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Writing a symphony: Finale in Theme and Variations is harder than anticipated

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So I have been thinking about another piece lately, this one being a multi-movement work related to nature. Not just any multi-movement work, but rather, a 5 movement symphony. I am starting with a smaller ensemble and then once I finish the first draft, if it is good, I will expand it out to a full orchestra. More specifically though, I'm thinking about the final movement, which is supposed to represent a "Dance of Nature". As such, I figured triple meter and Allegro tempo would fit perfectly to the feel of this movement. With this "Dance of Nature", I was thinking of slowly adding in instruments and complexity like this:

  1. Bass line to provide a harmonic skeleton - Tree branches swaying to the beat of nature - Cellos and Double Basses

  2. Basic melodic shape - Person dancing to the beat of nature - Violas

  3. Embellishments of the melody - Animals start joining in the dance - Violins and eventually Bassoons

  4. Trills and other ornamentations added over the melody - Birds join in - Woodwinds besides Bassoons

  5. Further additions of complexity(mostly melodic complexity in the first draft, brass instruments will probably be added here in the full orchestral version) - More animals join in

  6. Chordal ending - All the animals are dancing to the beat of nature.

The closest piece I can find in terms of it adding not just melodic complexity, but also starting with a bass line and adding instrumental complexity is also a final movement, more specifically the Finale of the Eroica symphony. The finale of Beethoven's Ninth also is in a form with variations, but in that symphony, while it starts in the bass register, the entire "Ode to Joy" melody is played in the bass register, not just the bass line.

But, if I'm not mistaken, the Finale of the Eroica symphony is in 2/4 or some other form of duple meter. It certainly has the feel of a victory march(which isn't what I am going for with my piece).

So, I eventually decided on this when it comes to the bass line that starts the "Dance of Nature" finale:

Quote

Okay, what if I have the Cellos play a waltz like bass line, while the Double Basses sustain the root notes of each harmony for the length that it occurs? That should get the dance feel across right away in the finale like I want. And because the Double Basses sound an octave below the cellos when the notation is identical, it won't muddy things up by putting the bass clef notes too close.

So then it came to the entrance of the basic melody in the violas. I was thinking while writing the melody:

Quote

Okay, it has to harmonically fit the bass line, so preferably, the first beat would be a chord tone. I also need quite a few long notes like half notes and quarter notes, because I don't want it to be too elaborate sounding right at the first variation.

And of course, the improviser part of me leads to there being eighth notes as non-chord tones, probably too many to count as a basic melody. Here are the first 8 bars of the "basic melody entrance" as a piano reduction to make it easier to see why I now think that this is too elaborate for a basic melody entrance:

444827245_Variation1-1.thumb.png.9d0a7e8c25624ed74fc2a38c7aacb1db.png

I mean seriously, look at it. So many eighth notes. This looks more like a second or third variation than a basic melody entrance. It is hard for me to write a basic melody that is good for a Theme and Variations, because when I write the melody, I subconciously put quite a few eighth notes in it. In piano music, this doesn't matter much as long as the tempo isn't too fast. In orchestral music though, this matters much more because it is hard to get fast articulations on some instruments. So now, I'm going to have to simplify this melody down to a more skeletal version for my basic melody entrance and maybe have this appear later on in the piece, before I start adding ornaments from the woodwinds to be played over the melody.

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I once wrote a theme and variations in which variation 1 was composed before the theme and I just radically simplified it to make a theme out of it.

To be honest, your little excerpt there seems reasonable even for a variation 1. Also, going forward, variation doesn't always have to equal increased complexity. You can vary the orchestration, texture, throw some rests in there, change the rhythm, etc. Some of these changes could even be relatively "simplifying", so to speak, in that the sheer number of notes is reduced.

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It's worth looking at something like Elgar's Enigma variations to sense the scope of what can be done.

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On 12/27/2019 at 1:18 PM, Luis Hernández said:

I don't understand why.

 

Well, the tempo in my "Dance of Nature" Finale is quarter note = 140 BPM and most of the notes in the "basic melody entrance" are eighth notes. And it isn't like there is a rhythmic motif I am using there. On top of that, most of the eighth notes and really most of all the notes in the "basic melody entrance" are non-chord tones. I know, there are a lot of orchestral eighth note heavy works at tempos comparable to that of my "Dance of Nature" Finale but most of the eighth note heavy orchestral works I've heard at similar tempi to my finale are either:

  1. Symphonies with 1 or more rhythmic motifs to justify the eighth note being the most common note value(and I'm not just talking about Beethoven's Fifth symphony here, Symphony no. 40 by Mozart similarly uses eighth note heavy rhythmic motifs as does Shostakovitch's Fifth Symphony, just to name a few)
  2. Concertos, especially Bach and Mozart concertos

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Ok, so... some from my perspective -and mind you, this type of topic is very subjective....

A melody doesn't have to be simple or complex to create a set of variations. What I like to do when I create variations -and I do this often- is I create melodic sentences comprised of motivic units. This allows me the ability to play with the motifs more intimately. Your melody has, from what I can see, at least 3 or 4 units that you can work with -and get some interesting variations out of. It's all how you work the material and how you remove the limitations that you have set upon yourself for any given piece.

That said, I took the liberty of mocking up a few variations just to give you an example of some of the possibilities with your melodic material -and these are very basic variations. Aside from the original, I didn't add accompaniment to the variations themselves. I also stayed within A Major (with the exception of the minore variation). 

Why?

Because I think that's where the problem may lie. The waltz rhythm -while it does work with your melody- doesn't seem to punctuate or support it adequately enough. Measure 6, for instance, you have the melody strongly in the dominant... but the bass in the tonic(?)…. And then I fail to see why you have the ending 2 bars in the tonic. While this may not seem like much, within the big picture this could easily hamper things -especially if you're trying to keep the basic harmonic underpinning intact during the variations.  The eighth notes you saw as problems... really aren't problems at all. Each of these variations uses 140 BPM. 

 

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