Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Benedict" Break-Down: A Closer Look at My Egg-Inspired Invention

"Benedict" is the third movement of my Egg Suite for solo piano.

Here's the piece's description from the Egg Suite music book's preface:
'III. We’re skipping past sunny-side-up and plunging into poached territory. A difficult dish [Eggs Benedict], requiring patience and precision, brought to my mind the poise, regality, and even snobbishness of royalty. Let’s call him King Benedict. A quasi-invention, built off of a subject which begins with “E, G#, G#,” seems to capture the stately nature of the king.'
As mentioned (well, alluded to) in that blurb, "Benedict" is a Bach-like, baroque style invention of sorts. Basically, that means it features a main musical idea (subject), a complementary idea (countersubject), and imitative counterpoint to develop those subject and countersubject motives.

And that's what you can find in this piece! Furthermore, in terms of form, I structured it basically as an A-B-A' form: It contains an Exposition (Section A), Development (Section B), and a Recapitulation (A'). More on that later.

So, let's take a look at the piece, in excruciating detail. (Brace yourselves... ) Here we go!

Note: For all images, click them to enlarge.

The Exposition (Section A)

To kick off the thing, I (for obvious reasons) had to begin with the E-G-G motif (technically E-G#-G#). This first chunk of the subject (a) has a straightforward rhythm: three pairs of slur-staccato eighth notes. To break up that pattern, I injected some syncopation into the melody, as seen in (b).

Figure 1: The Subject (a + b)

This second chunk adds rhythmic interest in a couple ways: it includes smaller (i.e. quicker) note values—sixteenth notes, and each of its smaller rhythmic cells (1/16th, 1/16th, 1/8th, 1/8th) adds up to 1 and 1/2 beats. Since this is the case, a succession of these rhythmic cells effectively alternates which part of the beat gets the sixteenth notes. Yay, syncopation!

Side-by-side, I really liked how these two chunks (a) and (b) played off of each other. So, that meant I had a Subject (Figure 1) which I was happy with! Happy enough to write a whole invention... which brings us to the Countersubject:

The Countersubject, shown below with blue labels, enters while the subject is repeated in the lower voice.

Figure 2: The Countersubject (c + d)

As I did with the subject, I will break the countersubject into two chunks, for analysis' sake: (c) and (d).

(c) spans a wide interval (a nice contrast to the small thirds and seconds happening in the subject), and contains a longer note value—the dotted quarter note (a nice rhythmic contrast to the shorter eighth-note rhythms in the subject)

(d) includes some sixteenth notes, which I liked because that allowed for the subject and countersubject to connect on some sixteenth-note rhythms from time to time. For example, on the fourth beat of Figure 2's first measure.

As you can see, coming up with an effective countersubject often has to do with contrast, playing off of what is happening in the subject. In general, when there are quicker, shorter rhythms happening in the subject, I tried to use slower, longer rhythms in the countersubject. That way, when the two happen simultaneously, the two voices are distinct from each other, and each can be clearly picked out, aurally-speaking, by the listener.

Now that the subject and countersubject have been stated, we continue by expanding on the motives to build on the exposition. Again, I'm keeping in mind the contrasts we established earlier—so I'm sure to pair subject material with countersubject material. In this exposition section, you can see that the motivic material isn't always perfectly imitated. For example, the leap of (c') is sometimes a 5th, other times a 6th. What is usually maintained is the overall shape and rhythm of the motives.

Figure 3: Exposition continues with imitation.

From there, let's skip ahead a little bit, to measure 13.

By this point in the piece, I have modulated to B major (hence the A#'s). This is a 5th higher than the original E major. Also happening here, labeled in green in Figure 4, is the addition of a third voice. Since there's already so much going on with the subject and countersubject, I made sure to keep (e) comparatively simple (i.e. less busy): quarter notes and half notes.

Figure 4: Subject and Countersubject transposed up a fifth (Key of B Major), with new, third voice (e)

You'll notice in these examples that the subject doesn't always occur in the higher voice (right hand), and the countersubject doesn't always occur in the lower voice (bass clef)—and vice versa. That's characteristic of this compositional style: each voice imitates the other, so the melodic ideas are frequently passed between voices (and voices may even cross, occasionally, like in measure 14).

Are you still with me? Good! Let's develop these ideas...

The Development (Section B)

In the Exposition, I stated the main musical ideas: the Subject and the Countersubject. In terms of key centers, we had the 'home' key of E major, and then modulated up a fifth to the key of B major—a closely-related key. In this next section, the development, we...well, develop those ideas and take them to more distantly-related keys.

Figure 5.
In Figure 5, notice the upper voice's rhythm—borrowed from (b), but with a different, more chromatic melody. The lower voice plays with (a) and uses a couple counterpoint techniques to change it: inversion and augmentation.

The inversion isn't perfect, though: Instead of going up a 3rd then going down a 2nd, I went down a 6th then up a 2nd. That is to say, I flipped (inverted) the direction of the intervals, but the intervals themselves were not maintained.

Also at work is augmentation, lengthening the original rhythm. Where the subject's original rhythm contained eighth notes, this augmented (i.e. elongated) left hand line instead uses quarter notes, providing a solid foundation on top of which the more active right hand can take place.

Figure 6.
 Figure 6 shows how one simple idea can be sequenced to create a longer, more exciting passage. Here, the fragment used is the G# - F# - G# sixteenth note idea, which appears first in (b). A fourth sixteenth note is tacked on to those three, then this four-note idea is repeated three more times, each time a step lower than before. This constitutes a sequence.

Figure 7: One bar from the dominant prolongation section.
Skipping ahead a bit more, we arrive at measure 30 (Figure 7). Typically at the tail end of a development section, a device known as dominant prolongation is often employed, in which the dominant (the V chord) is prolonged for several measures, preparing for a return to the tonic (I).

And that's precisely what I did! Since I would be returning to the key of E major, the chord I prolonged was a B7sus. The lower voice adds rhythmic interest by playing the syncopated (b) material, which also foreshadows the imminent return of that motif...

The Recapitulation (Section A')

After all that harmonic turmoil, fragmentation/manipulation of the motives, and overall tomfoolery, we're ready to return to the original subject and countersubject, and in the original key, to boot.
Figure 8: Re-united and it feels so good.

That means we get to hear the E-G#-G# motif as it was originally stated in the subject at the very beginning of the piece, as well as the countersubject. Additionally, I included the newer, third voice. Doing this helped create a real sense of development for the piece: it didn't have this third voice at the beginning, but along the way it went through a transformation, and now it contains this third voice.

(By the way, Bach might have called this a sinfonia now that it has three voices instead of the typical invention's two voices.)

Conclusion (Codetta)

In terms of this piece, the conclusion is comprised of a tiny codetta, which jams as many E-G#-G# statements as I could fit in a small space. I'll refrain from sharing a Figure 9 to show that, because I think we have had enough images for this post.

In terms of this blog post, the conclusion is perhaps best accomplished by showing the sum of all these parts. Enjoy watching and listening to "Benedict," the third movement of the Egg Suite:

The scores of all five movements of "The Egg Suite" are available here (PDF).


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