Analysis of two pieces
Below you will find a much condensed score of one of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances
from his opera Prince Igor.
The orchestral version is very fully scored, but here I am concerned only with the main melodic threads, which are sufficient to analyse the form.
The piece is basically in Minuet & Trio Form, with slight modifications (the music is anything but minuet-like in performance, being wild and thrilling). To understand the classical model, I need to spell out the conventional repeats as used by Mozart and his contemporaries. Basically a Minuet is in Ternary Form (ABA) and so is the Trio. But the repeat system wasn’t quite straightforward. Once A was given out it was immediately repeated, usually literally so repeat dots could be used. You might expect B to be repeated as soon as it has been stated; however you may remember the fondness these composers had for smoothing over the return from B to A: a repeat of B would break this up, so the normal arrangement was BA repeated as a unit. We now have ║: A : ║: BA : ║ Now follows the Trio, which is treated exactly the same: ║: C : ║: DC : ║ and this is followed by the recap of the Minuet. But again making the original repeats in the Minuet at this point was felt to be too much of a good thing, so these repeats were dropped, and the total plan was
║: A : ║: BA : ║: C : ║: DC : ║ A ║ BA ║. This plan was followed to the letter, hundreds of times.
Borodin’s plan is: Introduction ║: A : ║: B : ║ :A : ║: C : ║: DC : ║: A :║ BA ║ Coda
From which you can see that, besides having added an introduction and coda (remember, these do not disturb the basic format of the piece) his repeats are a little different. Let me remind you that immediate repeats are always optional (to the composer, not the performer), and these also do not disturb the underlying structure of the piece. The short introduction turns out to function dramatically rather than thematically; whereas the substantial coda is an interesting development of previous motives. The point is that any composer is free to modify standard plans whenever he pleases.
When we examine the “Trio” in this piece we find that it has strong thematic links with the “Minuet”: this was not the practice of the classical composers, who preferred a sharp contrast for the Trio, usually more relaxed. But their Minuets were stand-alone pieces, whereas Borodin’s dance is part of a continuous group of dances which offer stylistic and thematic contrasts to each other. So his decision to maintain strong unity here was justified. [ In fact the unity of this piece is astonishing: virtually all the material is derived from the first two-note figure moving a step: the motive marked “y” is a speeded-up inversion of “x”.]
Please play the accompanying mp3 file “Polov”
whilst watching the score; then carefully examine the piece and attempt to follow the motivic development which I have marked on the score.
One further point of interest is the general contour of the pitch. The fragmented nature of the first few bars makes it difficult to call it a melody, nevertheless bearing the Rest Rule in mind we should regard it as continuous. We easily see that the overall shape of theme A is an arch: first rising then falling. This generality is so common in musical melody construction that we can call it an archetype (no pun intended); in fact it is the
main archetype. The same shape is easily seen in theme B. Section C/D also shows this arch shape, though with a number of minor “waves”, i.e. a falling back and then a renewed effort to go even higher. The coda has only a gradually falling shape. Why? So that the overall melodic contour of the whole piece demonstrates the arch shape, in large.
So many hundreds of pieces use this shape that it is tempting to feel convention-bound if you find yourself falling into the same habit. Don’t worry, the smaller details of your melody will no doubt be original, and you will be in very good company.
A final demonstration
In a last attempt to tie up some of the principles I have unfolded in this course, I show a little melody that forms part of one of my own compositions. It is from a symphony actually, and occurs in the middle of a complex and lively movement (Scherzo). I wanted a contrast, something of a rather calmer nature, so I came up with the theme shown below, which is played on three trombones alone. I have analysed it with markings which you should be able to understand, but preferably you should ignore these at first, and just play the mp3 file “Tromtrio”.
It should strike you as simple, naďve even, apart perhaps from the cross-rhythmic ending, and that was my intention. The interesting thing is that in composing it I was completely unaware of its inner construction and motivic development. I mean, I was not consciously
aware of them, I just wrote what sounded right. To my surprise, I now see that this theme is a good illustration of sound structural principles. It virtually all derives from one small cell, and it embodies the arch shape in miniature. Now compare it with Borodin’s piece: both pieces use the same simple motif of two notes rising a step (though I repeat the first note). Yet he makes an exciting dance; I make a calm little song, all out of the same source. The lesson is that the exact material is less important than what you do with it. And both pieces illustrate the fusion of Unity and Variety within a single theme. In writing your own themes/sections, if you are happy with them, leave them. If not, analyse, and if there seems to be no internal cohesion, maybe start again.
