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Nigerian Art Music

Bode Omojola

5. Orchestral Works

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1There are only a few European-type orchestras in Nigeria. The most outstanding of them are the Apostolic Faith Orchestras in Ibadan and Lagos. Because symphony orchestras are not the norm in Nigeria, composers often prefer to write works for solo instruments, chamber orchestra and choirs, which can be more easily performed; and it is not surprising that those orchestral works written are normally commissioned. Like the piano works discussed in the last chapter, the objective of fusing traditional African elements with European idioms is important in the conception of orchestral works by Nigerian composers. Such experiments range from those in which African elements dominate, to those in which they are used peripherally within a largely European context.

2Composers who have used the European orchestra to portray elements of Nigerian music include Sowande (Folk Symphony), Euba (Olurombi), Akpabot (Scenes from Nigeria), Ekwueme (Nigerian Rhapsody) and Uzoigwe (Watermaid). In this chapter, we shall examine Sowande’s Folk Symphony to illustrate how African elements can be combined with a European orchestra.

Sowande’s Folk Symphony

3The Folk Symphony represents the culmination of Sowande’s compositional style. As his last major work, the symphony constitutes a stylistic summary of features which appeared in his previous works including the African Suite. Like his early works, Oyigiyigi and the African Suite, the Folk Symphony is largely European in character both in its nineteenth century harmonic language and in its employment of conventional European form: a sonata (allegro) in the first and last movements, a (vivace) scherzo in the second and an (andante) rondo in the third. Of striking prominence in the work is Sowande’s approach to harmonic and tonal organization. As a result of the proliferation of Yoruba and Yoruba-derived modal melodies, harmonic and tonal progressions are often modally inflected. The most important feature of such modal passages is the use of familiar chord structures within an unconventional harmonic context, recalling Slomnimsky’s concept of pandiatonicism. In Sowande’s symphony, the use of modal scales, pandiatonicism combined with colouristic dissonance and a generally dynamic and vital (Yoruba-derived) rhythmic language are particularly evocative of the nationalist inspired textures of Russian composers such as Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Sowande’s symphony also presents a variety of orchestral colour, within which wood-wind, brass and percussion as well as strings, are used with almost equal prominence. It consists of passages whose textures range from sparse to furious, dramatic. And grandiose.

  • 1 The Symphony is scored for an orchestra consisting of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinet (...)

4Central to the overall formal outline of the work is a transformation process which begins in the first movement and continues until the last; and within which a highlife tune is gradually presented. The last movement, in which this theme fully appears, is conceived as a reinterpretation of highlife music making extensive use of the melodic, harmonic and formal features derived from it. The Folk Symphony is the longest known orchestral work by a Nigerian composer. It is historically important because it was specially commissioned to mark Nigeria’s independence.1 In the analysis below it is instructive to see how traditional Nigerian-derived elements are used within a predominantly European structure to achieve one of the most successful syncretic experiments in the tradition of Nigerian Art Music.

Folk Symphony: First Movement

5The first movement is a sonata which retains the conventional scheme of thematic presentation as can be observed in table 1. The main thematic material of the exposition is given in Exs. 1 and 2.

Table 1. First Movement: Overview of Form

Table 1. First Movement: Overview of Form

6Important thematic material, which receives extensive treatment in the course of the movement, is presented in the introductory opening bars 1-19

7The first modal melody in the movement (Ex. ld) appears in bars 19ff (viola). Though still part of the first segment of the exposition, it contrasts sharply with the preceding thematic ideas, showing greater affinity with the second segment of the exposition in its modal quality. The second segment of the exposition begins in bar 50 and is approached through a change in time signature and a considerable tonally unstable transition (bars 42-50). The first theme in this segment (Ex. 2a) is a Yoruba derived melody and it is presented within a dance-like polyrhythmic context.

  • 2 The letter m here and elsewhere refers to key centres that are modal in character.

