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Problems of Composition

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Title : Problems of Composition
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Problems of Composition

I have read a lot of discussions of music composition, but there are certain aspects that are rarely if ever discussed. For example, there is a lot of theoretical discussion of things like harmony, motivic structure and counterpoint, but not much about the character of the various sections of the piece. What do I mean? Most music needs sections that are introductory, sections that are going somewhere, sections that are climactic and sections that are concluding. Traditional analysis of formal functions, such as we find in the recent theoretical work of people like William Caplin, deals with this to some extent, but always tied to common practice harmony. These sections are called "exposition," "development," "recapitulation," "coda" and so on. The great strength of common practice harmony was that methods were discovered using harmony and thematic structure to give narrative shape to music in both the microcosm and macrocosm, whether we are talking about something as brief as a Haydn theme:

Or as lengthy as a Bruckner symphonic movement. Modernism brought with it a host of problems in composition. One way of handling them was to load everything onto contrapuntal structures which was the tendency of 12-tone music. Though we find in Schoenberg, for example, that a lot of tonal gestures linger here and there. Another strategy was to simply eliminate the concept of narrative shape altogether. This was the approach of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen among many others. Composers like Steve Reich have attenuated the harmonic and motivic aspects in favor of long-range rhythmic structures.

For many of us, the problem of giving the appropriate character to the openings of compositions, to the places where forward movement is needed, to places where something climactic is needed and to places where and ending is sought, remains a difficult one. Often one has to resort to texture, to orchestration, to using a whole bunch of percussion instruments or to other aspects such as timbre. But the problem isn't going away and re-presents itself anew with every new piece. How lucky people like Haydn and Mozart were that they had a well-stocked toolbox with all the things they needed to build well-structured pieces of music. Of course, Haydn actually invented a number of these...

Here is the string quartet by Haydn that I quoted above, the Op. 76, No. 2, nicknamed "Das Quinten" or "The Fifths" because of that opening theme. That incredibly simple motif is the ONLY theme Haydn needs to build an entire movement.

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