Sunday, July 17, 2011

Composing Sonatas for Solo Classic Guitar: Part I

The title of this post is a search term I see sometimes, and since I have figured out how to do this - and I'm currently learning a sonata I wrote - I thought I'd weigh in.

The first thing you need to understand is that I'm not referring to a complete multi-movement sonata, but a single movement composed with the sonata process. Secondly, you need to key on that last term and understand that sonata is a process - like fugue - and not a form per se. I tend to get a bit agitated when folks employ terms like, "sonata form" or, even worse, "sonata-allegro form." A sonata is not a form, or like a mold that you can pour music into, but rather it is a musical work that results from a process in which the musical ideas used determine the final construction of the piece. Sonata is also not limited by any Italian tempo designation!

If you reduce the sonata process to a single word, that word would be contrast: Contrast of any, several, or all musical elements; theme, motif, key, mode, meter, tempo, dynamics, register, texture, instrumentation, orchestration - whatever you want or that is appropriate to your goals. The possibilities actually are endless and limited only by your imagination, which is why the sonata process is the ultimate musical challenge, even beyond fugue (And, of course, you can combine the sonata and fugal processes!). Sonata can and should be overwhelming to those just starting out on the compositional journey, and the serious student is going to approach the matter with all solemnity: It's deep, man. lol.

For the composer-guitarist, the challenge is even greater than for most: Guitar as an idiom has many limitations that, for example, the keyboard idioms do not. This is why there is no such thing as a good guitar sonata that was composed by a non-guitarist without at least having a guitarist as a co-writer or consultant: Learning the idiom alone takes years.

So, if you are a guitarist reading this post who wants to learn how to compose sonata process movements, you should have several years of playing under your belt so that your understanding of the idiom is intuitive. You should have also composed many miniatures before you take this step into expanded formal proportions. Probably needless to say, knowledge of harmony is required, and solid counterpoint too: To merely be ready for this takes several years of dedicated work.

If you pass these requirements, what is the first step towards the sonata process? The answer to this question is the sonatina, which can actually be treated as a form with the following elements: 1] An exposition containing two different musical themes in two contrasting keys, 2] A repeat of that exposition, 3] A brief bridge, and finally, 4] A recapitulation in which the two themes are restated with the second one now in the original key. An introduction and/or a coda is optional. If the sonatina is in a major key, the contrasting theme will be in the dominant, and if it's in a minor key, theme two will be in the relative major. That may sound relatively simple, but for the guitar it is more than enough, because on the guitar it is often physically impossible to play the two contrasting themes in the same key at the recapitulation! That should give you an idea of what a monumental compositional challenge a sonata process piece for the guitar actually is.

Now, instead of starting out with the first sonatina I wrote back in the early 90's, I'm going to go through the first sonata I completed - which was not until 2005! - and then present the two sonatinas that lead up to it. That way, you'll get the idea how complex the issue is, and then how to logically approach it.


I've gone through this piece previously on MMM, back in 2008, and I did a pretty good analysis in that post, so I'm not going to sweat the theoretical details here, just the problems I encountered and the solutions I came up with for them. Since I have now put the fingerings and position indicators in the score, any guitarist can now read through it to see, hear, and feel the idiomatic nature of the music.

Here is the MP3 for the piece, which is a MIDI to MP3 conversion I did in iTunes using a classical guitar soundfont. Later, of course, I'd like to add a recording, but that will have to wait. I plan to use real recordings of the sonatinas, though.

The piece begins with a sixteen measure introduction, which I wrote after I had gotten the exposition and counter-exposition done. Note that I originally called this movement a sonata, but it is now described as a fantasia: I figured the latter term was both less burdensome and more accurate: It's still a sonata process piece, but it has several, "fantastic" elements to it (Which owe their existence to the idiomatic requirements of the guitar).

As I said, I did a fairly detailed analysis of this previously, so I'm just going to mention the most salient points: The first eight measures seem to go toward a resolution to C major, but this is thwarted by the second half, which walks everything back to a preparation for A minor: These are the only two regions in the piece - C and A - and I use both the major and minor modes of each. The first eight measures are also in 3/4 time, while the second eight are in 2/4: These time signatures are also elements of contrast that I use. An introduction should set up the coming drama, which this one does perfectly.

The first theme area in the exposition is in A minor and 3/4 time, but there are some curiosities present.

I should mention here that there are two broadly different approaches to composing sonata themes: The more modern motivic method, and the older - and simpler - melody-and-accompaniment style. This is obviously a melody and accompaniment first theme, and I chose this exactly because it was simpler - this is my first actual sonata process piece, remember - and also much more idiomatic for the guitar: With the exception of the lead in to the dramatic pause in measure 24, this is all quite easy to play. Go ahead and try it!

The aforementioned dramatic pause is accompanied by an added measure of 2/4, which intentionally disorients the listener, but also adds an element of organic plasticity to the phrasing, which is a major aspect of this piece. At the melodic peak of this section in 27, the piece returns to 3/4 but very quickly moves to introduce the second theme, which requires more organic metric modulations at the end there in 30 and 31. As you can see, there at the end of the page, the contrasting theme will be in 2/4 time and the key of C major.

After the homophonic first theme, I chose as a contrast a more contrapuntal texture, but it is counterpoint at the relatively relaxed ratio of 4:1, and I kept it completely idiomatic to the guitar by having the faster melody always on top, and the third voice, such as it is, is simple zero-axis repeated-note accompaniment. More phrasing plasticity is found here, however, with the harmonies in measures 36 and 37, and then after the dissolve from 42 into the 5/4 measure of 43 which sets up the repeat of the exposition. Note that it appears to be a setup for a modulation to C minor until the last quarter note: C minor will appear later. Foreshadowing future events is a powerful emotional and structural tool in the sonata process. This page is also quite idiomatic and simple to execute, so pick up a guitar and play through it.

