I'm very excited to finally share this... thanks to the holidays, I've finally been able to get to a symphonic poem I started working on many months ago. No rock, no contaminations: this is 100% classical music, and more precisely an attempt to write a late-romantic symphonic poem, a kind of work that was quite popular in the second half of the 19th century. I'm particularly excited because this is one of the two pieces that I REALLY wanted to finally write down (the other being the symphony I promised I'd finish by the end of the year, and that I'm only at about 35% now!), when I first registered here more than a year ago
You can listen to the work here:
I uploaded the whole score (that can be played and followed using the MuseScore soundfont) as well:
This is probably the thing I've shared I'm the proudest of, so far. I've had many of the themes in my head for more than 15 years: at the time I remember writing some of them down in Sibelius (when I was still using Windows, so ages ago), but those files were lost forever unfortunately. At the beginning of the year, having worked on multiple tracks with orchestral elements already, I decided it was time to try and really start working on it, and many new ideas started flowing! I don't think it's perfect: there are a couple of parts that still feel a bit "disjoined" to me, for instance, and that I could have tied better. But I really like how it came out nevertheless, and considering the complexity of the score, I have to say I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off!
As anticipated, the aim was to write a late-romantic symphonic poem: no modern classical influence, as I usually am not a fan at all of classical music from the 20th century, but only late-romantic music, which I've been in love with for decades. It is quite blatantly derivative of Tchaikovsky's work, and that's to be expected since he's my favourite composer of all times. If you're familiar with his works, for instance, it will be hard to miss how similar the beginning is to "The Tempest" starting notes, or how I used the same "tragic transmutation" of the main theme at the end as the Maestro did in "Hamlet", but you'll find his influence all over (like in the woodwind section that precedes the waltzes, or the waltzes themselves). Some very strong influences came from Rimsky-Korsakov as well, who is probably a close second in my "favourite composers" list, especially considering his astonishing orchestration and arrangement skills: the "Antar" Symphony was a strong influence on the first part, but the brief harp interlude may remind you of a more popular work of his, "Scheherazade". Hopefully I didn't unconsciously plagiarize either, and I managed to remain on "derivative"
Those amazing composers usually wrote poems on existing works (e.g., Shakespeare was a frequent inspiration for Tchaikovsky). In my case, the theme of the symphonic poem is an "original" image I've had in my mind for a long time: a deep, dark and sleeping lake is awaken by a gentle breeze, which initially brings life, but then becomes a strong wind and agitates the lake causing a storm; until the wind leaves and the lake, alone once more, goes to sleep again. If you listen to the work, it should hopefully be clear which part is being described (if not, I did something wrong!). This also gave me the opportunity to play a lot with themes, even more than I usually do. You'll find some themes that come back more than once, often "transformed" one way or another: the parallel minor chords that introduce the opera, for instance, take different forms, until they become the frame for the sad ending, where the same notes are played but with a different harmonic background; one of the happy waltzes becomes dark and scary to describe the moment you realize a storm is coming; and the theme of the lake too, which initially is just unsettling, becomes loud once the storm arrives. I tried to use the orchestra to mimic the "sounds" of nature as well, especially during the "storm": I didn't get exactly what I was looking for, as for instance I wanted to use the panning of the instruments to my advantage, e.g., to simulate the wind (in particular when woodwinds play left-to-right), but that didn't really work out as I expected... that said, I think there are still a couple of nice moments there.
Technically, it's been quite a challenge, and I'm not just talking about the pure composition and orchestration aspect. This is going to be long, so feel free to skip if you don't really care! In a nutshell, the process was basically quite "traditional" and apparently straightforward:
- the whole work was composed and written down using MuseScore;
- at the end, the MIDI parts were imported in Ardour, and rendered with Virtual Playing Orchestra's better sounds.
I had already decided to use the excellent VPO template for Ardour by @Michael Willis as a basis: I had already played with it a bit back when I worked on my Daydreaming Waltz, and loved how lightweight it was despite the amount of instruments: besides, it already pans all the instruments depending on where they sit in the orchestra, and the template comes with three different Dragonfly Reverb instances depending on how far instruments are, which is amazing! That said, Michael uses the PERF versions of the SFZ files there, which wouldn't work for me and, since I needed more dynamic SFZ files (e.g., to be able to go from modwheel to staccato on the same track), neither did the existing VPO SFZ files (while there are keyswitch versions, they use notes out of the instrument range, so would require messy score changes). For this reason, a few months ago I started working on some alternative SFZ files, that would use a specific MIDI CC controller to trigger sample changes instead: it took a few revisions, and some ugly workarounds, but I eventually made it and you can find it here if you're interested.
Now that I had dynamic SFZ files, I created a copy of the MuseScore project and started editing that. Specifically, I added support for my custom CC events, and added them wherever needed: e.g., if I needed a staccato, I'd remove the "traditional" way of rendering it in MuseScore, and would add my own CC instead, so that the SFZ player would know it would have to switch to the staccato samples of the instrument. This took quite a bit of work, since all the events must be put on the note/rest before (my repo explains why), and besides there could be A LOT of articulation changes in a segment... for a work that is more than 10 minutes long and has two dozens instruments it took a while Eventually, though, I got something that seemed to work (MuseScore supports SFZ files through Zerberus), even though of course still not the end result since volumes were completely unbalanced due to the differences between the MuseScore soundfont I had worked with so far and Zerberus' rendering of the VPO files (which seems to be buggy too, with samples that stop playing way too soon for instance). Anyway, I created MIDI files out of this modified version of the score, so that I could use them in Ardour.
Again, I used Michael's template as a basis, but I made a few changes:
- First of all, I duplicated most of the tracks: in fact, Michael's template has a single track for each instrument, while I needed, e.g., 2 for flutes, oboes, and so on.
- At the same time, I also got rid of the duplicate strings tracks: Michael's template has separate tracks for bowed/pizzicato/tremolo strings, which makes sense in most cases but didn't for me. In fact, with MuseScore I'd always write a single track per section anyway, and as anticipated I had created my own SFZ files to change samples depending on the articulation, so a single track would suffice.
- Finally, I replaced all the PERF SFZ files the template defaulted to with my own CC-switched SFZ files, which is was what required the most work. Not the SFZ replacement per-se (this is made very easy by sfizz), but the volumes adjustements. In fact, as Michael already told me in a different thread, all the volumes for each instrument had been carefully tuned for those specific SFZ files, and changing those meant the instruments were now completely unbalanced. So I basically had to slowly try and balance them again according to my own SFZ files, and make sure they'd remain balanced when switching articulation too. Not sure if I did it right, but I think it sounds nice enough now, and in theory I should be able to use this project to create my own template for upcoming classical/orchestral works.
That's all! As usual, I ended up writing way too much, but I'm really looking forward to hear what you think of it: I'm especially curious about whether you'll like the themes or not...