Posted in Project 6: Analyzing Solo Compositions

Analysis 1: Beneath the Abstract Surface of Osborne’s Rhapsody for Solo Bassoon

Project 6 is about analyzing two solo woodwind pieces from the suggested listening given in the course material. After listening, the task is to make our own analysis, including the structural design, melodic contour and the scales and tonality. For the first composition to analyze, I chose Willson Osborne’s Rhapsody, which is widely performed by bassoonists, but also clarinetists, since Osborne adapted it for the instrument.

Osborne himself commented about his piece, calling it “abstract music” stating that he used the “Oriental technique of variation, in which short song-like fragments are each in turn developed… to be rhapsodic and improvisational in character.” 

Indeed, the tempo and time signatures fluctuate through the whole piece, with interesting construction of the phrases, allowing the performer to express the unique mood of the piece. Yet, by looking at the structure of the piece, we see that the form is not completely free. Instead, beneath the surface is a piece that actually follows a more conventional, but mixed form of ternary ABA and sonata allegro, being a kind of in-between. (Fig. 1)

The piece starts with section A (bars 1-19). The beginning phrase a (bars 1-5) is in the Bb Phrygian mode. The phrase b (bars 6-9) has the added tones Fb and D natural, but retaining the Bb pitch center. Note that Steve Hanna points out the octatonic scale – half-step/step version as the second pitch collection beside the Phrygian mode. However, a lot of the added notes are a part of chromatic passages or ornaments, many of which don’t appear consistently. This is why I will write in more general terms, casting away the added tones and focusing on a more basic scale, which beside the Phrygian is the natural minor.

I called the following phrase a1 (bars 10-15) – because of the repeated melodic and rhythmic idea, although, the initial part is shifted by perfect fourth up – Eb. (Fig. 2) Eb natural minor and Bb Phrygian mode share the same pitches, so in fact we remain in the same pitch collection, but the Eb pitch center is confirmed by the cadence (bar 15). The color change of the “new” key and the variation of the initial a melody makes this resemble a bit of the subordinate theme in exposition of the sonata allegro.

After this is the transition into B section (bars 16-19). The reason why I called this transition is because of its fragmentary and episodic character, for example bar 16 and 17 being a sequence, and this part is generally quite modulatory with the shifting eb – g – f tonalities (Phrygian or natural minor), ending with an interesting chromatic descent on notes E – Eb – D, perhaps D being the leading tone to return to Eb.

Section B starts with phrase a (bars 19-24). It is in F Phrygian mode. Subsection b (bars 25-28) in this case is a fragment, rather than a phrase. The reason why I classify it as a fragment is identical to the reason why I called bars 16-19 a transition. Next is the phrase I called a1 again, because of the repeated melody of a, this time with the change of color, transposed down to C# (Db) Phrygian mode. If we look at this as the development section, the key change would be easily explainable.

After that, is a curious group of fragments, which in my opinion, resembles the most of the sonata allegro. First, bars 34-37 the closing group of the subordinate group in sonata allegro form. Usually, in the sonata allegro, before the subordinate group leads into its final cadence, there is a cadenza-like extension which serves like a culmination point of the whole exposition. For example, in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, the closing group starts after the second subordinate theme on bar . Usually, the closing group also has a long trill before the final cadence, which bar 34 even reminds of. After the final cadence, the exposition of sonata allegro ends with a codetta, which here we find from bar 38-40. Finally, from bar 41-42 resembles the retransition, which in sonata allegro occurs after the development section on the dominant pedal as to lead to recapitulation. Here, it leads back to the repetition of A, with slight variations. It is interesting to note that a1 ends with a different key – G.

After the repetition – A1 (bars 43-55), we have another transition from bar 56-57. This time it is the preparation for cadenza with the forte articulation (bars 58-62). Cadenza leads into the coda, with the motives we find from the previous sections. (bars 63-72)

So, again, in my opinion, Osborne’s piece is an interesting mix of the ternary ABA and sonata allegro form. Although some of the things don’t perfectly fit only one of the two, like the repetition of a (or variation) in a transposed key, the in-between classification would provide enough justification. Thus, while the free flow characterizes the exterior of the piece, the inner structure itself is a mix of quite standard forms, only hidden by the improvisation-like, rhapsodic surface. In fact, I remember studying some classical pieces which were in-between the ABA and sonata allegro form, which I will analyze again in the future, in a separate blog post as to illustrate this intermediate category.


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