Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

46: Sonata Form in Salsa!

When the BBC announced its first Ten Pieces initiative in 2014, Cambridgeshire Music Service asked Grand Union to work with some of their ensembles to contribute to the project. Since we had been working together for some years developing young musicians’ skills in improvisation and knowledge of musical cultures beyond Europe, I suggested we use the opportunity to improve these skills further with music in some way complementing the classical repertoire rather than just reproducing it; so we came up with an Alternative Ten Pieces. These included pieces where, for example, the relentless warlike 5/4 rhythms of Holst’s Mars were transformed into the hypnotic 12/8 dancing drum rhythms of West Africa, or the Asian scales of Night on Bare Mountain became the basis for exploring genuine Indian ragas.

I was stuck for a parallel to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, however; but then it occurred to me that I could turn its musical ideas into a piece which would actually explain how it worked – its structure and form! So Salsa Sinfonica was born, performed here live, and for the first time, at Cambridge Corn Exchange by the County’s intermediate orchestra with the support of 8 Grand Union musicians.

The entire score is contained on a single page (Ex 1). All the players worked from the same sheet (with appropriate transpositions and clefs, of course), and the piece was improvised from this information, with cues for sections and backing figures, and signals to guide dynamics and indicate instrumental groups. Since understanding sonata form is the key to truly appreciating classical music, my main purpose was to make it as clear as possible how it works – the basic structure of probably millions of pieces of music, but seldom properly explained. This movement is the most concentrated and elemental example in the whole repertoire, relying on just four notes (its opening theme), complemented by an 8-note subsidiary theme, to articulate a complex structure – intellectually rigorous but emotionally unconstrained! (And nothing could better sum up the spirit and appeal of the Enlightenment…)

To underline the contrast between these two themes (the first and second subjects), I allied them to two different Latin-American rhythms – one rhythmically propulsive, the other lyrical and laid-back. At the same time, this enabled me to introduce a ‘world music’ element, which was part of our self-imposed brief. A further benefit – besides the challenge of improvisation in itself – was that working this way gave every individual player an insight into the music. They were able to see, feel and interpret the rhythmic figures, harmonic sequences and characteristic modulations even as they played – in short, they could actually experience sonata form from the inside!

Here to begin with is what they worked from – in effect, a sketch of the entire movement:


The only significant addition to Beethoven’s original material is the piano figure at the beginning – very characteristic of Afro-Cuban music, and known as a montuno. This forms an introduction, outlining the 4-bar chord sequence implied by Beethoven’s first subject, articulated also by a typical salsa version of his rhythmic figures


The Exposition proper begins with the famous first subject, in the ruling tonic key of C minor, laid over this sequence, with answering phrases (in the same rhythm, with falling thirds) derived from it added in imitation:


The music develops, exploring this material, until interrupted by a transition section which leads to a modulation to the relative major key (E flat):


The song-like second subject, in the relative major, is introduced by its own montuno, more lyrical than the first, a new 4-bar sequence with only two chords (9th chords a tone apart – the dominant and sub-dominant of the new key), and a bass-line also characteristic of Latin music. The second subject is played against this:


A closing section or codetta (a variation of Beethoven’s original, using the same harmonies) rounds off the Exposition:


The Development section provides an ideal opportunity for  improvised solos and backing riffs exploring the musical ideas ‘expounded’ so far. The first section is based on material associated with the first subject (Ex 2 and 3), with an alto saxophone solo (Chris Biscoe). This gives way to the montuno and chord sequence associated with the second subject featuring a trumpet solo (Shanti Paul Jayasinha), but in the key in which it will appear in the Recapitulation (Ex 7). Its two chords – G9 (the dominant seventh of C minor) and F9 – finally settle on to G to provide a dominant pedal and preparation (also improvised) for the Recapitulation.

The first subject (Ex 3) duly returns, in the original tonic key; but this time then the transition section keeps the tonality firmly in the home key of C minor:


The second subject now reappears, with its montuno, but (following standard classical practice) in the tonic major key…


…followed by the closing section, identical to Ex 6, but now (again following classical convention) transposed into the tonic minor…


…and finally a coda hammering home the dominant note (G) and all-pervading rhythm:


Now listen again to Beethoven’s great masterpiece!



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