8Two other thematic ideas (Ex. 2b and c) appear in bars 86 ff and 103 ff taking the music from the Am 2 of the Yoruba melody to the key of G major.

9The development, though relatively short, makes use of virtually ail the material of the exposition, as will be illustrated later. As table 1 shows, the recapitulation basically re-expresses the exposition, with the only notable changes occurring in the brief interjection of an F sharp area (bars 250-260) and the appearance of a codetta in bar 274 ff.

10Throughout the movement there is a constant interaction between diatonic and modal harmonies. The first seminal representation of this interaction occurs in Ex. 1d, bars 28 ff which features both a D diatonic key in its last four bars and an E modal centre in the first four. This D-E conflict has been vertically foreshadowed in the opening bars of the movement (bars 1-19). Notable features here include the contrapuntal and overlapping presentation of thematic ideas and the use of pedals, including the D-E dissonance of bars 5-10. Above these pedals, different thematic ideas are presented by the flutes, clarinets and horns in a rhapsodic manner. Thus, there is no definitive cadence until bar 19, where a short transition (bars 17- 19) sets in.

11The first thematic idea of the second segment of the exposition (bars 51- 112) is neither in E minor nor G major as the key signature here might suggest. This melody is the first major demonstration of the influence of Yoruba modality on the work. In the melody (Ex. 2a), the pitch A functions as the note of repose. The accompaniment pattern to this melody, throughout its appearance in this section, admits the structural importance of the note A while at the same time reflecting the modal and rhythmic character of the melody.

12Most of the notes in the accompaniment fall within a compound eleventh chord structure on A:

13In the use of this structure, prominence is given to A and its constituent triadic notes (C sharp and E). The generally linear, cross-rhythmic use of these notes, however, is evidence of an accompaniment which tends to emphasise rhythmic, more than harmonic support. It is against the background of the restrained harmonic-tonal focus of this section that the cadential ambiguity of the preceding transition of bars 46-50 can be viewed. In the second statement of the melody, now in the strings and flute, bar 70 ff, there is an increased rhythmic activity, the highlights of which are the popular West African rhythm played by the harp and the triangle and the off beat phrasing of both the trumpets and the trombones.

14It is in the development section (bars 113-153) that the chromatic language of works like Oyigiyigi and Kyrie is most prominently recalled. Its opening bars progress from a brief B b tonal area (113-114), through another brief C minor key (115-120) to a modal section (121-130) where new pentatonic material (Ex. 3) is featured at different intervals, a perfect fourth apart. Thus, while it appears in a pentatonic scale on B b in the woodwind section, the strings present it on an E b pentatonic scale. This procedure directly evokes the homophonic-parallelism typical of Yoruba traditional vocal music.

15After this modal passage, an A flat chord emerges in bar 131 heralding a motif of Ex. 2b (cor anglais and harp). But any trace of A flat is quickly dispelled and the development returns to its initial fragmentary texture. Between bars 131 and 139 the harmonic progression is so fluid and chromatic that there is a temporary sense of immobility within a generally scanty texture where phrases overlap, recalling the opening bars of the movement. In bar 140, a sense of direction is initiated with the arrival of the F pedal and a consistent semiquaver unit. It is, however, not until bar 150 that the preparation towards the recapitulation begins. Here, an embellished diminished seventh of D, 07/I (Ex. 4) appears. All that happens between bar 150 and the recapitulation is a mere decoration of this chord. In bar 153 (third beat) this chord is transformed to its more stable parent, a V7 b which leads to the D major of the recapitulation (bar 154 ff).

16As we have already noted, the recapitulation does not differ in any significant way from the exposition. There is, however, a brief digression to an F sharp passage in bars 256-260 where Ex. 2b appears in the strings section. This digression is an extension of the brief polytonal punctuation of bars 99-103 of the exposition, where phrases x and y from Ex. 2b and Ex. 5 are juxtaposed. We shall see that the two ideas, which continuously recur in the remaining movements are part of the unifying elements in the Symphony. One of them, Ex. 5, constitutes the first reference to the main theme (Ex. 15) of the fourth movement.