Because the sonata process evolved from the sonatina form - in a nutshell: it was actually pretty convoluted - early sonata process pieces had unvaried repeats of the exposition. That's what you find in Haydn and Mozart for the most part, but by later on in Beethoven's career, and through Brahms et al, there are actual counter-expositions present that contain varied elements. Obviously, I chose the more fully developed sonata process technique and this is an actual counter-exposition.

The first theme is now presented in the parallel mode of A major, but after the dramatic pause the second theme enters in A major, a sixth above the original appearance in C major. This is very unusual, but it's not a resolution of the second theme to the home key, as that would have to be A minor: This is a setup foreshadowing the recapitulation. Even this higher version of the second theme is not overly difficult to play, so give it a shot. I worked very hard to make this piece idiomatic and fairly easy to play.

Here we start with the second phrase of the second theme in the higher register, and that requires a longer dissolve and re-transition to the second phrase of the first theme, which starts in measure 70. Even though it starts out in A major, that second phrase ends up with a setup to C minor again, only this time we actually get C minor for the second theme back on its original level.

Putting the second theme in the minor mode makes it marginally more difficult to execute, but there are still no outstanding technical challenges, and since the guitar is so restrictive as to what themes will work in what keys - and even modes sometimes! - it is a good device that you can get a lot of mileage out of. It sure turned out to be effective in this case.

As you can see at the end of the page here, the piece seems to have capitulated to C minor, at least for the development, since the counter-exposition ends there with the double bar line.

Now for the development.

The concept of the development section was the toughest nut to crack for me: When the possibilities are endless, it's impossible to make a decision! The trick, then, is to figure out how to limit the choices. If you are just at the sonatina stage, a simple bridge consisting of a short harmonic progression is all that is required, but in a sonata no such evasion is possible. Also, since this sonata has two melodic themes, broadly speaking, and is not motivic in nature, actually combining the themes doesn't work.

What to do, what to do, what to doo-wacka, doo-wacka, doo?!

It took me years to answer that question: I had the exposition as far back as 1996, but I didn't come up with a solution to the development until 2005 - nine years! After finding the solution for the counter-exposition, I wrote the introduction, and that's when it hit me: If I wanted to exhibit contrasts in the development, the contrasts could be the textures instead of the themes.

In order to demonstrate contrasts of texture, I needed to make the development a theme-and-variations section, so I composed a six measure harmonic continuity that is closely related to the harmony of the first theme, as you can see from measures 89 through 94. There, I'm just presenting the new theme variant using the main texture of the first theme.

In the second variation, I use the sounding second texture that is so prevalent in the exposition and counter-exposition, and for the third variant, I use the sixteenth-note harmonic plucking pattern from the second theme area (And the introduction, I might add), and I put that back in A minor via the classic, "deceptive" movement from G(m7) directly to A minor: Limiting myself to just the levels of A and C made things much more manageable, and it also set up the architectural solutions, as you shall see. I also pulled off a slick metric modulation from 3/4 to 4/4 in measures 99 and 100, so I'm still contrasting duple and triple meters.

I only changed two notes in this piece when I went through and did the fingering, and one of them is the low open E in measure 106: That was an octave higher and WAY too difficult to execute previously (Actually virtually impossible on a non-cutaway classical guitar). This is much easier on a cutaway, but a non-cutaway... well, I don't play those anymore. lol.

Variation four, which starts at 107, is a double-time variant in 2/4 that uses the main texture of theme two. All of the open strings in the bass make it quite simple to play, actually, and I re-modulate back to C minor for the closing variation at 113, which is just a foreshortened version of the double-time variation just heard. So, the development is basically five variations of a harmonic continuity that contrast textures previously heard in the exposition and counter exposition.

To make it obvious that we are returning to the recapitulation, I used the second half of the introduction to lead back to the beginning... but I had some structural issues to deal with, which also took a lot of thinking-through.

So far I've presented the first theme in A minor and A major, I've presented the second theme in C major and C minor, and I've presented the second theme in A major (The higher register version of the counter-exposition). In addition to that, I've presented a third theme and variations of it in C minor and A minor in this development.

Well, I originally had the recapitulation begin with a return of the original theme in A minor, but I didn't want to hear it again: I've heard it twice, in A minor and A major, so I really didn't need to present it a third time. What I haven't presented is the first two variations of the third theme from the development that are in C minor in the home key of A minor: This worked out fabulously well.

So, instead of a third return of the first theme, we get a return of the third theme, now resolved to the home key. If the thematic elements are to be presented in twos - with the exception of the development variations that were already in the home key - then I still have theme two in the higher register in A minor to present, and that's just what I do. This has a truly awesome effect! At the point where the deceptive movement happened in the development, we get the lone forgotten thematic element! Truly, I love this. I think it's devastatingly effective if the listener has been paying attention.

After the second theme in the higher register ends, the re-transition figures return (Also for the second time), and there is just one duty left to perform: Present the first half of the introduction a second time, but this time as an ending coda! The result is a perfect piece of musical architecture with a bi-fold logic to it that is also organic and perfectly idiomatic to the guitar.

Now, since this is the second movement of four, I didn't want the ending to be too emphatic: A possible continuation should at least be allowed for. So, I didn't confirm the final cadence, and the final measure is exactly the same as the first measure of the exposition, but with the leap up to the higher A at the end.

Next post I'll show how I worked up to this piece through writing sonatina movements.