Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sonata One in E Minor for Solo Guitar: III - Scherzo

You can download the PDF scores and MIDI to MP3 conversions of all four movements of Sonata One here.


My single favorite piece in the entire symphonic literature is the second movement Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. In fact, that piece is my earliest musical memory.

When I was a very young child of three or four years, Arturo Toscanini's 1952 recording of this Scherzo was the theme music for the NBC news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report. My dad would retire to his den to watch that show every night, and I remember standing in front of our ancient black-and-white TV transfixed by the opening music as vividly as if it happened five minutes ago. This is not only my first musical memory, but one of my first memories ever.


Scherzo translates into English as "jest," so a scherzo is basically a musical joke of some kind or other. The tradition of musical scherzi goes back at least to Haydn, who seems to have invented the term for classical musical works (Not to mention his inventing the string quartet and just about everything else we think of as "classical" in music).

In Beethoven's scherzo, he took the 3/4 menuetto and sped it up to the point that it sounded like it was in 12/8, and of course the opening is also a fugato. Since jazz swing is most accurately notated as 12/8, that gave me the idea of using a standard jazz swing tune as a scherzo.

A couple of years ago I dug out my oldest jazz pieces to make two-guitar arrangements of them for a couple of students of mine who had a jazz guitar duo. When I got to this Charlie Parker style piece I wrote in 1980, I noticed that the compass of the melody would allow me to play it on a single guitar with a contrapuntal bass line, and so the genesis of this piece goes back twenty-seven years.

If you look at what Bach was writing in the lute suites - dances such as bourrees, sarabandes, &c. - the tradition of writing popular styles in "serious" music goes back at least three-hundred years, so this idea is not new, but writing a swing tune in two-part counterpoint probably is.

Here is the thirty-two bar jazz tune I wrote back when I was twenty-two, and the contrapuntal bass line I wrote to it when I was forty-eight. I only changed two notes of the melody: The second note of measure six was originally a b-flat, which I changed to a d-flat to avoid a parallel minor seventh with the bass line; and the second note of measure nineteen was originally an e-flat, which I changed to G so the figure wasn't an exact repetition of the preceeding one.

Note that the opening interval in the pickup measure is an augmented sixth, and that the a-flat follows the previous movement's a-natural chromatically to link the two pieces smoothly. As I said previously, the first three movements are designed to be played as one big piece in three sections that are each very different in character and style.

I have actually had the idea of writing counterpoint in the jazz style for several years now - and I was originally thinking of using Charlie Parker's Donna Lee as a vehicle - but this is the first realizaton of that goal. It was important to me to retain stylistic integrity, so the melody is like something a jazz horn player might play, and the bass line is like something a jazz bassist might play. I've heard other composer's attempts at jazz counterpoint, and none of them have ever come across as convincing to me: This does.

My model for the style of the bass part was Ray Brown, who is fond of the eighth note pickups before new measures (As are legions of other jazz bassists). Since this is jazz, the counterpoint is freer with respect to the handling of dissonance compared to Bach's, but there are no parallel stepwise perfect consonances or parallel stepwise dissonances.

Since a classical scherzo is a compound form - a song within a song - I used the same idea here: After the tune is played, the melody takes a chorus of solo, and then the tune returns again at the end.

Here's the solo section. After spending so much time writing the bass part - it took about a week of writing and polishing - I decided to retain it as a good, old fashioned cantus firmus and write the melodic variations out over it. I just wrote this section a few days ago, in fact, after completing the Tocatta.

This solo is seriously old school, as it is simply a progressive elaboration on the original melody, which is how jazz soloing got its start. I was fortunate to have the late, great Herb Ellis as a teacher a few times, and he was already in his sixties when I met him in 1980, the year I wrote this original tune. He was a storehouse of jazz wisdom by that time, and one thing he stressed a lot was that a good soloist not only knows the melody, but where his solo is in relation to it at any given time. With that in mind, I made this solo as a tribute to Herb and his wisdom.

You can see how I used the opening triplet figure of the melody to decorate the original melodic trajectory in the first sixteen measures, and that eventually takes over to become nearly constant triplets by the beginning of the second sixteen measures. I would like to mention that, yes, I'm aware of the direct octaves in measure forty-one from the second to the third beat, but they are not parallel stepwise octaves, so they are really OK by me. Not only that, but when two melodies are moving in the same direction but at different velocities, as they are here, incidental parallisms are really not problematic at all, even if they would have been stepwise in nature. This goes back to Joseph Schillinger's idea that counterpoint is best thought of as a combination of complimentary melodic trajectories, and not as a mere sequence of intervallic relationships: Jazz gives a whiole new level of freedom for that conception, as I hope I've demonstrated here.

For the return of the tune, I just used the repeat. Most scherzi have foreshortened returns, and in some of Beethoven's late ones, the return is positively vestigal. I end the piece with a stylistically appropriate G(6/9) chord, which just compounds the joking nature of the thing, as it is even preceeded by an augmented sixth interval.

This is really what I think jazz composers ought to be doing, if they want to take their music to a higher level of sophistication, and I've often wondered why none of them ever have (None that I'm aware of, at least). Then again, it took me about twenty years of studying virtually every counterpoint text in the English language to get to this point, so perhaps it's not so much of a mystery.

The guy knows how to compose a photograph.


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