Thursday, 19 May 2016


Music and the incubation period.

You listen to an A section, then the B section, then the A section returns; is it the same as the first A or different? Each note is the same and usually in recordings and performances these days the music is very close to being identical. The element that changes is us, our mood is coloured by the B section. Each and every additional passage added will alter the way we perceive the preceding music.

There are pieces of music that repeat the same units of music over and over again, these are less good for engaging our minds in the business of thinking about relationships between sections. In fact repetitive music can be very good at disengaging us from such activities. But do I go to a concert or put on a CD to become involved in a dialogue with myself about structure, or come to that any other thought that happens to occur? I don’t set out to do this, but I also know that it takes a great deal of discipline to engage without internal disruption from that “little” voice. Occupying our senses visually helps whether it is a visual scene as in a ballet or opera or a visual stimulus as in a score.

When a B section comes along it interrupts the flow of the A section. We know from psychological research that as long as the interruption is resolved it will capture our interest, only when the disrupted flow is left without resolution do we find the activity unsatisfactory. Psychologists have also shown that interruption is far from a negative effect on memory, it can aid retention. It would seem that the Classical composers used their observation of audience reaction well in their designs. We also know that taking time away from one type of engagement aids our view and comprehension of the activity on its return. The repeated music is now in need of reprocessing or reviewing.

This procedure of changing our emotional state is so well used that citing an example is largely unnecessary but the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth does well to illustrate the use of repetition. Listen to the second subject and experience how it works to lead us back into the motto figure, we cannot help but anticipate an increase in the tension, and we are not disappointed, if we ask “why have we gone back to the beginning” we have somehow disengaged ourselves from the music.

If the change of section creates a new perception of old material what happens if the change is progressive and more subtle? Holst’s “Egdon Heath” provides an excellent example of this type of writing where we respond more to the alterations of tempo and timbre than melody. This work is a truly remarkable composition, the opening is based on a collection (later transposed) which in atonal classification comes as 014679. This exotic scale may be thought of as a combination of two augmented fourths a semitone apart and a fourth (C’/G, D/G’, F/B flat), this makes sense when listening to the flutes that follow with the upper parts in parallel fourths A/D, F/B flat, E/A, and the lower in rising major thirds. Combined these give three chords (repeated) that form one of the most distinctive and beautiful sounds in British music. The quality of these harmonic progressions played out as contrapuntal lines makes for considerable contrast with the pentatonic melody (over a stepwise diatonic scale) which arrives after the rapid movement of figure 2. The You Tube recording with Adrian Boult supplies a score with rehearsal figures:


This is a remarkably good performance and one of my favourites despite its age.

It has taken Holst close to five minutes to arrive at this melody, played on the trombone and brass to emphasise the change. The fact that Holst was a trombonist might suggest that this has a particular importance in showing the effect of the previous music on the composer. The mood of the brass theme changes as the viola and strings take over the theme and later the oboe (the harmony again remarkable on the entry of the oboe. This is the return to the exotic scale formations and with the repeat of the oboe melody it is the haunting and bleak character that is intensified. The music that follows is based on open harmonies and is one of the most brilliant pieces of orchestration, but the play between moods carries on with short rhythmic passages gradually giving way to longer periods of darker textures. Even the use of dotted rhythms to add a dance element to the melody makes little impression on the darker side of the music. We have a third repeat of the contrapuntal music (with a wonderful sweeping scale figure) before the climax, where the brass theme repeats but at a subdued level, this music is not loud, it gains its potency by repetition. If you examine the final chords (played over open fifths G/D) you will notice the repeat of the very static oboe melody, but you may miss the fact that the closing bars form the 014679 formation.

The composer’s judgement concerning the use of repetition has changed considerably over the history of Western music, its importance altering between each major period. In the 20th century its use has been polarised between subtle and palpable. Whichever route the reader chooses to select if or when composing it is important to recognise that an A section can never be the same twice.