Composer’s Notebook #7: Variations for wind quintet

This blogpost is a short commentary on my new quintet for winds. Click here for the Youtube video.

The Variations were not my first attempt to write for wind instruments, but it is my first finished work for winds. (I had previously attempted solo pieces for oboe and bassoon, and “sonata”-like pieces for oboe and piano. I did not think any of these could have been successful, and so I have discarded all such fragments). The piece bears the subtitle Small Steps and Giant Leaps, primarily because the foundation of the whole piece is the main theme of John Coltrane’s famous piece Giant Steps. The subtitle also plays on Neil Armstrong’s famous words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” One could interpret this as representative of the fact that the quintet is my first completed work for winds, and hence it represents an important new step in my compositional development. At the risk of disappointing music analysts, the real reason is much more mundane. I think it is simply a rather cool title. If one has to interpret it, then I can offer the following suggestion: I tend to write melodic lines with large jumps, while the Giant Steps theme heavily features steps of major and minor thirds. It is the combination of these steps and leaps that characterise much of the material in this piece.

On the concept of ‘variation’

If you take a look at my Youtube channel, you will find other attempts at variation form. Perhaps the best one preceding the wind quintet is the Intermezzo festivo for string quartet. However, that piece follows the classical variation form more closely than the wind quintet, at least initially. (The piece transitions into a freer form halfway through). In the quintet, the Giant Steps theme does not appear until the very end of the work. This is in opposition to the classical form, where one hears the theme at the beginning, and then follow the variations. In this sense, even Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31) is classical, although the ways in which he varies the theme are of course more intricate and abstract than what is generally encountered in pre-20th century works. How, then, is my quintet a set of variations? Although the score is divided into sections which may indeed be identified with particular variations, it is not obvious (or at least it is not supposed to be obvious) how they are variations of a theme, which is not explicitly stated until the end anyway. Here, the word ‘variation’ conveys a much more general principle, which I think is similar to the term developing variation, often used in connection with Brahms. Another term I like is thematische Arbeit, or ‘thematic working’, which is often attributed to Joseph Haydn. I think the second term is more flexible, and hence easier to appropriate into a modern context. The general recipe is to start with a basic idea (the simpler the better), and see how much can be generated from it. Then introduce some embellishments, pertubations, variations — this produces a new but related idea. Now consider variations of this second idea, and so on. Of course, this process can happen in a nonlinear way. Moreover, the basic idea need not be a melodic fragment (although this is often a natural choice), but it can be something rather abstract. In my quintet, the basic idea, or Ursatz (a gross misuse of a term from Schenkerian analysis), consists of the following pair of elements:

quintet-ursatz

The chord is comprised of the opening bass notes, while the second element is first five notes of the melody in Giant Steps. Observe that both elements coincidentally contain five notes, which is perfect for a quintet. An important secondary idea is the following voice-leading pattern, also featuring extensively in the melodic line of Giant Steps:

quintet-secondary

These two ideas comprise the essence of my wind quintet. I noted above that my use of the term Ursatz is a gross misrepresentation. In Schenkerian analysis, the Ursatz is supposed to be the fundamental structure of the entire piece — to put it facetiously, this means that “all of classical music is essentially the chord progression I-V-I.” However, in my current compositional process, the basic idea only needs to affect the ‘surface’ of the piece, and it does not necessarily determine the large-scale structure. (Controlloing large-scale structure remains one of my greatest challenges — you will notice that all the pieces I have written so far are quite short). The fact that the elements presented above do affect the large-scale structure of the wind quintet is the reason for the title Variations. These three elements are collectively the ‘theme’ of the composition.

Remarks on the structure

I will offer some comments on the structure of the quintet that may be helpful for both players and listeners. It is easily observed that each variation features one of the instruments of the quintet. The order of appearance is: flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, bassoon. After these five variations, there is a fugal variation, which leads into the coda, where the Giant Steps theme is finally present. The way the variations are organised suggests an embedded multi-movement structure. One possible partition of the piece into movements is as follows:

  • 1st movement: introduction, flute variation, clarinet variation (“Scherzo”)
  • 2nd movement: oboe variation (“Adagio”), horn variation, bassoon variation (“Cadenza”)
  • 3rd movement (Finale): fugue, Giant Steps coda

Notice also that the bassoon “cadenza” recalls material from the introduction (namely, the staggered chord-building entries).

Composer’s Notebook #3

I haven’t posted written anything here for a long time, since I’m busy with Uni study, but here’s a quick piece!

This is a fascinating video of the 2nd movement of Webern’s Variations. I highly recommend listening to the whole piece — after all, even with all the three movements combined, it’s only 5 minutes long! I want to point out a few important features here.

First of all, when I first came across this piece some years ago, I thought it was very beautiful. In case you’re interested, the recording was by Mitsuko Uchida (the album also features the Schoenberg Piano Concerto). Played by a computer here, it sounds rather ugly to me, which dispels the misconception that somehow serial music is completely emotionless.

Secondly, the binary form of this movement is perfectly visible in this animation, you can even tell where the repeats are! The pitch symmetry is also very clear from the graphics, and we appreciate the almost mathematical precision of the structure.

Thirdly, those of you more familiar with 12-tone music might hear that the harmony is very saturated. I haven’t studied this piece in detail at all, but I think one can discern by ear the inherent symmetries in Webern’s tone row manipulations. Indeed if you look at the score, you will see many palindromic phrases. In order to construct such highly symmetrical music it is necessary to restrict the set of “allowable” chords — this is what I mean by “saturation.” (There are probably more precise ways of expressing this idea, but I don’t wish to get too technical, and in any case I’m no expert in 12-tone theory). This practice is predominant in much of Webern’s mature style, but I’m thinking especially of the Concerto Op. 24, whose tone row has so many symmetries, it is the musical equivalent of a magic square. Click this link to the Wikipedia article if you want a brief overview of the Concerto. Here I cannot help but use mathematical terminology: because the harmonic ‘domain’ is so restricted, eventually we begin to feel that the harmony is static, since we have practically exhausted all the permutations of the particular elements in the set. Note that I’m not trying to be obscure — ‘chord’ in 20th century music theory can be virtually any group of notes, and in more abstract contexts is usually called a pitch-class set. This tendency towards saturation might be one of the reasons why Webern’s compositions are so short, yet each is exquisitely crafted according to a rigorous logic.

Of course, the most important dimension is missing in this discussion: the human performer. While it is fascinating to discuss Webern’s music in abstract and theoretical terms, it is altogether a different experience to listen to it, or indeed to perform it. But that’s probably a discussion for another time.