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Lessons with Peter W


siwi
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Introduction: What is a motif and how can we develop it?

A motif may be defined as 'a small unit of musical material that retains a distinct identity'. In plain terms it can be thought of as a building block from which a larger work is formed. We will shortly discuss some ideas on how this can be achieved, but let us very briefly go through some considerations when devising a motif itself.

To this end, I think the key words in the above definition are 'distinct identity'. Our perception of motivic development in a work, indeed development of any kind, comes from our recognising that a familiar idea has been changed in some way. Thus a well-crafted motif must contain at least one distinctive feature, be that melodic, rhythmic, harmonic or any other parameter. Thinking about possibly the most famous motif in music literature, that of the first movement in Beethoven's Fifth symphony, its distinctiveness comes from its being both rhythmicaly and harmonically arresting, despite only two distinct pitches being used. In other works motifs may be far less striking and memorable, but still appropriatly tempered to the context of the music. A violent, dissonant motif would not be successful against a gentle or plaintive background unless as a special effect. It is worth pointing out that in the common-practice period, melody was the primary parameter for both the creation of motifs and their development, although rhythm came a close second.

Now let us consider some of the ways in which the motif as a unit can be developed to form a work or a section of a work. ‘Development’ implies that something is advanced or made more sophisticated over time. In artistic media, this is chiefly achieved through the use of context. If we recognise something as being presented in differing contexts, the effect is of advancement, as long as this is handled skilfully. With regard to musical motifs, two principal methods of doing this present themselves:

1. The motif is essentially unchanged, but is presented against differing backgrounds.

2. The motif is elaborated, diminuted or otherwise altered in some other way, whilst still remaining recognisable (at some level) as itself.

With regard to method 1, the background may be harmonic, textural, timbral, rhythmic or any other method of variation. In this context, the motif is often the melody at the top of the texture. Note that when we talk about development against a background it should not imply that the variation happens in unbroken succession (this is within the realm of method 2) but may occur periodically in the course of a work, sometimes with long periods in between. A good example of this is found in the last movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony (score here). A motif - itself a verbatim quote from the fifth movement of his Third Symphony, as it is a leitmotif for religious subjects - is sung by the solo soprano three times, at bars 36-39, 72-76 and 106-111. The pitches of the motif are identical in the first two instances and transposed down a major second in the third, the accompaniying harmonies are practically the same, but what is interesting about Mahler's use of the motif is the way in which he varies the orchestration each time. The simple substitution of instruments provides a fascinating new context for the material every time at appears.

With regard to method 2, we have a much greater range of possibilities. An entire movement can be formed from the fortspinnung ('spinning-out') of a few notes, and at the very least a melody can be easily composed using only one or two basic gestures. These might include:

a) transposition

b) augmentation and diminution of note values

c) interpolation of parts of the motif within each other, or with new material

d) inversion

e) retrograde

Note that all these methods are essentially based on one thing: repetition. The use of repetition in music is a subject in itself too big for this tutorial, but crucial to the success of any musical compostion is the rate of presentation of information. By repeating a recognisible motif with variaition, we are ensuring that the music becomes not so familiar as to bore the ear but not so varied as to confuse it.

Another key point is that any of these techniques can, and should, be used in combination with each other. Simply transposing the complete motif throughout the work with no other variation would most likely induce boredom, unless it is done with great skill. In the next lesson we will look at the concept of Fortspinnung and how it is applied, using a repertoire example by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Assignment: Devise five musical motifs each containing a distinctive feature(s). These should encompass a variety of tempi and moods, and employ different parameters which would be suitable for development. (We shall be using your submission for this assignment in future lessons).

Note: please supply all assignments in pdf format.

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Question:

by "motif", do you mean to include an accompaniment? Or the distinctive melodic idea only?

I'll proceed with the assumption that the motifs in this case do not require harmonic context or accompanimental voices (though I'm sure some will).

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Here we are.

edit:

oops. Tempos.

1- around 80

2- 60

3- 158

4- Andante

5- 160? Like a fast swing

PianoCorny.pdf

chorale idea quint.pdf

motifassignment1motif1.pdf

motifassignment1motif2.pdf

SI.pdf

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I will provide a more detailed response to your assignments when I upload the next lesson (when I have time to do it!) - but for now the answer to your question is that you are right in both assumptions: I use 'motif' to mean a purely melodic unit, although motifs can be harmonic gestures as well (the major-minor chords/drum rhythm in Mahler 6 is a ready example).

Actually your assignments go quite a way beyond what I was expecting - into the territory of the next few lessons in fact! But there's plenty of good 'basic material' we can use in future exercises, which is what I was looking for.

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siwi, can I add one tool to your listed motif-transformation "toolbox" without stepping on your toes? One of my favorite ways to transform something is to expand or contract an interval or two between two notes. The shape remains recognizable while the context (and perhaps mode) may change.

