Please Critique my Symphonic Work in D

This is a 33 minute throwback-to-the-19th-Century composition for a full symphony orchestra with extra brass (2 trumpets, 2 horns, and 2 trombones) expected to play from the balcony - an idea that I stole from Respighi (who probably stole it from Mahler!).

Anton Bruckner is perhaps my biggest inspiration as will be evident in the finale, but shades of Beethoven, Brahms, and Berlioz (inter alia) might also be apparent. I’ve therefore titled it a Nineteenth Century Overture, although I may change the title to just “The Nineteenth Century”.

Among the key features are an English horn solo accompanied by strings (Rehearsal Letter D) , and a melodic passage for the violas (to atone for all of those dreadful jokes at which I chuckled as a smug violin player!). This is at Rehearsal Letter P

Please listen to the audio score on the Musescore site while noting that

  1. the sound quality is not as good as the playback directly from the Musescore program,
  2. Tympani rolls and string tremolos are approximate.
  3. there might be some audio distortion in some of the tutti passages , particularly in the finale.

Regardless, I hope that the overall rendering is adequate enough for your feedback which will be DEEPLY appreciated!

Many thanks in advance.

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    • That may very well have been the unifying theme, but IMO it's too indistinct in the texture of the entire symphony.  IMO it should stand out more, maybe through the scoring (e.g. use strategic scoring to accentuate certain notes, such as selectively doubling them with a pizz or another instrument).  One thing that might have worked is to emphasize an off-beat note, as a way of making it stand out more by catching the listener's attention.  Or use a more unique rhythm that would be instantly recognizable in the middle of a thick orchestral texture.

      In general, the point of a main theme is to serve as a landmark, a reference point for the listener to understand where he is within the overall structure of the music.  Something that's too ordinary or indistinct wouldn't serve as a good landmark; the criterion of being a landmark is to stand out from its surroundings. Whether or not a particular theme works well depends not only on the theme itself, but also on its surrounding context.  An ordinary house in the middle of a city, for example, wouldn't serve as a landmark because it looks like any other house nearby.  But the same house in the middle of a forest would definitely stand out, because there are no other houses nearby. Or, for that matter, the same house surrounding by skyscrapers with no other small house in sight.  Similarly, your rhythmic pattern could have served as a theme if the surrounding music were not so similar to it.  E.g., if it was set to the accompaniment of, say, triplet figures, then it would stand out quite well. But when it's surrounded by other material that sounds similar to it -- lots of quarter note / 8th note rhythms in various combinations, then it's like the house in the middle of the city: too many things around it sound similar, so it doesn't stand out, and doesn't work well as a main theme.

      Also, for a work of this scale, you generally need a more substantial theme in order to remain distinct. It's rather difficult for a 1-bar rhythm to work as a unifying motif because it's too easy for the surrounding music to sound too similar for it to stand out.  The opening melody of Bruckner's 7th is a good example of a substantial theme.  Beethoven's 5th is an anomaly in this respect: the "knocking on the door of fate" da-da-da-DAH motif, while extremely short, nevertheless works beautifully as a unifying theme. The fact that it sounds so distinct helps.  Though even here, if you study the score carefully, you'll notice that Beethoven takes great care not to have unrelated parts of the music sound too similar to this rhythm. Almost every sequence of repeated 8th notes directly references this motif, and could be considered an extended part of it. He also counterbalances it with other, more lyrical themes that sound nothing like it -- again, the house-in-the-forest principle.

    • Tahnsk again HS Tech

      I do realise in retrospect that the serious flaw in the work is the lack of the rhythmic pattern to convey the ide of a unifying theme.

      This is something that I may hopefully be able to address within the existing structure, to the extent possible

      What I'm really goingto do is take a step back and think about how I want the piece to flow which would help with the dramatic arcs as well.

      Many thanks again. This is precisely the sort of feedback that I was hoping for, and deeply appreciate it.

    • by the way, I just wanted to add that I think HS comment that there is a lack of clearly identifiable melodic material is by no means true everywhere. As I said already, the main theme starting at around 1'09" is both quite memorable and genuinely Brucknerian-sounding. But the point is that surely most composers would then repeat and gradually develop this statement whereas it sounds as if here that we suddenly move onto something else at 1'44". It's this sort of thing which gives the impression of a rather stop-go approach and I have to say I share the feeling that there is insufficient thematic development. Of course Bruckner himself was often criticised for this during his lifetime especially though for the most part, it is accepted these days that he knew what he was doing. Perhaps you do as well and we're just not really getting it.

      Anyway, I'll certainly be interested in how you develop in the future. My first attempt at a symphony was so bad I didn't even put i on my website (the following earlier ones have sufficient character in my view to be worth listening to despite their weaknesses)


    • Thanks, David. I am restructurin the work to incorporate a variation of the  melodic element into the rhythmic pattern which actually exists in <easure 23 (1:09') that I can modulate throughout the piece so that it's more recognisable.

      While I do know what I'm doing, Bruckner was an established figure, so he knew what worked well, something that I'm still in the process of discovering.

  • I'm approximately 7 minutes into it. I haven't read any of the other comments in this thread yet to avoid influencing my opinions.

    That being said, my first thought and suggestion are to explore a more interesting string-writing technique. The excessive use of tremolos may frustrate the players and can come across as a gimmick or a crutch to some extent.

