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Building Blocks

The Ether Game goes under construction with a look at musical forms (picture credit: pixabay)

This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is getting into the weeds. It’s a show for all the curious musical thinkers and tinkerers out there, a deep dive into musical forms and formulas that we’re calling “Building Blocks.”

Here’s your very formal playlist:

  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30: I. Allegro ma non tanto (Cadenza) – Originating in the Baroque era, a cadenza indicates an opportunity in a piece, often a concerto, where the orchestra drops out and the soloist improvises feats of virtuosity. During the Romantic era, when public concerts were on the rise, famous or impressive cadenzas became associated with certain pieces, especially if they had also been performed by the composer, and audiences asked for them to be replicated. As with the concerto we just heard by Rachmaninoff, a written cadenza might be included to reproduce what the best performers of the piece had originally improvised. Rachmaninoff for example wrote two different cadenzas for the soloist to choose from in his 3rd piano concerto. The first and more popular choice is chordal and quite difficult, while the second is wandering and quiet, in the style of the Baroque toccata.


  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”: I. Adagio sostenuto; Presto – Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” violin sonata is the longest, most difficult, and probably most famous of his 10 violin sonatas. It was named after the famed violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, to whom Beethoven dedicated the work—although Kreutzer never actually performed (or liked) the work. The opening movement of the sonata is written, naturally, in sonata form. Most first movements of sonatas, symphonies, and concertos from the 18th and 19th centuries are written in this ubiquitous and often complex form. At its simplest, sonata form is a three-part form: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. In the exposition, you are introduced to all the major themes and move from the home key to a second key. In the development, those themes are varied with excursions to distant tonal centers. And in the recapitulation, the original themes return, but all in the home, or “tonic” key.


  • George and Ira Gershwin,  “‘S Wonderful” – “‘S Wonderful,” by sibling duo George and Ira Gershwin, comes from the 1927 Broadway musical Funny Face, which starred the sibling duo Fred and Adele Astaire. Like most of the songs by Tin Pan Alley composers, this tune is written in what’s often referred to as Standard Song Form or AABA form or Thirty-Two Bar Form. The form is 32 measures long, comprising four sections of 8 bars each, and these four sections follow the pattern AABA. It’s pretty easy to hear in “‘S Wonderful.” The first A section begins with “‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous,” the second A section is “‘S Awful nice, ‘S Paradise,” there’s a contrasting section about feeling glamorous and amorous, and the final A section is “‘S Wonderful” again. This version also features an opening verse, which most singers omit. Thankfully, Ella Fitzgerald includes it and all of its clever wordplay by Ira Gershwin.


  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), The Art Of Fugue – The godfather of all musical forms and techniques is the fugue, one of the most complicated contrapuntal processes. The fugue was mastered by J. S. Bach so thoroughly, that it’s almost embarrassing to even try to write your own. There is no set formal layout of a fugue, rather it consists of a short melody (a subject) that is repeated at different pitch levels in different voices to create beautiful, interweaving counterpoint. Bach’s monumental work The Art Of Fugue is a masterclass in the types of variations a fugue can have. It includes 14 fugues all based on a single subject. The first fugue “Contrapunctus 1” is a fairly standard four-voice fugue. Contrapunctus 3, on the other hand, features the same subject in inversion — that’s where the intervals are upside-down. He also includes fugues with multiple subjects, complex countersubjects, and various alterations to the subject’s rhythm.


  • Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 – If sonata form is king of the 18th and 19th century instrumental forms, rondo form would be queen. A rondo is much simpler than a piece in sonata form. Essentially, you have a main theme or “refrain” that keeps returning over and over, with many varied episodes in between. In this Rondo Capriccioso, you can hear the refrain first at 1:40, and it repeats several times over the course of the piece. This is a relatively early work for the composer, written when he was only 28 years old. He originally wrote this work to be the finale of his first violin concerto, but later changed it to a standalone concert showpiece. It was written for one of the most acclaimed virtuoso violinists at the time, Pablo de Sarasate.


  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), Concerto in D major for Lute, RV 93: Movement I – Vivaldi standardized the various forms used for concerti in the Baroque era. With five hundred concerti to his name, he chose an Italian form invented by Giovanni Gabrieli called ritornello form as his favorite. The term ritornello was originally used to indicate instrumental sections in Gabrieli’s elaborate church motets for Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Vivaldi reassigned the term to the ensemble episodes that divide the solo passages in his concerti. The opening Ritornello of a Baroque concerto will often contain a complete musical idea or theme, though the ritornelli that appear later in the movement might only contain a fragment of that original theme, or even enter in a new key. Vivaldi used the Ritornello form so often that Stravinsky later criticized his output, saying that Vivaldi did not compose five hundred concerti, but one concerto five hundred times.


  • Béla Bartók (1881–1945), String Quartet No. 4: III. Non troppo lento – Bartók focused his attention on chamber music in the late 1920s, composing his Fourth String Quartet in the summer of 1928, only one year after finishing his sonically-experimental third quartet. It was originally conceived as a four movement work, but Bartók added an additional movement to give it a symmetrical five-movement structure, sometimes referred to as an “arch form.” Throughout his life, Bartók held a secondary interest in architecture and mathematics. He wrote the third movement of his quartet as if it were the keystone of an arch. Movements one and five are melodically linked, as are two and four, but the third movement is completely independent, a “musical wedge” between the other movements. The third movement has also been classifies as Night Music, a term Bartók used to describe the style of certain compositions that were evocative of nocturnal nature sounds and images.


  • Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450–1517), A la Bataglia (in 4 parts) – Franco-Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac was a contemporary of fellow Franco-Flemish composers Josquin Des Prez and Jacob Obrecht, and together, they had a huge influence on European Renaissance music in the early 16th century. Isaac spent his early career in Florence as a composer to the famed Lorenzo di Medici, who prized Isaac’s music for its variety. Isaac was especially adept at combining old and new styles, and chief among the older techniques he preserved from the medieval era was the musical canon. A canon consists of staggered iterations of a melody in several voices, and can be heard here in the opening section of Isaac’s piece A la Battaglia. Unlike medieval sacred canons, which were often complete compositions, Isaac weaved canons into the fabric of his pieces so that certain phrases start off in canon but slowly morph into more complicated counterpoint.


  • Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Part One” – “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is a classic blues that dates back to 1929, when it was first performed by Hambone Willie Newbern. We just heard a version by blues legend Muddy Waters in 1950, which inspired rock groups like Cream and Fleetwood Mac to also cover the song. It’s a classic example of blues form, but also an example of how even basic forms can be altered. Blues form is simple: it’s an AAB pattern with a standard harmonic formula, typically consisting of 12 total bars (four bars for each section, AAB). Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” has the AAB pattern and the harmonic formula, but it is not a typical twelve bar blues. If you count along to each section, instead of four bars of four beats each, you get five bars of four beats plus one extra half bar of only two beats. Clearly, Muddy was rollin’ and tumblin’ to the beat of a different drummer.

Need more structure in your life? Check out our Building Blocks Podcast from this week!

Music Heard On This Episode


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