Saturday, March 1, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #1)

Inspired by a presentation by Jocelyn Morlock at this year's Newfound Music Festival, I asked several questions about musical form in my previous blog post, in part to engender a dialogue on the topic — I am genuinely interested in learning how other composers think of this — and in part to get my students thinking about it. Musical form is a topic of interest to all composers.

Because of my propensity towards long-windedness, I have decided to answer the questions posed in my previous post in separate blog entries.  Here is the first question:

1. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how important is form in musical composition, and why?
It's tempting to enthusiastically jump up and shout "10," with at least three exclamation marks (of critical importance, ladies and gentlemen!!!), and then wait for the applause to die down, but, when both great and not-great composers used the same forms, such as sonata, and rondo, is this justified?
Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all used sonata form extensively.  So did virtually all European composers, good or bad, from about 1770 to 1900, including Fernando Sor.
Fernando who, you may ask? If you are not a guitarist, you have probably never heard of him, and for good reason: Sor was a competent but uninspired composer, mainly of guitar music, who lived from 1778 to 1839. 
His life overlapped with Beethoven's (b. 1770) and Schubert's (b. 1797), but, to use a baseball analogy (because spring training has now started!) if Beethoven and Schubert were major-league all-stars and first-ballot Hall-of-Famers, Sor was a guy who probably spent a lot of time on the bench. If you don't follow baseball and have no idea what I'm talking about, my point is that history has been kind (deservedly) to Beethoven and Schubert, but not so kind (deservedly) to Sor.
He was reputed to be an excellent guitarist, however…
I mention Sor because, as a guitarist, I played some of his music during my youth. It is well-written for the guitar, and it has pleasing moments, but it never came close to moving me as profoundly as the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and many others. 
Here's an excellent performance of Sor's Sonata in C, op. 22, first movement. In my playing days, I practically — nay, definitively owned this piece! Yeah! (By this I mean that I purchased a copy.) I also learned it, although of course I did not play it very well… Have a listen, and see what you think:

