14. Countermelodies: Beethoven’s Seventh to The Magnificent Seven

Basics, Tunes, voicing

Great artists have the ability to navigate the fine line between an abundance of creativity and self-restraint. Composers with brains awash in innovative melodies, counterpoint, and other inventive ideas find ways of tempering the hundreds of ways of generating and adding to their creations with the ability to self-edit, finding inspired ways of including just the right amount of these ideas in a composition. They include just the right notes. And the right amount of notes, not too few, not too many.

If you’re asking yourself, “So?” give me a few moments and I’ll illuminate in this post. We’ll examine music that ranges far afield of the strict orchestral canon, but I think the examples will be of interest.

Beethoven Melodies and Countermelodies

Let’s first look at the slow movement of the Beethoven Symphony Number 7 in A, Op. 92. As a former professor of mine used to say it’s an example of “the army coming over the mountains.” To some extent that’s true. The opening of the movement consists of a simple melody to which several layers are added, but it’s the way and the type of melodies that Beethoven adds that are “just right.”

Example 1. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Number 7 in A, Op. 92 (Measures 1-26)
Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsche Grammophon

After an introductory A minor chord in the winds, Beethoven begins with this simple (quarter note, two eighth notes, and two quarter notes) idea in the lower strings divided into three parts, each with its own homorhythmic melody, all chords relatively close to the A minor/C major tonal center (Example 1). The passage is divided into an eight-measure A section and an eight-measure B section, with the B section repeated. After the first completion of the 24-bar passage, the second violins enter and take up the original top melody (previously in the violas). The violas and the first half of the cellos introduce a new countermelody, which begins on a C half-note,  as the second half of the cellos and the basses play a rhythmic version of their previous melody (Example 2).

Example 2. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Number 7 in A, Op. 92 (Measures 27-50)
Bruno Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, CBS

Although it’s impossible to miss the second violin and the bass lines, the new melody sings clearly through in the upper cellos and violas. It’s linear and mostly chromatic, filling in around the tonal harmonies. Intuitively, it feels right with the repeated melodies in the other parts.

When the phrase ends we finally have the entrance of the first violins playing the initial melody an octave higher than the seconds were playing it (Example 3). Now the second violins have the second melody (starting on a C half-note) an octave higher than where it was introduced previously. As the lowest strings continue with a new variation of the rhythmic bass, the other cellos and violas have the notes of the chord on the second, third, and fourth eighth note of each measure. When the phrase ends the entire orchestra comes in and plays the melodies that were introduced previously.

Example 3. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony Number 7 in A, Op. 92 (Measures 51-75)
John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Deutsche Grammophon

This is a good example of a master creating something seemingly very simple, but it’s so much more than it appears. It’s the basis for this extended growth from the germ to a logical conclusion. Beethoven’s string writing is both transparent and balanced. The first violins are the only ones playing what had been the second melody; they are in their higher register with woodwinds, horns, and trumpet playing the opening melody in several octaves. And, even with the added rhythmic activity in the lower strings, the first violin voice takes no back seat.

So, why this example? Let’s look at Beethoven’s first countermelody, the one that starts on the C half-note. First, it complements the initial melody with its sustained tones whereas the initial melody was more detached. Second, it is a unison melody, whereas the first melody consisted of block chords. On the other hand, as stated, it serves many of the harmonic functions of the inner parts of the first tune.

For adding countermelodies, these are valuable ideas to keep in mind.

The Magnificent Seven

Before the days of synthesizers and sequencers, drummers would create a beat manually, in several senses of the word. Usually in a rehearsal the drummer would get some idea from the band and its members of what kind of beat was desired. A good drummer would lay down the basics and then enhance it in a trial-and-error session in real time or after the rehearsal on his or her own time. Eventually the beat would coalesce.

This is one way of doing it.

Example 4. Elmer Bernstein: The Magnificent Seven, Main Titles
James Sedares, Phoenix Symphony, Koch

But sometimes a composer can develop a rhythm or a beat so “self-contained” and dramatic that very little else feels necessary. A great amount of popular dance music is similarly focused on its rhythm. So much so that the melody and/or harmony take a back seat to the rhythm’s energy. In these instances, more than a simply melody might even detract from “the beat.”