    I'm not hearing a unifying theme or idea. Most music by the masters, including Bruckner, incorporates a unifying motif or glue that holds the work together. Beethoven achieves it simply with one motif in his 5th Symphony. Others have developed more obscure yet effective methods. It doesn't have to be a melodic unifying theme; it could be rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic, or something beyond. But there needs to be something. Otherwise, this can come across as a collection of disjointed thoughts.

    The orchestration overall feels a bit clunky and overdone, often muddled with a thick texture. This is something I've been guilty of myself. Perhaps the best-qualified person to critique orchestration on this forum would be Mike Hewer. While I'm still studying, I'd like to quote Mike's valuable advice—less can be more. Although I haven't shared many recent symphonic writing, studying scores of Britten has proven indispensable. I've become quite a fan.

    One must acknowledge the great idea presented at bar 298. There's your symphony. You could have based the entire composition on this passage, exploring different twists and turns. Out of everything I've listened to so far, that section captured my attention the most. I finally had something to hold onto. The piece almost took a more Baroque turn here, with notes reminiscent of Haydn and some Vivaldi-esque string writing. It felt a bit out of place, but still welcomed in my ears. I'm not detecting much Berlioz, but to each their own.

    The sounds of the MuseScore playback are not doing you much help. However, I truly believe even the crappiest MIDI playback can sound decent if written well. Case in point: many 90s video game scores or any early computer music. It still follows older principles in orchestration if written well.

    I'm about halfway through now, still struggling to find the unifying force of the work. Halfway through, and I don't really know where I am in the arc of the story. Consider a clearer structure. Map your piece out before you begin, know what you want to say, and then say it. Don't say something without knowing exactly what it is you want to express.

    The string writing at bar 512 is better. It makes me somewhat want to reconsider my previous words, but alas, I'm not convinced yet. Although the string writing at around bar 538 is clever. Here, the tremolo seems less like a gimmick and more like a precursor to set up the incoming riff. It establishes the triplet passage well, with a nice horn pedal tone—well done!

    Still, I'm not grasping a theme or an overall glue. There are some slick passages with decent orchestration and ideas, but they don't tie into the preceding work. For example, at bar 593, the dotted rhythm motif is very nice—it has its place. But is it here? I don't know. I don't find a connection with anything before. Sometimes I like to think of any writing as an approach to theme and variations. You can twist the theme as much as you want along the course until it's unrecognizable, and that's fine, but you have to guide the listener through the journey.

    At 629, or "P," there's a cool rhythmic idea. But again, it feels out of place. How does it relate to any material prior? I would've carried that rhythmic idea out much longer while incorporating themes or ideas from moments prior.

    At 737, again, a cool harmonic texture and a rhythmic motif. It carries on a bit into the horns and explodes into a full tutti development of sorts. This is the kind of development and writing you should consider throughout. Finally, a rhythmic texture we can hold onto. It maintains throughout the work towards the closure. Most effective— if anything, I'll remember this section the most.

    And I find the work coming to a close. Overall, I think I've stated all I must through my writing as I listened. I don't mean to discourage, only offer improvement. The potential is there but needs to be nurtured.



    • Thanks a TON David. I absolutely appreciate your pointed and detailed criticism, which is precisely what I need. 

      I was a bit apprehensive of the excssive use of tremolos myself, but went with it, because I felt that it created the nervous energy for the passages in question. On a related note, Daniel Barenboim was asked in an interview about performing Bruckner and he said "Well, the string players usually don't like it because there's so much tremolo.  And it's a lot of hard work, you know, for one hour. It's not a very enjoyable proposition. "

      The apparent lack of a unifying theme has been noted by all that have kindly listened to the piece. I was hoping that the rhythmic pattern for the strings in the finale which occurs in a few  other places might have served in this context, but I will concede that its application has been patchy and that it does not stand out. This is afailure on my part that I readily acknowledge.

      The ponderous nature of the orchestration may partly due to the audio rendition, and while it feels much more balanced in the Musescore playvack, I'll definitely take a look at trimming the fat as appropriate. Thanks for pointing this out.

      In retrospect, I can see how the rhythm starting in Bar 298 has a Baroque quallity to it, although it is the 3/4 version of the 4/4 rhythmic pattern that occurs earlier in the introduction (Bar 32) , where probably becomes buried under the weight of the melodic line for the horns and trombones. THIS was the unifying theme that I had in mind, except that it's used only in patches, which may be the underlying flaw in the entire work.

      Thanks for the kind words about bars 512 -- 538. This was really intended as a bridge passage between the melody for strings to the theme at Letter M. I've noticed that in Musescore audio recordings, the string tone is crisper when it is unacommanied by heavy brass.

      Bar 593 is in he middle of a cannon between woodwind+trumpets and lower brass that starts at 590. Is there something specific about the rhythm this particular bar, or were you perchance referring to another measure? I will pay attention to the part about guiding the listener that is now becoming more and more apparent to me.

      the rhythm ay 629 (P)  is intended to usher in the passage for the violas that starts at 633. I wonder if it would have been preferable to go with the rhythm of bar 32 instead. This just seemed less intrusive. It's food for thought however.

      The rhythm at 737 is what I should have used more apparently and incisively throughout the piece. This is the approach that I will definitely keep in mind as I proceed.

      Thank you very much again, for your feedback, which I didn't find in the LEAST bit discouraging.  In fact I feel that you were far too kind given the serious structural flaw in the work that is now apparent to me. I'm encouraged by the fact that you suggested that there is potential and in fact potential for improvement. 










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