Tag Archives: Prokofiev

What is a third movement?

Basically, as a composer, you can do what you feel that the music demands. At the same time, it can be extremely helpful to call on tradition to help make it more understandable to the audience.

I do not have extensive experience playing string quartets. My musical schooling was honed primarily in choirs. So my language has been deeply affected by this – which means that the vocal line is something I treasure even in instrumental playing. Like I mentioned in a previous post, the Prokofiev piano concerto no 3 has a very lyrical part in the middle of the third movement, which although it was a little difficult because it was as some say “up in the stratosphere”, it was so beautiful, and ended up being one of my favorite sections of the piece. It is also a line that reminds me of vocal writing, something you’d like to hum or sing, which can’t be said for many other string lines… some can be very disjointed and extremely challenging to sing.

The first movement I wrote ended up deeply affected by Felix Mendelssohn’s style, with the type of counterpoint that he likes using, even though I use my own harmonic and melodic language which is a lot more inclusive of all sorts of accidentals and at times sounds a bit atonal. For the second movement I decided to constrain myself to a waltz form, with the repeats traditional to that form. I was going for a piece that people would like to get up and dance to, at least after they got used to it.

So today when I sit down with some time on my hands to write more notes, I just google “third movement string quartet” and see that I have already broken tradition. Typically the second movement is a slow movement, but the third is a dance, like a menuett and trio. Now I have already written the dance movement and see that my challenge ought to be to write a slow, lyrical piece, that still feels like it is a part of the other two movements completed.

I’m thinking about how impatient I can sometimes be. How many notes I want to fit in, and how often when I’m sitting in orchestra, I’m actually having to count rests. Yes, this is a string quartet, but I don’t have to rush it. My challenge with this piece is to slow down. The harmonic changes will be slower. The piece will be perhaps more tonal as a result. I’m going to keep doublings to few in number, so that the harmonies can stay more interesting. I’m writing a Largo, which means that each note just takes more time, right now at a quarter note equals 56, which may change slightly. As I often don’t know, I also this time don’t know how long the piece will be, but trust that it will become apparent when it’s done.

And maybe at some point, I will change the order so that the Largo will be the second movement. I’ll decide that later.

Transition from fast to calm

Today when I get back to the computer to what I imagine is finishing up the loose ends from yesterday, I find that what sounds like an ending can just as well be the transition to a calmer middle part. The piece is full of contrapuntal movement, and I have finally reached a resting point for all the four instruments. That is why it feels so final. But I decide that I can start a new part here, and make the piece more of an ABA form. I’m at the end of the first “A,” and I can start on “B.”

Here are a few things that I deliberately do to change the feel of the music, to make it a contrasting section. 1) I slow down the tempo from 120 to 84 beats per minute, 2) I don’t write any sixteenth notes – the fastest note so far is an eighth note, 3) I give it a pianissimo marking, the first in the piece, 4) I make the counterpoint less busy, so I only have two different rhythm shapes, and they are only a little bit different from each other, and 5) I use a lot of sequence and try to make the section predictable.

Last Saturday I had the fantastic experience of listening to the Utah Symphony playing live at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City. They played Prokofiev’s 2nd piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 1st symphony. Their opening piece was by John Adams, The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra. As I listened to the orchestra, I was thinking a lot about repetition, and how much repetition is desirable. It clearly is a delicate balance! You want the audience to feel like they have some kind of idea of what the musical theme is, and how you are developing it. You can only know the theme if there are enough iterations of it, because otherwise it comes across as introduction or variation.

So as I’m writing the beginning part of “B” in the first movement of my first string quartet, I’m trying to introduce the theme enough times that a listener can feel like the music makes sense. I’m pairing the two violins rhythmically, and I’m also pairing the viola and cello. Then I switch rhythms between the two groups, so that the leading voice is in the lower register. I’m thinking a lot about two-part harmony, which does best when the intervals are a pleasing interval, rather than doublings (doublings kind of undo the idea of harmony).

In two-part harmony, a pretty safe bet in traditional arrangements is the third or the sixth. However, I love variety, and therefore I will mix my thirds and sixths up with seconds, diminished fifths, and the occasional fourth or seventh. I try to aim for a mix of countermotion and the parts moving together (with countermotion being favored). That is how I find a two-part harmony the most interesting.

Well, I finish up my first eight measures of that section, and I know that it needs something a little different next. I’ve just ended on a pretty high chord for all the strings, which lends itself fairly well for introducing the climax. I remember learning that when you’re looking for a climax in a piece, it generally means the highest point. Playing Prokofiev’s third piano concerto (observe that this recording is not my orchestra playing it) last spring, I definitely felt it was a high point when the entire viola section was maxing out by playing the highest notes we are usually ever asked to play in concert, towards the end of the last movement (listen at about 24-26 minutes for that part where the high strings are really high and lyrical, right before the peppy contrasting part by woodwinds, piano, and strings playing in a very different style).

So when I get back to writing either later today or tomorrow, I will try and make that high section fly.