Saturday, July 19, 2008

How to Compose Counterpoint (Using Larger Forms)

Well, it's official: This is now a series. In the first post I gave an example of a simple diatonic ternary form piece as a starting point for composing counterpoint pieces from scratch, then in the second post I gave three examples from a series of pieces I wrote that show how to make progress, and in this post I'll give an example of a larger form work in two-voice counterpoint that I had as my first major goal.

As you begin to master counterpoint, you'll want to set goals for yourself that will allow you to progressively grow. You may wish to write some two-part inventions if you want to progress to fugue, for example, but early on I realized that imitative counterpoint wasn't really idiomatic for the guitar (Or rather, it was too complicated for me to tackle as an early goal), so my first major goal was to compose a compound ternary form Scherzo.

Back in that first post the example was a simple ternary form piece in B minor and 6/8 time that I call a Menuetto. As I said, my favorite single piece in the entire symphonic literature is the Scherzo from Beethoven's Ninth, and I wanted to write something of a similar character on a smaller scale for the guitar. I didn't use imitation as Beethoven did, obviously, and I changed the anachronistic super-fast 3/4 time to a more modern and manageable 6/8. From that first simple A, A, B, A, B, A' ternary form it was a small conceptual step to progress to a compound ternary form, because it just amounts to a ternary form within a ternary form.

So, today's example is the Scherzo I ended up writing between the E-Axis Studies and the B-Axis Studies, and the form is, Intro, A, A', B, A', C, C', D, C, C'', A', B, A'', Codetta. It is also in B minor and 6/8 time, as the first example in this series was, but the form is expanded - compounded, actually - and I made my first successful attempts at the kind of motivic development that one uses in sonata process pieces here.

In the brief two-measure introduction is the ti, la, ti, do, me, sol motif that I use for all of the developmental episodes (It is the only rhythmicized element in the piece, as well) and then the piece launches into an eight measure A section, but this time there are first and second endings. At measure nine in the first ending I use an augmented triad that turns around to a diminished triad to lead into the motif at measure ten, but this time the motif has contrapuntal accompaniment, and that leads to the repeat of A. The second ending at eleven and twelve launches into a diminished seventh arpeggio, which leads to the pitch climax for the A section at B in measure twelve. Ever higher pitch climaxes are one of the features of the organizational scheme of this piece.

The B section begins at fourteen, and the previous pitch climax of B is almost immediately exceeded by C-sharp in sixteen, which is reached via another arpeggiated diminished seventh trajectory. I use a lot of these symmetrical structures in my music - diminished seventh and augmented triad arpeggios - as they are dominant in function, and they are also mechanically efficient, being as they are a straight line between to pitch points. Probably needless to say, I got this idea from Joseph Schillinger.

Through the obvious sequential figure, the next high note reached is B at eighteen, and then a new pitch climax of D is reached at twenty. I rhythmacized this because it is nearly an inversion of the motif.

At twenty-two the second part of the B section begins, and this is a descending sequential harmonic episode that leads to a repeat of the last two measures of the A section in twenty-five and twenty-six. Twenty-six and twenty-seven are the original motif of the introduction, only an octave higher and with contrapuntal accompaniment. This leads to the pitch climax of the B section: The G at the beginning of measure twenty-eight. You may be thinking that this piece is rather virtuosic for the guitar, and you'd be right: When I wrote it, I never thought I'd ever be able to play it, but after many years, I am actually performing this now.

The final two measures of the page bring the piece quickly and efficiently back to the next statement of the A section.

I mentioned back in the first post that the rule of thumb for A sections is that if there are both first and second endings present, you'll probably want to play both between statements of B. I also mentioned that rare exceptions pop up, and this is one of them: The rule of thumb is basically out the window when you compound the ternary form because what is coming up is not another statement of B, but rather the Trio, which amounts to a C section. So, only A' is played here.

In contrast to the eight measure A sections, the C's are four measures, also with first and second endings. These shorter sections combined with an absence of the repeated note figures quickens up the pace and increases the intensity considerably, as is appropriate. Note how I worked the motif into the second measure of these C sections, and note also how much these sections sound like my model, the Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth.

The second ending of C' leads to D, which begins at measure fourty-three. This sequentially descending figure has it's own internal repeat, which I added mostly to keep the piece on three pages: The second ending does not constitute the beginning of an E section.

That second ending does begin a development of the motif, however. After being repeated on the same pitch level with the countrapuntal accompaniment of the previos version leading to the pitch climax of B, I expand the motif with each successive iteration. Forty-nine and fifty amount to a primary diminished seventh arpeggio, fifty-one and fifty-two delineate the half-diminished chord that resides in the raised sixth degree, fifty-three and fifty-four are again the primary diminished seventh, this time chromatically ornamented, fifty-five and fifty-six are a diminised seventh on the raised sixth degree, also ornamented with passing tones, and then fifty-seven is the primary dominant minor ninth leading to the next area of B. That ending double bar line should just be a regular double bar: I'll have to fix that. Note that as the expanding motif works its way up, the counterpoint works its way down: The low E in fifty-six is the lowest note on the guitar.

This area, also with an internal repeat, is a further development of the sequential figure that started the B section, as you can see. The first ending presents an arpeggiated augmented triad through two octaves for the first time, and the second ending leads to the main climax of the piece. Measures sixty-five and sixty six are exactly the same as the corresponding climax lead-in back in twenty-six and twenty-seven of the B section, but at sixty-seven I compress the ti, la, ti, do, me, sol figure, which is diatonic to the melodic minor idiom, into a completely chromatic version: le, sol, le, la, te, ti. This leads to the high B in measure sixty-eight, which is the highest note on the standard nineteen fret classical guitar: This piece uses the entire range of the instrument.

A two octave descending tonic triad ends the D section, and then C reappears, again with two endings, but the second ending here is new, making the repeat a C''.

Since the piece never modulates, despite all of the chromatic shenanigans, I truncate the repeat of the Menuatto as much as possible: Only the A' is restated, then the entirety of B, and finally the A'' is simply the last four measures of the original A' with a little codetta added. The last super-high notes are harmonics, obviously, and the ending B is actually another octave higher than the previous pitch climax. Since scherzo ranslates to "jest," there is more than just a little humor throughout the piece, and this is the parting "joke."

I must admit that I hit the ball way out of the park with this piece: This is the single largest compositional stride I made on the guitar until I completed the Sonata of Sonata One, so it would be several years before I topped this. I only remember that I was super-highly motivated and intensely focused on this piece for several weeks. I wish I had kept a journal!


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