(Example: if the original is C4-G4-A4-G4, you might use G4-C5-Db5-C5.)

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siwi, can I add one tool to your listed motif-transformation "toolbox" without stepping on your toes? One of my favorite ways to transform something is to expand or contract an interval or two between two notes. The shape remains recognizable while the context (and perhaps mode) may change.

(Example: if the original is C4-G4-A4-G4, you might use G4-C5-Db5-C5.)

Certainly, it's not meant to be an exhaustive list.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Yar, sorry, have been really quite busy recently. I will endeavour to get another lesson up within the next few days (Tuesday is my day off and is looking relatively free at the moment). For now, feedback on your previous assignment:

1. I can see several motifs at work here - the bossa-nova rhythm, and some intervalic patterns. You use the classic technique of spinning-out the motif by repeating the intervals in a different pitch-class. (This is something Elgar did in almost all his mature works, doubtless modelled on Wagner. It can cause problems during development sections but his technique of developing one idea at a time gets round this).

2. Fifths are the primary intervallic idea. The ascending-second descending-third in the first bar is nice as it links the ascending and descending fifths together. In the third and fourth bars you stretch this concept out so that each intervall occupies an entire bar. The entry of the other brasses mostly re-enforces the importance of the triplet rhythm, although you start to introduce sevenths and octaves - distinctive leaps that would stand out as structural motives later on were this piece to continue.

3. Rhythmic groups are important in the melody here (Bartok dances in Bulgarian rhythm come to mind). You vary the same basic contour in alternating directions, finishing every bar with either a downwards second or third. The initial upwards leap of a fifth is retained in the bass line, which nonetheless provides a degree of rhythmic variation on the first bar.

4. Here we're looking at much closer intervals - a minor and major second in various combinations seems to be an important sequence. This generates minor thirds by the end of the passage (an interesting continuation of this would be to try and introduce progressively wider intervals through the course of the piece). Apart from a little basic counterpoint, the interest is mostly pitch-based.

5. Conversely, rhythmic units are the most obvious motives in this. The syncopated idea becomes nicely 'closed up' by the third bar with the removal of the rests, and takes on an upwards direction for the first time (aside from the little left-hand interjection in the first bar). The chord in bar 2 cleverly combines the intervals of the two chords in bar one (minor third and tritone) - although closer examination reveals that minor thirds pepper the right-hand melody as well. Sixths and fifths also enter the right hand whilst the left's chords hang on to the tritones and thirds. There are lots of other little details I could point out such as the important notes in phrases forming succesive expansions of intervals.

These are great. Hang on to them as we will be using them as the basis of future assignments.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Here's the next lesson, on Bach (pdf): Motivic development lessons 2.pdf

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  • 3 weeks later...

I was told by robin that I could join this lesson? I hope that's alright. I assumed you would probably want me to complete the first assignment since it's crucial to your lesson plans. After taking a look at Peter's, I realized I didn't really put the instruments in or write for as many parts. Is that alright? For most of them I pictured a piano playing them, except for the first two which I wrote at a different time with strings in mind, but I mean they could probably all work for piano if it matters at all.

Hahaha and I also forgot tempos

Tempos:

1. Allegro

2. "Scherzo-y" pace, so like ~120 for dotted quarter

3. Adagio

4. Allegro

5. Adagio, but not excessively slow. Maybe ~75

Motif 1.pdf

Motif 2.pdf

Motif 3.pdf

Motif 4.pdf

Motif 5.pdf

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  • 2 weeks later...

Please don't misunderstand or take this the wrong way, but I hope this doesn't interfere with my lesson.

I've begun assignment number two. I'll pick "motif 1" as my motive of choice. Obviously the format that it is in now won't exactly work as the composition, as I already did a little melodic development of the motivic material in the first assignment, and the texture has already been established. You mentioned creating a mostly contrapuntal piece a la Bach? Alright, though obviously the asymmetric feel will remain. :)

Assignment forthcoming.

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Marius - sorry I haven't been able to reply sooner - have had a mountain of orchestrations to get done (and still haven't finished the longest), concerts every weekend, as well as buying a new car (have a guess which of those was my favourite task?). Anyway, your motifs look fine, and don't worry about adding accompaniments or developments, as Peter went way beyond the call of duty with his! What I'm looking for are small units of material you can use as the basis of longer works in future assignments, and that's what you seem to have come up with. I think I may set Marius an additional assignment on medium-range elaboration of the motifs he has written.

Peter - I'm sure you'll be alright with having Marius on board: the type of lessons he was looking for were so similar to what I was already doing with you that I thought it silly to duplicate the thread. I may from time to time provide assignments which are solely for one or the other of you, but I consider it a good thing that you two can see each others' work in this series. I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with for the assignment: you are no doubt aware of my great love of Bach and the later composers who have drawn on his ideas (without direct pastiche, of course), hence the task. Goes without saying don't rush to get it done.

