Update #2: Choosing a Theme for My Composition

A major part of my project was choosing the pre-existing melody I would use as the subject for my fugue. Of all the parts of the project, this was the one that presented by far the most unexpected difficulties, because I had not taken into account the significant aesthetic differences in how we view music, and specifically the concept of melody, between Bach’s time and today. In this post, I will discuss two distinct aesthetic differences between Baroque and contemporary popular music that complicated my search for a theme, and how I eventually made a decision.

 

  1. The Vocal vs. Instrumental Idiom. The main reason I wanted to pick a popular song as the basis my fugue was to make the eventual composition more accessible to a general (non-musical or non-classically trained) audience. It stands to reason, then, that I would end up choosing a song with vocals—after all, nearly every popular song since the middle of the 20th century has had words. It soon became clear, though, that I had made an error in assuming I could translate a vocal melody into a Baroque-style organ piece. The reason for this lies in what musicologists refer to as the instrumental idiom. When playing an instrument, one can execute fast passages, chromaticism, and large leaps with much greater ease and more elegantly than a vocalist can. Because of this, the themes to most of Bach’s fugues contain some short note values as well as multiple skips, some by very unusual intervals (he was particularly fond of the diminished seventh). On the other hand, think of how many famous sung melodies are known for that “one note”, when the vocalist leaps dramatically up or down—this is the case because usually, only one of those large jumps exists in the melody to the song. In addition, you will rarely hear singers execute extended passages of fast, subdivided notes—in contemporary music, the rhythm section and accompanying parts are in charge of subdividing, not the melody. Finally, the voice is a continuous pitch instrument while the organ is discrete pitched, meaning all of the stylistic slides, register changes, and other subtleties that singers perform cannot translate to instrumental performance. All of these factors discouraged me from choosing a vocal piece as a theme.
  1. Baroque vs. Modern Aesthetics. What I have already discussed concerns the difficulty of translating a predominantly vocal melody to an instrumental piece. This section will deal more directly with how changes over time in musical aesthetics make it difficult to use a contemporary melody in a Baroque context. First of all, the very concept of melody has changed. In classical counterpoint, melody always predominates over harmony, but with most songs today, harmony plays a much more important role than the actual notes of the melody. Just think, if a guitar player says she “knows” a song, it doesn’t mean she can play all of the notes in the melody in the correct rhythm; it means she knows the chords. This focus on harmony means that when melodies themselves are separated from the accompanying chords, the result is often not only boring, but sometimes totally unrecognizable. Another factor to consider is phrase length—a fugue subject should consist either of just one phrase, or if not, there should a viable bridge between phrases to avoid a break in the constant motion. Most songs today have short phrases (the four-measure phrase of lyric singing has largely been replaced by the two-measure phrase), and phrases are divided by rests. Lastly, the syncopation present in many contemporary songs is incompatible with Baroque counterpoint, which was still very reliant on traditional strong and weak beat structure.

The subject I ended up selecting is the theme song to the BBC show Sherlock. The first decision I made was that film and TV scores would probably be the best source of potential material, because while they exist in the popular and are reasonably well-known among general audiences, the lack of vocals means their instrumental idiom is compatible with Baroque organ writing. Also, film and TV music is more likely to emphasize melody above harmony because of the concept of leitmotifs, which correspond to specific characters or situations throughout a story. Scores use chordal writing for mood music, but leitmotifs as well as theme songs carry melodic interest that make them ideal for the type of piece I am composing. I chose Sherlock over other themes I considered from Harry Potter, Star Wars, and others because I found it to be the most intrinsically Baroque in nature.

Another post will follow very soon with a full score and recording of my finished fugue!