Balancing Unity and Variety
Please don’t imagine that all musical themes must contain strong internal unity like the above two: if they did, where would be the variety? Certainly in the minor variants or developments shown within the themes, but that would probably not be enough; it is variety but it is not contrast. I think I can safely formulate a “Contrast Rule”: The longer the piece, the more it will need contrasting themes.
Both the above are isolated sections of much longer pieces, and the necessary contrasts will be found in the remainder of each piece. So when a piece consists of several well-differentiated sections, each (or most) of the sections should have a fair degree of internal unity.
A parallel to this principle can be found in the structure of hymns and folk songs. These consist of a short melody repeated exactly, several times. So the unity is built in by the verse repetitions; what about the variety? It would seem to follow that such tunes had better not be too repetitious in themselves; nevertheless some of them are tightly constructed, e.g. AABA. What can one say when other such tunes go ABCD? Is one more boring than another? For me the answer is that the “tight” ones (AABA or ABAB for instance) had better not have too many verses; I would put four as the maximum before boredom sets in. On the other hand, an ABCD tune not only can stand more verses, it really needs them.
[After writing this I did a mini-survey of 40 popular hymns of four-phrase construction. By far the most popular is ABCD (35) with an average of 6.3 verses each (range 4-8); there were only 5 with other patterns (AABA, ABAB, ABCB) average of 4 verses each (range 3-5). My conclusion after this is that maybe it is not so much that an ABCD tune needs a lot of verses, perhaps rather that a hymn with a lot of verses needs an ABCD tune, to avoid endless repetition.]
Whatever the structure of your own music, consider its total length, and try to judge how much internal unity your themes/sections require, and also at what points a strong contrast may be needed. A common fault I have observed in poor compositions is the misguided use of Unity and Variety: first we hear a section containing, or even consisting of, endless repetitions of a short figure; then when even the composer decides enough is enough, there is an abrupt change to a new repetitive figure; when that has exhausted itself we get another one, and so on. What the composer has forgotten is that repeats don’t affect the overall structure, so he has ended up with ABCDEF…. – a mere potpourri
. So not enough real
unity. This is when motivic development is badly needed , or at the very least, some kind of recapitulation.
How music makes its effect
In my book Teaching Musical Appreciation
I made the point that the ideal musical experience is a feeling of pleasure, made up of four main contributory factors: Sensuous Pleasure (sheer attractiveness of the sound), Kinaesthetic Pleasure (physical response, e.g. foot-tapping), Intellectual Pleasure (perceiving, remembering, recognising, comparing, understanding
), and Aesthetic Pleasure (admiration of beauty). The main target is beauty, and it is achieved through the others, in varying proportions according to the style of the music.
But in any case the intellectual component of music is often undervalued. It is very important! The point of a recapitulation is lost unless it is recognised as such; the point of a variation is lost unless the listener knows both that it is the same as the original and in some way different; contrapuntal devices such as canon, imitation and fugue depend entirely on recognition and comparison. All these listener-functions are intellectual in nature. Many great composers (Beethoven for instance) use the device of creating an expectation and thwarting it – this depends on the mind of the listener being involved. Even the simpler device of creating an expectation and satisfying it does so too.
At the beginning of this series of lessons I defined good music as music that others would enjoy and understand.
The art of the composer lies in creating relationships of all kinds: one note to another, one instrument to another, one chord to another, one theme to another, even one movement to another. It is the relationships that need to be understood. One writer on music has defined the function of the audience as “composing vicariously”, i.e. mentally forecasting what will happen next, or alternatively, understanding in retrospect what has just happened. This cannot happen with music that is badly organised on the intellectual level, i.e. “formless”, perhaps, or boringly over-repetitive.
Yes, music can convey moods, possibly even represent something, in a very roundabout way. But that is not what music is primarily about. Music is abstract by its very nature, hence the saying “All the arts constantly aspire to the condition of music” – they hope to appeal for their abstract, intrinsic qualities rather than what they “represent”. The composer Robert Schumann once said “When the form is clear, then will the spirit be clear also”. - wise words to ponder. Make sure your music is well structured.