top of page
  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

49. Formal Similarities – Contextualizing My Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21

Georges Braque, Woman with Guitar (1913)

Since composing my quite tonal Suite for Solo Guitar, Op. 21 in January, I have been searching for a way to justify the seeming inconsistency between my previous atonal works and this new work. I believed I had found a consistent atonal approach in my recent music, but the Guitar Suite was a major change of direction, it seemed, and it was quickly followed in February by another quite tonal work, the Kyrie of my Organ Symphony, Op. 22 (the subject of an upcoming post). Neither work is exclusively or actually tonal in the traditional sense, albeit there is a definite tonal center or “home scale” throughout much of these two compositions. It is, I acknowledge, an imposed tonality—certainly in the Guitar Suite—identified by the recourses into atonality at pivotal moments in both Movements One and Two and the mostly non-tonal Movement Three. Meanwhile, the Kyrie embraces tonality (really modality) much more easily, although the chromatic note E-flat is often used for dissonant effects. The consideration that its dedicatee John De Chiaro would, of course, want a tonal work explains the choice for tonality in the Guitar Suite, but not the larger question “How is the Guitar Suite still a legitimate and consistent product after all of those atonal works?”

In my search to answer this question, I would now say that the Guitar Suite, rather than being set apart by its tonal approach, is united with my recent atonal works through structural similarities. The overarching formal plans of my Guitar Suite and Jazz Cats, Op. 20, in fact, are very similar with the exception of the Scherzo from the Guitar Suite which does not have a parallel in Jazz Cats. Both first movements are expansive, possessing the most complex layouts in their respective pieces; much of the weight of these two compositions rests in their first movements. Both second movements are slow and bluesy, but they also fall in three parallel sections which eventually collapse by the third section. This layout is quite apparent in the Guitar Suite movement, but, with repeated listening, has become my impression of Jazz Cats’ second movement as well. The last movements of Jazz Cats and the Guitar Suite both apply abstract, Baroque forms—passacaglia and fugue, respectively. Despite the complex underlying compositional processes used to create these final movements, neither movement is too abstract to enjoy. And, both movements end positively.

This last similarity is worth elaborating on further. Most of my recent largescale works indeed gradually move from something negative or at least distant to something positive and much more approachable—a process of clarification similar to what is found in many compositions by Johannes Brahms, if not necessarily inspired by his approach. I believe this sort of progression first happened with my Trio in Phrygian, Op. 10. In this work, I attributed this change to becoming more comfortable with writing for the instruments themselves rather than a conscious effort, although intentionally the Third Movement of Op. 10 is also the first time a true melody is introduced into this composition. My Piano Trio, Op. 18 also sees this progression happen: its First Movement is rigorous and controlled; its second begins to loosen-up, especially in its second half; its Third Movement is much more comfortable and fluid and ends with the realization of familiar material which is in itself something positive. In Jazz Cats and the Guitar Suite, this progression from darkness to light is not as pronounced as in the two works I have just named, but their positive endings after a good bit of “minor-ness” does mean something.

My referential aesthetic has something to do with the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke, but whereas his use of allusions is typically deconstructive mine is constructive.

Going back further, my Guitar Suite also has a lot in common structurally with what I was writing before my atonal music. Most of my atonal music has been organized “referentially” in that some familiar element is meant to guide the general listener through a harsh, unfamiliar landscape. A few years prior, however, before I entered into my atonal works, my organization method could be called either “sequential” or “ciaccona-based” in that the motive or conversely the harmonies remain the same while the other aspect changes according to some pattern. The Etudes, Op. 12 for harpsichord; the Two Movements, Op. 14 for string quartet; and the Organ Prelude in D minor, Op. 15 No. 2 all belong to this “sequential” and “ciaccona-based” phase. A new tonal work, the Guitar Suite at times naturally falls back on the “sequential” organizational method: there is a certain amount of repetition of motives in Movement One and the pitches within the “repeated” motives do change in a controlled way. The same might be said about the opening and closing of Movement Three except that the motive becomes disfigured and falls out of sync. Ironically, part of the issue in the middle section of Movement Three—its joke—is that the motive and its pitches refuse to change. Movement Four goes back even further than the “sequential” works: the unreleased Contrapunctus III (a relative to the Opus 11 work) or another early fugal attempt makes a good forerunner, although Movement Four is much more sophisticated than these works.

In summary then, the Guitar Suite defies categorization with the atonal “referential” works in one sense, but formally has much in common with Jazz Cats and the others. The Guitar Suite also has connections with the tonal “sequential” works from a few years earlier. Ultimately, the Suite for Solo Guitar, which at first seemed to me like a “lesser effort” and then still remained difficult to contextualize, is proving to be a better and more consistent work than I at first suspected. Significantly I feel like I’ve finally gotten my proportions right, both within and between movements!

JSH 15.03.27

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar and composer. He is a graduate of the Louisiana Scholars’ CollegeLouisiana’s designated honors collegewhere he completed an undergraduate thesis entitled “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” He has followed classical music around the world, attending the BachFest Leipzig in Germany, Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival, and many concerts across Louisiana and Texas. Resident in Alexandria, Jackson works with the Arts Council of Central Louisiana as Series Director of the Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series. He also writes the program notes for the Rapides Symphony Orchestra. As his day job, Jackson serves as Operations Manager of TicketCentral.


Your insider guide to music!

bottom of page