Folk Symphony: Second Movement

17The opening section of the second movement (bars 1-30), (see table 2) recalls the character of the opening bars of the first in its contrapuntal presentation of different thematic ideas (Ex. 6 a-c) and in the use of the pedal. In addition, these opening bars (the first thematic area) have a subsidiary, anticipatory quality to the second thematic area of bars 31-58. There are five major reasons for this:

  1. The opening bars lack a single dominant thematic idea because of the contrapuntal presentation of a series of thematic ideas which are of almost equal melodic status.
  2. As a result of the generally chromatic character of the first segment, the second, in its more stable character, provides a resolution to it.
  3. Each of the major paragraphs of the opening bars (bars 1-17, 17-27 and 27-31) tends 3to emphasise a move towards C (bars 17, 27 and 31) which is the first note of the second theme (bars 31-58).
  4. An articulated transition is lacking and therefore there is a sudden change of texture which comes with the appearance of the second main theme.
  5. The second melody (Ex. 7) is more substantial in nature in its length, balanced symmetry and modal character than the thematic elements of the first.

Table 2. Second Movement: Overview of Form

Table 2. Second Movement: Overview of Form

18The most important formal feature of the second movement is that it continues a thematic process which has been initiated in the first movement.

19A striking motif, Ex. 8a, presented in the opening bars, is derived from Ex. 5 of the first movement. This motif is, in the second movement, part of a gradual unfolding of a theme (See Ex. 8). This theme, Ex. 8e, which finally appears in bar 122 ff, is derived from a Nigerian Highlife tune. Soon after the theme is introduced, however, it deviates from its initial diatonic character, limping up to the note G in bar 138 ff. This procedure features in all the appearances of this theme in the E flat section. It is important to note that it is only the diatonic part of Ex. 8e (bars 122-136) that constitutes a reference to the Highlife tune. It is not until the fourth movement that the tune appears. As can be observed in Table 2, a major function of the development is the presentation of the thematic process illustrated in Ex. 8 a-e.

20The movement also recalls the polyrhythmic texture and the modal harmonics of the first. For example, in the second section of the development (bars 91-120), a consistently polyrhythmic texture is featured. As Ex. 9 shows, important layers within this polyrhythmic texture include:

  1. the line played by the oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violins and violas which is conceived in 4 bar (2/2) phrases
  2. the line played by the trombone and the trumpets
  3. the variants of the Yoruba gong rhythm played by the timpani and cowbells
  4. the lines provided by the trombone (3), cellos and double basses.

21These lines emphasise the main beats of the background, — a pattern also suggested by the harmonic rhythm.

22Example 10 (strings) illustrates the modal character of the harmonic context within which (the Yoruba derived pentatonic melody Ex. 7) is presented in bars. 31-58. This harmonic context is defined essentially by the continuous use of a dorian mode (on D). The use of D and A as pedals tends to emphasise the importance of the two notes within the melody as the leading note and the note of repose respectively. The harmonic procedure employed in the treatment of this melody towards the end of the movement differs slightly. When the theme reappears in the coda of bar 262 ff, the accompaniment patterns now suggest a major scale. In bar 285 the melody moves up to C with a corresponding support in the accompaniment which now provides I-IV-ii-I, a pattern which continues till the last bar. It is significant to notice how Sowande has provided another solution to the problem of using modal melodies as closing themes. In the first movement of the African Suite he brings back the first theme, a more tonal melody, to close the work after an extensive coda. Here the modal character of Ex. 7 is changed slightly during a short coda; the harmonic context of Ex. 7 is transformed from an A modality to C major (diatonic).

