On Saturday evening the Hertford Symphony Orchestra will be premiering a new work which they commissioned from me last year (Details on the concert here). They have been working on it since February and tomorrow I am talking to some local young musicians about the composition of the piece before they sit in on the rehearsal so thought I might share the notes I’ve made on it here.
The piece is 10 minutes long and will be the overture for the concert, coming before Stephen Hough‘s performance of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. The concert will be conducted by Tom Hammond.
The title comes from a memorable section of M.B.V Roberts’ Biology: A Functional Approach in which the author instructs the reader to look up at the canopy next time they happen to be lying in a beech wood and to notice the condition of ‘leaf mosaic’ where leaves in different levels of the canopy fill the negative spaces in order to collect all the available light and thereby create a complex three-dimensional tessellation. Leaf mosaic makes the area beneath a beech canopy very dark and sparse of flora.
Tessellation is a key idea in this piece, most obviously in the second subject. Each wind instrument is given a small number of notes which, played sporadically, interlock to form a melody with contrapuntal lines which is shared between the entire section and with no instrument playing the entire melody – thus it only appears when all the instruments play together.
Similarly, in the first subject, the overall impression is of great chords. However, each instrument is given only a single note that exists with its own dynamic shape and rhythmic placement: the chords emerge from this almost contrapuntal texture of long notes when all the notes of that chord are sounding simultaneously. Just as the large impenetrable canopy consists of layers of small leaves, so the thick-textured chords are made of many single notes.
Another theme in the piece is the falling whole tone. All the melodies begin with a falling whole tone and harmonically the piece begins centred on an E natural and ends on a D natural.
The first idea for this piece piece came a couple of years ago and were not intended for this piece but for a 10-minute piece for orchestra that I wanted to write but for which I had not one to write. In the end, the original idea for this piece was discarded but some of the main harmonies in Next Time You Are Lying In A Beech Wood come from that and the ending includes a version of my original sketches for the other piece.
The material I am referring to is a pair of chords which are made out of a stack of alternating 5ths and 6ths – one with Major 6ths, the other with Minor 6ths – each having the topmost note in common as a sort of pivot.
Instead of simply using these two chords, I decided to place them a few minutes apart and fill in the gap with a sequence of chords. Each chord is very similar but one note is changed each time until the notes of the first chord and completely replaced by the notes of the second chord (with the exception of the topmost E).
A similar process happens at the end of the piece.
The second idea I had came to me on a train. My first thoughts were to form a melody which rose from high to low and was shared by the strings so that each instrument would only play one note of the melody – a kind of hocket. But, instead of starting with the double basses, as might be expected, it would start on the lowest notes of the violins and move up to the highest notes of the cellos, as a sort of visual pun – the sound moving from left to right instead of right to left as usual.
The melodic idea was this:
This melody became the second subject of this new piece for HSO, though along the way I changed my mind about giving it to the strings. Instead the woodwinds, and later the brass, play this, sharing the notes between the players.
Flute 1 plays F and Eb
Oboe 1 plays Eb and D
Clarinet 1 plays G and D
To expand on this, I verticalised the pitches of the melody into a chord and then extended it upwards and downwards by continuing the sequence of intervals symmetrically:
From this larger chord I was able to extract various counterpoints to the main melody by turning the chord back into melodic strands. Here is the melody with its first counterpoint. As you can see each note is numbered:
Then, I created a sequence which, starting with one note, gradually becomes stretched by the addition of further notes from the melody and then shortened again until all the notes of the melody have been heard in sequence:
1, 1, 12321, 1234321, 23432, 2345432, 12345, 123454321, 23456 … etc
When all the notes have been heard, a new section begins.
Note that the melody begins on F and ends on Eb, a tone lower. When this note is reached, we hear it repeated – like at the beginning of the sequence – which facilitates a harmonic change centring on Eb.
One of the recurring ideas in the piece is the falling whole tone – we hear it with the change of harmony mentioned above. Also, in the first section where all the melodic materials feature a falling tone. The piece begins with a pedal on E natural and by the end of the piece we have arrived at D natural – another falling tone.
Having these two main ideas, I decided to use a Sonata form, though with some differences to the classical form. Sonata form features an exposition made of a first and second subject with contrasting harmonies followed a development section of transitional harmony to lead back to the original key with a recapitulation of both themes.
Here is a summary of the structure:
First Subject: Long, swelling chords built out of 5ths and 6ths, centring on E, gradual crescendo from ppp to fff with some hints of the second subject.
Second Subject: New harmony and contrapuntal texture. Still includes 5ths but the 6ths are replaced by Major and Minor 2nds. A new focus on Eb and F.
Development: Picking up the harmony from the second subject, scurrying strings become more and more violent before the swelling chords of the first subject are reintroduced on top and its melodic material returns, now as a heraldic trombone solo.
Recapitulation: Strings play the ‘theme’ of the second subject but gradually this is smudged and turned into long swelling chords like the first subject. Wind and Brass have a very slow rendition of the second subject but then the harmony changes back to 5ths and 6th but overlaid with melodic fragments from the second subject. A short series of swelling chords brings the piece to a close, now resting on a D7 chord (to preclude the Beethoven Concerto in G Major).