An excellent performance, is it not? (I fail to understand the decision to repeat the exposition, however; once through strikes me as plenty!) But as a composition, I am not sure that any theorists or musicologists would suggest that it is at the level of the three classical-period "greats," Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. I certainly don't.
Why is that, you might ask? Well, I will suggest that the weakness is not the large-scale form, which does all the things a well-behaved sonata form is supposed to do: It opens with a declamatory, attention-grabbing, first theme, followed by another tonic-area theme. The transition modulates to the dominant, and even has a clever tonicization of the chromatic mediant (Eb) along the way. The second theme-group includes several themes, each of which is pleasant enough, and it concludes with a codetta. The development is skillfully handled, and is neither too short, not too long, finishing with a dominant pedal point, as most developments do. The recapitulation is also handled competently. 
In short, Fernando Sor knew what he was doing when it came to form, but, in spite of this, history has relegated him to minor position in relation to the "great" composers.  
This suggests to me that there must have been more to the greatness of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven than their handling of form, and that [DISCLAIMER: PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU ARE SEATED BEFORE CONTINUING TO READ] form is perhaps not the most important aspect of a musical composition!
However (he added, back-pedaling quickly!), one of the reasons we love to study Beethoven is that he did things with standard forms that were often unexpected, or even unprecedented (c.f. "Waldstein" Sonata, op. 53, I)!  
One of the best ways to evaluate composers as "musical architects" (a term sometimes used in reference to a composer's structural design (i.e., form) in a composition) is to compare the following sectioins of their sonata-form compositions: 
  •   Transitions in the exposition and in the recapitulation; 
  •   Development sections; 
  •   Codas; and
  •   Any other aspects of form that are unexpected.
Haydn deserves huge credit for the development of classical sonata form (influenced in part by C. P. E. Bach), and Mozart and especially Beethoven all did some surprising, new things in the sections listed above. I would love to teach an upper-level course on just Beethoven's codas, or, more generally, classical transition sections; these offer an abundance of fascinating procedures, which reinforces the point that form is indeed important.
However, not all sonatas by the classical "greats" are examples of ground-breaking musical architecture; the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 1, op. 2, no. 1, for example, is not remarkable or unusual in terms of its form, and yet it is a highly-regarded composition for other reasons (motivic unity ranking high among them). 
And so, after this long-winded preamble, my answer to the question on the importance of musical form is that form is certainly important, but so are a lot of other aspects of musical composition, some of which are arguably even more important, such as motivic unity and organic growth, the play between expected and unexpected elements, and the music's ability to powerfully move listeners. 
Given this, as well as the fact that (a) lesser composers generally used the same large-scale forms (e.g., binary, ternary, sonata, rondo) as great composers in a given historical period, and (b) great composers sometimes wrote excellent music whose form was not particularly remarkable, I guess I would have to say that large-scale form gets about a 7 or 8 in terms of importance on my scale of 1-10.  
Ah, but why am I only discussing large-scale form, you may ask? Because to be fair, it is important to note that "form" exists on multiple levels simultaneously in a composition, from the very small scale, such as the intervalic content in a motive, the way in which a theme is constructed, motivic breakdown, the functions of each phrase segment, thematic structure such as period, sentence, phrase group, "auto-generative," fortspinnung, etc., to increasingly larger scales such as the structure of sections, movements, and entire multi-movement works. If the question is, how important is form in every sense of the word, meaning on every level, then my answer is easy: it's a 10.
It is essential to think about form on multiple levels as we compose; if we leave it to an afterthought, our music will likely suffer for it. And by "suffer" I mean that our compositions can sound confused, disorganized, inorganic, etc.
You don't necessarily have to adopt an existing form, or even know what form you are using in the early stages of writing. At many points during the composition process, however, it is good to step back from the the small-scale focus on notes, motives, lines, contour, harmonies, textures, etc., in order to assess what is going on in terms of structure, and work out what the overall form is, or will be. 
I virtually never plan the form of a piece before I start writing; I begin, see where it takes me, add or take away bits, see if I like it, and continue until a section of the music is written. While doing this, my mind is simultaneously trying to make sense of my musical ideas, basically through analysis, trying to get a sense for how they are structured, and how the structures can make better sense.  When I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the materials with which I am working, I begin working out a tentative overall form for the composition, but this usually changes as I continue the piece.
Many times, when I am not 100% satisfied with a piece I am writing, it is because the form just does not  work for me, and so I play around with this until the piece makes more sense. Sometimes, in "playing around" with form, I realize that some sections are too long, too short, or even unnecessary, and I wasn't fully aware of this until I did a structural analysis.
On the other hand, some composers, like to begin with an exact, well-planned form, and that obviously can work well too.   
My advice would be to try it both ways (pre-planned form, vs. figuring it out as you go) and see which works best for you.
Answers to the remaining questions in my previous blog to follow; hopefully they will be shorter!


Byrann Gowan said...

This was a very interesting blog for me to read; I always regarded form as one of the most important aspects of music. I still do, but this has allowed me to basically stand up and say that there are more aspects than just form.
I would like to add that one reason that I find it is so easy for us to determine form as the most important part of a musical piece is that, not only do we see it in classical music, but we also see it in popular music today. In today's music, one of the most standard types of form is "introduction - verse 1 - chorus - verse 2 - chorus - instrumental/bridge - chorus - outro." People who don't study music recognize this form, and it's easy for them, and obviously us musicians, to determine it. So, while there are other equally important aspects to music, the reason why it is so easy for us to determine form as the main aspect of music is because of the fact that it is something that everyone, even those who aren't in music, can, in some types of music, identify.

Pallas A said...

Not that I am a guitar music connoisseur, but I was surprised that I am familiar with some music by Fernando Sor. I always thought that he was a Baroque or early classical composer because his music does seem simpler than that of the big 3. It's interesting how form can sometimes make or break a piece, or have absolutely no effect on the quality of the piece (if the other musical elements are used effectively, as was mentioned with the Beethoven piano sonata). I'm currently trying to be a more macroscopic composer by establishing some of the big picture aspects of a composition early on. Elements of composition like form do not come to me early in the composition process, and that is probably why my longest work to date barely scrapes past the 3 minute mark. However, I cannot even fathom a chord or melody if I am not 100% sure of what scale(s) or set classes I am going to use. I have probably overlooked form in my own work because I was not aware of how important it is. But even if the audience is not versed in musical forms, form does provide a type of structure to a piece that cannot be easily substituted by other musical elements.