Sunday, September 11, 2005

Thoughts on the Sonata "Process" (And Guitar)

Inevitably, as I have been analyzing Beethoven, I have been piddling around with some small sonata experiments of my own. Since I need to get the rest of B's music entered before I can proceed with the Allegro anyway (And I'm ill with a sore throat, so I spent much of today sitting on my duff working on that mind-numbing task), I thought I'd post a little bit on the topic of sonata generally.

Regretably, sonata is most often referred to in terms of "sonata form", and while there are formal elements present in sonata movements, it is really a process or technique in which the thematic elements determine the form. In that respect, sonata is analogous to fugue. But unlike fugue, which is obsessed with a single thematic subject, sonatas use two or more contrasting themes. In fact, if you reduce the sonata process to it's most elemental feature, it reduces to the technique of contrast: Contrast of tempo, contrast of texture, contrast of mode, contrast of key, contrast of rhythm, contrast of dynamics, and even contrast of time signature. Every musical element is available as a resource for contrasting in the sonata process.

If you are trying to get a handle on the sonata process in order to develop your own voice in that idiom, the infinitude of the choices can be daunting. Personally, I had a much easier time with fugue because fugue is so single-minded in it's concentration on a single subject (In the strictest type of single-subject fugue, that is). But, just as Bach's Art of Fugue did not spring into existence out of nothingness, neither did Beethoven's Ninth: Both had a series of historical precursors. I have found it useful to go back to the earliest and simplest models and begin experiments there, allowing progress to happen naturally via experience as you wrap your brain around the idiom.

For the sonata process, the earliest fully formed precursor is the Sonatina Form. With early sonatinas, it is entirely appropriate to speak in terms of form, but the elemental characteristic of contrast was already present. For the basic sonatina, the form consists of an exposition, which is repeated, followed by a bridge, and finally a recapitulation. In major key sonatinas, the exposition consists of two contrasting themes, the first of which is on the tonic level, and the second on the dominant level. After the exposition is repeated, there is a bridge, which can be as simple as a figured chord progression, and then the two themes are presented in a recapitulation both on the tonic level. Introductions and codas are optional. The basic form would look like this: ||: A B :|| C || A B' ||.

In minor key sonatinas, the formal pattern is the same, but the contrasting themes are on the tonic minor level and the relative major in the exposition, and both in tonic minor for the recapitulation. Originally, the two themes were an animated allegro followed by a lyrical slower theme. Obviously, it didn't take composers long to vary these elements, and so sonata technique was born. During the course of subsequent music history, an endless variety of tempos, keys, and modes were played with by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and numerous others. Across this arc of time, the original bridge was elaborated and extended to become the development, though Brahms shifted much of his developmental activities back to the exposition and recapitulation. The original optional coda or codetta was also often elaborated to become a secondary development section. The possibilities are, literally, endless, which is why composers never seem to tire of the sonata.

My particular situation is complicated by my instrument, the guitar, which is an infinitely deep idiom in and of itself. After thirty years of playing it, I am just beginning to feel like I am becoming the master as opposed to the slave. Due to the limitations of range, the reliance on open strings, and the limited span of the hand, there are an infinite number of musical ideas that will only work in one single solitary key on the guitar. Obviously, this adds a further dimension of intricacy to writing sonata process pieces, if I may be allowed an unfathomably profound understatement. Then, there is the sad historical fact that no composer of the caliber of a Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven has ever played the guitar or written for it. No offense to Sor fans, but I personally do not find his sonatas to be very good models: His music simply does not appeal to me, despite the fact that I recognize that he was plenty competent as a composer.

On top of all of that, a century of musical evolution has taken place since the halcion days of sonata writing, so there is all of the newly developed musical materials of jazz harmony and all the other things I love and want to work in there.

With that in mind, as I was noodling around on the guitar, I came up with a simple exposition that I like quite a bit, and I think it will suffice as a good model for demonstration purposes.

For this exposition, I decided to follow the old sonatina pattern for minor key movements: The first theme is in A minor, and the second in the relative major key of C. As you can see, the piece starts out in 3/4 time with the simplest of i, iv, V(7), i progressions. The second appearance of the tonic is interrupted by another dominant harmony on the final beat of the measure, and then a deceptive motion to bVI follows.