Folk Symphony: Third Movement

23The rondo theme of the third movement (Ex. 11) is a further development of the motif t (Exs 5 and 6) of the first and second movements, while the two episodes of the movement make use of two further Yoruba melodies. In the episodes, polyrhythms and modal harmonies are also recalled. The alternation of Yoruba polyrhythmic, modal passages and those that are tonal, by now a stylistic constant of the symphony, is a procedure particularly appropriate to a rondo. The employment of the rondo form in the third movement is also particularly suitable for further reiterations of motif t, thus underlining the thematic unity between the different movements of the work. Furthermore, the use of a rondo here also reflects the general tendency of the Symphony towards freer forms. The signs are already there in the second movement where the commitment to a strict, conventional format is not very strong. As will be seen, the fourth movement has a generally free formal outline.

24In the third movement, the theme presented in the first episode (Ex. 12, bars 34-51) is based on a Yoruba recitative-like poem. The poem normally uses three gradations analogous to the three main intonation levels of the Yoruba language. These three levels have been adjusted here to the three pitches of a tonic triad in F, a chord which is reiterated throughout the section.

25Generally therefore, the section is an extensive dominant anticipation of the return of the main theme in Ex. 11 bars 52-74. The second episode contrasts very sharply with the first in its sombre, modal harmonics — elements which respectively result from the traditional social context and the melodic structure of the thematic idea of the section — a Yoruba dirge, Ex. 13. The melancholy mood of this dirge is reflected in the slow moving homophonic chords and the ritualistic use of the gong — the most prominent percussion accompaniment provided. Rhythmically, this theme (played by the cor anglais) recalls the hemiola character of the second movement.

26Like the previous Yoruba sections of the work, the second episode does not feature a well clarified harmonic-tonal goal, a feature conditioned by the modal structure of the dirge. The tonal ambiguity of the episode is advanced in the short transition of bars 72-74. In a manner reminiscent of the previous transition (bars 29-33) this one also ends with what appears to be a dominant preparation. What follows, however, is not F minor, as suggested by the key signature, but a minor chord on B b. Unlike the previous Yoruba melodies, Ex. 13 does not feature a consistently reiterated note of repose.

27While F is emphasised in the first eight bars of the melody, in the other eight bars, prominence is not given to any single note, although A b appears more strongly in the final bars. The modal character of Ex. 13 suggests a pandiatonic treatment of chords — a procedure which, as can be observed in Ex. 14, bars 75-83, is well exploited by Sowande.

Folk Symphony: Fourth Movement

  • 3 See chapter two for a discussion on Nigerian Highlife.

28In terms of harmonic-tonal and thematic activities, the last movement represents a large-scale resolution of the previous three movements. Its prevailing harmonic clarity contrasts with the incessant chromatic colouring and modal procedures of the first three movements; while its main thematic material represents a realization of the thematic process which began in the first movement. The formal procedure of the movement (see table 3) which could be regarded as a sonata, is considerably unconventional and free both in its key sequences and in the rhapsodic presentation of themes, as will be illustrated later. In addition, as table 3 shows, the middle section does not constitute any substantial development. The musical idiom which the movement reinterprets is Highlife.3 In its evocation of this idiom, the movement consists of quotations of different melodic ideas and the use of rhythmic and formal procedures associated with them. For example, towards the end of the movement (bar 189 ff), there are sporadic interventions of Highlife melodies (Exs. 15, 16 and 17) in a manner reminiscent of the collective improvisations of Highlife.

29The opening bars of the movement are characterised by an unprecedented clarity: the texture is homophonic and dance-like, and the harmony is diatonic. This feature is a major deviation from the opening bars of the previous three movements. While it highlights the apotheosis of the thematic process which began in the first movement, this clarity is also typical of the Highlife music that the work reinterprets. The first and main thematic idea of the movement (Ex. 15) is a Highlife tune that was popular in Nigeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To understand the (hematic process that leads to Ex. 15, one should look at Ex. 8 (a-e) taken from the second movement and Ex. 11 from the third movement.

