How to think about a symphony

I was about nine years old, and I listened to symphonic music on the radio, and I knew I loved that sound. It took me long enough, but I am in a position now where I get to play in a symphony orchestra at least once a week, often twice. I love sitting in the middle, where the violas usually are placed. Sometimes I sit in front of the oboes, sometimes the flutes, there was another time when I sat in front of the snare drum and the rest of the percussion section. There are often either second violins or cellos to my side, depending on what chair I have in that concert. On occasion, it’s the harp that’s on my side.

As a violist, I get to see my own part, and I get a feel for how much in a symphony I play. For our Halloween concert with American Fork Symphony, we’re playing The Imperial March from Star Wars. You all might know that it has a very strong feature of trombones, one of my favorite instruments ever – what a glorious sound! – and yet, because I’m playing the accompaniment, which is really intense, I am focusing most of my attention on the accompaniment, and that is as it should be.

As a composer, I write down my idea for how the music is growing from one idea to the next. It is usually based on what will the melody be, who is playing it, and who takes over when I want a different sound.

However, sometimes, I just have an idea for a cool accompaniment figure that I want to explore. The melody grows after I’ve come up with the accompaniment texture, the rhythm, and the bass line. Or I decide that the bassoon, tuba, or contrabass is taking the melody, so the accompaniment needs to be in the higher register to not conflict with it.

And then it’s endings. How do you know that a piece is over? It can be kind of difficult, until the orchestra stops playing for long enough that you know they aren’t starting up again. Case in point: Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Listen to the fourth and final movement, and tell me that you weren’t surprised at least once that the piece wasn’t over yet. There’s something about the cadence, we kind of expect it to be over when everything is tied to a unison or an acceleration of texture and rhythm. Or it could be really quiet, and the Italian word for this is morendo, dying. The sound dies slowly and you know it’s over because you had time to adjust to the quiet.

If you’ve read some of my other posts or talked to me lately, you may be aware that I’m currently finishing up my first symphony. It’s the fourth movement. I thought, I’ll aim for about 6-7 minutes in length. But then this section with the horns chasing the melody and then the strings joining in, and I had this fabulous ending landing in my lap. The problem: I was only about 5 minutes in. The piece was too short. So I decided to give a recapitulation nod to Beethoven, and let the oboes come in with the first theme in a new key. So fun! Let’s see where that leads. I haven’t completed it yet, but I’m aiming for next week.

Another thing I’ve had fun with the past few days is adding in the spice of percussion. I had started out the movement with timpani and marimba, but I’m writing the piece including two more percussionists, which means I have access to more spice. A snare drum is excellent to emphasize the rhythmic figures of the orchestra, and cymbals can accent the beats really well when that is what you need. A triangle has a delicate but still penetrating sound and is a nice addition to my accompaniment idea. Etc. One of the biggest instruments is a bass drum, and the thunderous sound is sometimes exactly what you are looking for.

In a brief interaction with one of the percussionists, I confirmed that a marimba player can easily have several instruments in front of him or her, and therefore, I wrote a Glockenspiel part. I think about the Glock a little like a piccolo. It’s extremely high pitched, and it’s kind of like icing on the orchestra, and if you have access to it, you’re just excited.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to reply (click on “Leave a reply” at the top of the post), and I look forward to talking more about orchestra music next time.

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