Since the bVI of the minor tonic is also the subdominant of the relative major, I followed it with another strong ascending root progression to the bVII(7), which will be the upcoming dominant. I used the melody to "cheat" my way through the obvious parallelisms, which is a technique of idiomatic guitar writing. In any event, I like the effect of the major seventh chord followed by the dominant seventh there.

On the third stave, I introduce a dominant seventh on C, which I will later make into a V(4/3/b) (A "French" augmented sitxh) by replacing C with G-flat in the bass, but here it just functions as a normal, ordinary secondary dominant, and progresses back to the bVI. Measure eight goes to the first climax through a weird little augmented sixth sonority I just "made up" intuitively. I included the exact intervallic analysis, but I have to admit that this is just one of those things that "sounds cool", and I can't really rationalize it theoretically. Measure nine has a dominant seventh that introduces a sounding second that is a characteristic thematic element I'll be working with.

Note the "tacked on" measure of 2/4 at measure ten: One of the things I like to achieve is an organic plasticity in my phraseology. This ten bar phrase represents that "improvisational feel" I strive for. As we have seen thus far in our look at Beethoven, his phraseology was very slavishly under the thumb of the "tyranny of four" with all of it's matching duplet sets, and despite that fact, he achieved impossible masterpieces. Regardless of B's obvious and overwhelming greatness, I think criticising his phraseology is perfectly valid. Brahms had much more plasticity in this regard, but nobody can touch Palestrina here, who is my ideal for plasticity of line and phrase.

At measure eleven, we return to 3/4 time, and the expected tonic chord is replaced with a V(7)/iv, which progresses to the subdominant, making this phrase just a variation of the second phrase of the previous group. This time when the deceptive movement to bVI occurs, I use the sounding second thematic element again between the augmented eleventh and the third, which I really like the sound of. The second deceptive motion is facilitated by a secondary diminished triad to the new dominant, which has the sounding second between the minor ninth and the root, intimating that the upcoming modulation will be to a minor mode, but it isn't... yet.

Note again that I used a measure of 4/4 followed by a measure of 5/4 (3/4 plus 2/4) to achieve an organic phrase. I basically improvised this and wrote it down after the fact. At the end of measure fifteen, I dovetail into the contrasting texture that has a sixteenth note surface rhythm and a series of secondary axes. I'm also contrasting time signatures, as the following theme is predominantly in 2/4 time.

Instead of the traditional allegro/adaggio contrast, I have reversed the order, and have the faster texture second (Which has always seemed more natural to me) . And that brings up another aside. The technique that we have seen Beethoven using, wherein small thematic elements are used to spin out the larger form, is not really appropriate to my style speciffically, or writing for the guitar generally. I am contrasting texture, time, and key here, and development will be carried out by varying the underlying harmonic progressions and pitch levels.

The chord progression underpinning the second texture is self evident, and you can see how I return to the sounding second element in measures twenty and twenty-one, along with corresponding changes in the time signature. In the second phrase, the previous decending diatonic line is replaced with a decending chromatic line, and I used an "Italian" sonority to approach the vi chord, which appears as a V(7)/ii. The supertonic is then made into a diminished sonority, foreshadowing the later appearance of this theme in the minor mode.

Finally, the dominant reappears with the sounding second, and through an elesion involving the vii(d)/vi turns around to the beginning. Through a molto ritardando, this last harmony also melds into the bridge, which you can see I have already written out. There will be an actual development section (Beginning on the tonic major, as you can percieve from the bridge), but the next step is to write out the recapitulation. For that, I have already decided that the second theme will appear at the point of measure nine of the exposition an octave above the first theme (A sixth above the relative major version), but the opening theme will be varied and elongated by elaborating on the underlying harmonies (I've actually already written most of it out already).

Not sure if the next post will be Beethoven or Hucbald. Depends. On a variety of things.

As a Postscript, I have been in contact with one of my FEMA buddies working in MS. He found six bodies in back yards his first day. Glad I'm out of that business. I was never cut out to handle that sort of thing. My prayers are with all in the affected areas.


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