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"Once Upon a Time"

Commissioned by Clavier Article

By Denes Agay

In 1752, English organist and writer John Avison gave his opinions on how to select music. His advice is sound and teachers will find his comments to be pertinent today as well. He wrote, “There are but three circumstances on which the worth of any musical composition can depend: melody, harmony, and expression. When these are united in their full excellence, the composition is then perfect. If any of these are wanting or imperfect, the composition is proportionally defective.”

Avison was well ahead of his time. He sets the conditions of excellence for a type of piano composition that began to proliferate several decades later and has been popular ever since. These are pieces with soprano-line melodies in the right hand supported by moving chord-sequences in the left hand; the ubiquitous song without words, in all its varieties. Timothy Brown’s “Once Upon a Time,” our newest Commissioned by Clavier piece, belongs in this category.

Avison identified the qualifications of compositional excellence and defined the task of the performer: “To do a composition justice by playing it in a taste and style exactly corresponding with the intention of the composer.” Certain inherent shortcomings of our notation system sometimes make a composer’s intent unclear, though. The melody is usually discernible because the notation of pitch is exact, but the indication of rhythm can be ambiguous at times. The harmony is also represented accurately through the notes. It is in the vitally important area of expression that notation generally falls short of being precise. Indications of articulation, dynamics, touch, and tempo fluctuations are, at best, only approximations of the originally intended sound. Composers often avoided this problem by indicating espressivo in their manuscripts, thus transferring the responsibility to the performer, who is then expected to breathe life into a piece. That is the task students face with this commissioned piece, which is technically within the abilities of early- intermediate-grade students.

The clearly defined melody has an attractive narrative flow that fits the title of this lyrical miniature. The four brief sections consist of 20, 16, 16, and 8 measures. The phrasing marks are explicit, indicating a somewhat asymmetric pattern in which four- and two- measure phrase lengths alternate to provide a steady, forward momentum. A pronounced cantabile touch in the right hand should be present throughout and can be achieved by applying a bit of extra weight on the melody notes.

(This was quite an honor to have been given the opportunity to have this article featured in "Clavier Magazine" very early in my career as a composer. Mr. Agay was generous and yet strict concerning my intermediate piano solo, "Once Upon a Time" that was chosen for the review)

Timothy Brown, Shigeru Kawai Artist

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