My First Sonata: Behind the Scenes

 

I wish I could say that one morning I woke up and decided, gee I’ve never written a sonata before, let’s go and write one… In reality, my need to brush up on my harmony theory in order to help out a student is what got the creative juices flowing.

About a year ago an advanced student asked me if I would also help him prepare for the grade 9, 10 and ARCT theory exams. I was eager to help but realized I needed to review the material for myself first as the last time I learned this stuff was about 15 years ago as a music undergrad. As all seasoned teachers of any discipline know, understanding something and being able to teach it are two very different things. Over the period of several months I worked my butt off through different theory texts and even wrote a mock grade 9 exam (which I had a former professor of mine mark) so I would have piece of mind that I was ready to teach this stuff to my student.

The second time around learning basic harmony taught me that, contrary to past experience, I actually loved doing it! As someone who enjoys languages, the process of learning a set of guidelines (grammar) and then putting them into use in a puzzle-solving, improvisatory way (conversation) was akin to learning a foreign language in my mind. I became so enthused about doing harmony that I started writing little 16 measure Baroque dances like gigues and bourées whenever I was chilling in front of Netflix. I should mention I did have some experience already with composition (check out my Compositions section), but never before did I have such a strong grasp of the intricacies of Classical harmony. So it dawned on me that this would be the perfect time to pool all these fresh skills into a larger work.

My initial plan was to try something a tad more ambitious like writing the first movement of a sonatina. I was using the Albert Biehl Sonatina in A Minor, op. 94 as a model. I’ve always struggled in many aspects of my life in doing something small. Most projects tend to have modest goals and then balloon into something more epic. I don’t consider this a flaw but it does result in more work. This case was no exception. It wasn’t long before I realized that my work was quickly sounding too dark and serious to be a light-hearted sonatina. I realized that it was going to work better as a sonata, and before I knew it, one movement turned into three.

The bulk of the composing was done between June and July of 2019. This period consisted of usually sitting in a comfortable chair and laying down all the themes and deciding on the forms. I also figured out the basic harmonic structure. Then it was months of refining at the piano, mostly to make it as playable as possible. This is the first time that I relied exclusively on my “mind’s ear” and singing voice to compose rather than an instrument. Although everything ultimately had to be reworked one way or another at the piano this proved to be a more efficient and natural way of creating melodies. For example, the main theme to the second movement took about 20 minutes to come up with, something I don’t know if I would have arrived at so directly if I had been fiddling around on the keys. I think if something is easily sung then it will translate into a good, resilient theme.

Another element that made the compositional process go faster was that since I was aiming to compose a piece that sounded like it was written in the late Classical/early Romantic period I already had a sense of the layout of each movement. People are often familiar with the structure of a song: Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Interlude, Chorus, Chorus, Chorus. How many millions of songs have been written based strictly or loosely on this form? Classical music has similar established forms which are good templates for getting started. Of course effective composers/song writers will often deviate from the norm.

Movement I is in the form called Sonata Allegro. It simply means that it’s in three parts, let’s say ABA. The first A is usually repeated (mine has repeats marked in the score but I didn’t repeat it in the recording in gesture of goodwill towards shortened attention spans). B is called the Development section where themes from the A section go through the washing machine and the colours blend together but in a good way. And the last part, A, is like the first A except all the themes are in the home key of E minor.

Movement II is in Rondo form which looks like this: ABACA. It’s straight-forward. You have the theme, A, then something different, B, then A again, etc.

The final movement has a hybrid structure called Sonata-Rondo form. It’s built like the second movement but the C theme also functions as a Development, which is to say, I run the music through a second spin cycle before returning to the A theme. I wanted the last movement to be fast, lively, and folk-like in character so I wrote it in the style of a Tarantella, an old lively folk dance in 6/8 from southern Italy often accompanied by tambourines. As the name connotes, the dancer mimics the delirium brought on by being bitten by an indigenous spider. (Many composers have written tarantellas.  One you may recognize is the famous one featured in the Godfather.)

Thanks for your interest in my new piece. What comes to mind when you listen to it? Can you hear the influence of certain composers? If you have any questions you can leave a comment below. My score is available free of charge for anyone who’s interested in trying it out! The first two movements are RCM 8 and I’d say the third is RCM 10. At this time I simply want to get my music out into the world before I consider charging for it. Please, if you or a student plan on performing any of my pieces, let me know.

Enjoy!

 

Lament

Today I was feeling kinda down so I thought I’d pour my feelings into some composition. I wrote this little lament. It turned out to be a little study in counterpoint. Although I’m getting more confident in my harmony skills, counterpoint is another ballgame, one which I plan on addressing after I’m finished working through all the RCM books. Nonetheless, it was fun to use this opportunity to try writing another piece. It’s written in four voices and I keep repeating the 8 measure ditty layering one voice at a time.

Evoking Chopin’s Ghost

My experiments in the realm of harmony continue. Currently I’m about half way through the RCM 10 Harmony book at we’ve just finished the passage on V9s and 13s. To me these chords immediately make me recall Chopin, as if they were his musical fingerprint. I thought I’d take another stab at composing something simple. My tendency is often to begin with simple intentions but end up with a piece 10 pages long and hard for anyone to play. This time I restricted myself to 16 measures. I thought I’d try to write another minuet, this time in the minor mode but by the time I tried it out at the keyboard I realized it was much more like a waltz. I almost achieved my first goal as it ended up being 21 measures. It turned out a tad more difficult than I wanted it to be but oh well. I’d say it’s more like grade 3 or probably 4 RCM. Still, I’m happy with the result. It reminds me a bit of Chopin combined with some Danny Elfman. What does it remind you of?

 

Triumphant Minuet

I’ve been working my way through the RCM Harmony books. Much of the information is review but some of it is also new; I never had this amount of time to study theory in depth when I was a busy undergrad many years ago. After all this theory I thought why not try and apply it? So I sketched up this little minuet and was pleased with myself for composing something that at least resembles one of the many minuets I’ve heard or played throughout my life written by those old dead white guys.

10 Ways to Improve Your Sight Reading

Who hasn’t been impressed by someone who can sit down, open up a book of music at any spot, and start playing as if they’d been practising it for weeks?

Sight reading is the ability to read music at first sight. That’s right, music you’ve never seen or heard before.

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A Little Piano

Image: Mon Shop Vintage

Musicians don’t always come from musical families. My uncle Leif, on my mother’s side, was a trained baritone, guitarist, and music teacher, so I knew the music gene was in there somewhere. But my parents were not trained musicians, though they liked listening to Elvis, John Denver, and the 3 Tenors, and my mother did enjoy singing and playing the autoharp.

This fact didn’t hinder my dad, when they met with a new piano teacher who wanted to know more about the parents.

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