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Here's my composition for the second assignment.

Edit: Added an audio file.

Oh, and just to explain; I modified the theme I motif (#4) I used, because when I started working with the original it didn't seem to lend itself too well to developing. So I added the 4th-6th leaping figure to add interest, and kept the other two portions.

Motif Assignment 2.pdf

Motif Assignment 2.mp3

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Peter, it doesn't have to be entirely contrapuntal, but as we were looking at Bach I thought this would be a good starting point. Many of the techniques he uses apply to more hierarchical textures too.

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Marius, I have set aside Sunday afternoon to review and comment on your assignment, when I have finally killed the orchestration that is taking me so long. Expect a post around 5pm BST.

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Marius, your assignment:

There are many features I like in this, things I'm looking for. Firstly, you clearly state the material containing the motifs at the very opening. I think your decision to modify the motif to include the leaping figures was a good one, because it gives you two different typs of motivic material to work with and use in contrast. Like Bach, you combine scalic and disjunct ideas, so within the first statement we have: a rising second and its downward inversion; successively wider leaps within an arpeggio, and a longer scalic run and turn upwards. You use the motifs with sufficient variety through the course of the work, and I think you have been a very good judge of how much and where to use a prticular motif. It never felt like we were getting too much of one figure all the time or that a motif was in a really inappropriate place (ok, so it's a short piece). I also like the 'false repetition' in bar 5 onwards; it sounds as if you will repeat the opening with the hands reversed, but the music moves somewhere else. I'm not going to write out a blow-by-blow account of exactly what you use and when, but suffice to say this was very much what I was looking for. I think I shall set this sort of assignment again in a while after we have looked at some other techniques just to see what you come up with then.

A few points for improvement:

Very rarely do you have moments of equal interest in both hands. Most of the time one hand is considerably more active than the other (faster note durations, material more recognisably derived from the motif ). Whilst this is a very legitimate compositional technique (check out some Monteverdi) the next step would be to experiment with ways of having different levels of hierarchy between parallel lines in counterpoint. Think of it like the way you would use more or fewer instruments at different times in a orchestration, one can create a wide range of 'thickness' in sonority, or in this case, texture. It might be appropriate to have two equally very active parts at a point, and then gradually move to having one part dominant and various stages in between. Look at b.13-14 and the passages around it in the Invention No.1 for an example.

The two opening statements of the theme, although modelled on the opening of the Bach Invention, feel more like a repetition than the repetition Bach writes (if that makes sense). I think this is because the 'join' between the two needs a little more consideration: Bach makes his sound like a more intense re-statement by running up and then suddenly leaping back down to start again; the other thing to try is to make the join as seemless as possible by moving in a consistant direction towards it. The fact that you revolve around the same A four times in succession in the join between bars 2 and 3 creates a slight lack of direction for a moment, more so as you have had a dramatic leap of an octave across the previous barline.

Some of your harmonies are a little, well, strange. Obviously the assignment was to compose in the spirit of Bach rather than write a perfectly accurate baroque pastiche, but there were certain progressions and passing harmonies that just didn't seem 'right' even for a modern piece. Also, it ended too soon! You could add a nice pedal in the penultimate bars which would be a much more convincing return to the tonic.

Goes without saying that Peter, I welcome your comments on Marius' work if you want to make any observations or suggestions.

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My thoughts: the motive itself is kind of odd. It's not really in 2/2 the whole time. But you made it work with each developmental entrance of it.

I agree that aesthetically speaking, the hands are always unbalanced in interest. The most motion you ever have in the non-melody voice is quarter notes (or a trill).

Feel kind of odd disagree with the teacher, but I didn't hear any out-of-place harmonies, except perhaps one at m.15. That one confused me, less in line with the chord progression and more in the line of a sequence. But writing harmonies based on sequence alone doesn't fit with this implied style. Also doubled octaves between melody and bass sounds odd there. I'd pick a different note so you have a 6th or a 10th or something.

Also quite blocky. Always starting on 1. As far as the exercise, yes, it fits. Musically, it's clunky that way.

Now if only I weren't stuck. x_x ;D I'm never at a loss to evaluate, it's the writing I need help with, obviously.

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Peter, you can post up anything you've sketched so far, and I'll make suggestions as to what to do with it/how to continue. Really I'm just interested in what sort of compositional tricks yo' can spin wid'da motifs, u get me? My life is somewhat less hectic this week too.

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Here we go. No Bach, sorry. :)

I feel like I just rewrote "Fantasy in Bb" ;D

motifassignment2amotif1.mp3

motifassignment2amotif1.pdf

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