Occasionally, a great composer will find a combination that is more than the sum of its parts. A tune can be added to a beat and the two sync perfectly, as though the first were the other half of the second. The talent to compose one relatively perfect thing is hard to come by, but the talent to find two of these parts that complement each other is rare, indeed: a melody can be so convincing that it needs nothing else, yet it can offer ideas about what might be a useful addition. Elmer Bernstein’s main them to The Magnificent Seven is a perfect example. The wonderful and well-known rhythmic theme has been copied for many western films since Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Eli Wallach, Horst Bucholz, and James Coburn first rode across the silver screen in 1960. It’s no surprise. After just a few measures you feel that you’re on a powerful horse, proudly galloping over the prairie.

In the arrangement on the recording conducted by James Sedares and the Phoenix Symphony, I’ve shown the lead sheet to the main theme after its modulation from E-flat to F along with the trombone countermelody. Note that the orchestrator has created a countermelody that perfectly complements the main theme. The main theme starts on a downbeat, whereas the countermelody begins on an upbeat. The countermelody, played by the trombones around middle C, by its nature is separated from the main theme by this range. Later, as the main theme becomes more syncopated, the trombone melody becomes more centered on the downbeat. I suppose that lastly, one can also get an intuitive feel for whether the countermelody “works” on not. In this case, there’s little doubt that it does.

Pomp and Circumstance

We’ve examined the Beethoven with its balance of inventive melody and countermelody. Then we looked at Elmer Bernstein’s countermelody for the Magnificent Seven‘s main theme. Now let’s look at a piece, known by most people in the United States, at least, as “the graduation march” (Example 5). It shows that sometimes, you hear something that is simple and elegant, something that needs nothing further, no embellishment. The trio section of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1 is an example of this situation. The evocative melody is so straightforward that Elgar supports it with no countermelody. In fact, except for some basic percussion, there is nothing but downbeats happening in the orchestra other than the melody.

Example 5. Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D, Op. 39, No. 1 (Measures 218-241)
Andre Previn, Royal Philharmonia Orchestra, Philips

Of course it’s possible that Elgar considered a countermelody of some sort for the repeat of the trio, but the end result is just that glorious melody and familiar refrain.

Stars and Stripes

John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes was written within a few years of the Elgar Pomp & Circumstance March Number 1. Marches were popular entertainment at the time. Considering how artists are always trying to create something that tops what they or another artist has done, it may not be a surprise that Sousa includes two countermelodies in the Finale to the Stars and Stripes Forever (Example 6). The high woodwind doodles are actually somewhat reminiscent of one of the earlier melodies in the piece.

Example 6. John Philip Sousa, Stars & Stripes Forever (Measures 85-110)
Howard Hanson, Eastman Philharmonia, Mercury Living Presence

It’s the other countermelody, the one played only by the trombones, that functions almost the same way as the trombone countermelody in the Bernstein above. Rhythmically it is mostly separate from the main theme. It includes longer notes in the chord that are “hit” in a way that is unique and different than the main theme. And, given the intuitive feel, it simply works with the main theme as well as the woodwind doodles. It enhances the main theme while maintaining its own independence, supporting the familiar harmonies.

Makin’ Whoopee

For a final example, I’d like to open up a can of worms. Moving far afield from almost anything to do with an orchestra, I’d like to present a countermelody in an arrangement of the song from the 1920s entitled Makin’ Whoopee. It’s been recorded by an array of singers and bands over the years, but for today, I’d like to showcase a basic arrangement from a television show called Bunheads.

Example 7. Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, Makin’ Whoopee
Bunheads, ABC Family

In the last verse of the song, danced by some young and talented actors, there is a simple countermelody that is more supportive of the melody itself than a true countermelody, but it is perfect in its usage. In the example I’ve shown the lead sheet and the countermelody. From the recording it’s possible that it was played by a synthesizer, but they sound like real strings. The simplicity of the countermelody is just right for the very simple melody and its almost honky-tonky bluesy beat. Don’t you agree?

Next week

In my next post I’d like to examine some other ideas from pop music. After that I plan to return to Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Please let me know if you have questions or suggestions.

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