing. It feels tortuous, heart-rending. It was difficult to listen to and I preferred the Poulenc.

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