Composition Notebook: February 2015

Subject: Sanctus, by Aaron Giles

Woohoo! My first original composition.

It started off as a composition project for my Music Theory class, which meant that it had some constraints on it. I’m not yet sure whether working under constraints is good or bad, but in this case I think it worked out well.

The requirements were pretty simple:

  • Any key or time signature was allowed.
  • Length of the piece should be 16 bars.
  • Provide melody and bass line (no inner voices).
  • Had to include at least one of each non-chord tone type (passing tone, neighbor tone, escape tone, appogiatura, free tone, anticipation, suspension, etc.)
  • Had to provide several standard cadence points.
  • Had to end on a perfect authentic cadence.

The first step was to pick out some text to use that would fit in a 16 bar form. The traditional “Holy, Holy” text from church jumped out, since I sing it every Sunday:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are fully of your Glory,
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,
Hosanna in the highest.

The first tricky bit was making sure all that text would fit in just 16 bars, so I decided on a 12/8 meter which gave me enough beats to work with. Also, I decided to repeat the first “Holy, Holy, Holy” line in order to end up with 4 roughly even lines to fit into 16 bars.

Since I truly adore minor key music, I of course chose a minor key. I started with F minor, but as my melody developed, I needed some headroom so I moved it down to C minor.

Having never started from scratch before, I decided to begin with a chord progression and then try to fit a melody into that. Actually, I began even earlier by laying out cadences for each 4 measure phrase, and then developing a progression for each line that led up to the cadence.

Once I’d laid something out, I wrote out a basic melody that fit the text. Given that it was in compound meter, I chose a basic 2:1 pattern for the melody line, which gives it a bit of a lilt.

Since I chose to repeat the first line, it seemed most natural to apply an AABB pattern to the music. The first two lines (AA) open the same, but the second line alternately rides a step higher or lower to keep things interesting. The second two lines (BB) follow a similar pattern except the second of the pair jumps up a third.

Once the melody was in place, I had to come up with a bass line to support it harmonically. After some fiddling, I came up with a bass part for the first two lines (AA) that provided momentum in spaces where the melody paused, and paused where the melody moved.

For the second two lines (BB), I was unsure what to do, so I started to experiment with an arpeggiated bass line. Once I did that, it immediately felt like the whole bass line was meant to be written for cello, so I locked in on that.

After a quick consult with my instructor, I realized I was relying too much on second inversion chords, and that my cadences were not all landing in root position. At first I resisted changing things, but soon found that it didn’t take a lot of twiddling to make things line up, and the end result was pretty pleasing:

Overall, I didn’t have any significant instances where the requirements pushed me into doing something awkward. The one minor situation was the introduction of a free tone in the last line, which I eventually moved back to a chord tone, which sounded a bit more natural.

Once it was turned in, I had the opportunity to share my work with a small group of composers I had recently met, and they offered me some minor suggestions for improvement beyond what was in class. The most important item was the lack of momentum at the end of the first two phrases, which I rectified by adding a descending line to the bass that led into the next phrase.

And here it is in its “final” form:

In the end, I’m quite happy with how this project turned out. Perhaps I’ll revisit the theme in the future and add a matching Fraction.