30The predominance of the Highlife idiom in this movement brings with it the use of simple diatonic chords. This is compensated for in the transitional sections, which are often characterised by contrapuntal textures and chromatic harmonies. For example, the homophonic character of the opening bars is abandoned in the transition (28-49), where there is increased activity on various levels: a quickening of tempo, greater density of texture (bars 28- 35), an augmentation of the sequential motifs of bars 14ff, clarinets, of the first movement, and shifting tonal areas (as can be observed in table 3). The passage bursts climactically on a bII 6/4 (E minor) in bars 45-46. After this, the tempo slows down, the texture thins out and with the help of a short paragraph in which motif f (Ex 5) is featured (in violins I), the bII 6/4 chord functions as a dominant preparation for the B b of the next section (bar 50ff, see table 3). Although the transition of bars 131-140 is shorter, it features a comparable degree of activity.

31It is in section B of the exposition (bars 50-81) that the first major influences of Highlife are found. The first seven bars of this section constitute an introduction to the remaining bars. Prominent features of this introduction are:

  1. the tonic-dominant chord cycles of the double basses and the harp
  2. the syncopated, typical Highlife rhythm of the woodblock
  3. the melodic use of the augmented second and the minor seventh intervals which are very prominent in Highlife music
  4. the harmonic prevalence of parallel 3rds

32All of these features draw attention to the Highlife idiom of the movement. After this introduction, another syncopated popular Highlife tune, Ex. 17, appears in bar 58 (trombone) with the added rhythmic support of the maraccas, and punctuated by a melodic fragment in bars 62-64 (bassoon). The significant thing about this melodic punctuation is the use of the minor seventh. Sowande realised the importance of this interval to Highlife, hence its extensive use in the section. For example, in bar 70, the interval receives more prominence when the clarinets and the cellos join the bassoon, while the melody is prolonged. Following the end of Ex. 17 in bar 75 (first and second trombones), the clarinets, bassoon and celesta in bar 75ff continue with a series of minor sevenths. The status of this ubiquitous interval changes from a mere embellishment to a tonal area in bar 86 where Ex. 15 is stated in the key of A b which in turn leads to G, the modal key of the next section (4 ff).

33The significant way in which the fourth movement recapitulates the previous three is through the use of a modal organisation in the central section (bars 93-130). Like the modal section of the previous movements, the harmonic procedures here do not corroborate G major or E minor despite the key signature, since none of the melodic material of the section ends on any of the notes of a G major triad. One particular chord features consistently throughout the section — a compound structure on D: an A7 suspended over D: a chord whose allegiance to the often pentatonic character (C D E G A) of the melodic material of the section is clear.

Table 3. Folk Symphony: Fourth Movement: Overview of form

Table 3. Folk Symphony: Fourth Movement: Overview of form

34Basically, the recapitulation recreates the exposition (see table 3). The improvisatory character of the second thematic area (bars 189-255) is however, more intense, compared with the corresponding part of the exposition, as more Highlife tunes are presented in a sporadic manner. These tunes can be observed in Exs 16 and 17. As in the exposition, the tunes continue to emerge over a consistent rhythmic pulse and a tonic-dominant harmonic ostinato, but within a generally more turgid and polyrhythmic orchestral texture.

35Two events signify the end of the Highlife section while anticipating the coda. The first is the elimination of the ubiquitous minor seventh; and the second, the resurgence of an auxiliary motif which anticipates the brief link passage of bars 254-255, itself, like the coda (bars 256-282), brought over from the first movement. These two events happen simultaneously. While the auxiliary motif resurfaces in bar 233 ff (trombone, tuba and cellos) the minor seventh is eliminated a bar later, 234 ff, in the semiquaver passage of the violins and violas. The abandonment of this note consequently results in a stronger D tonality. In bar 250, the auxiliary motif develops into a triplet figure slowing down to quavers in bars 254-255 and heralding the coda. The coda, which is based on Ex. 2 b and c — two of the themes in the second thematic segment of the first movement — firmly remains in the home key of D major until the end of the work.


1 The Symphony is scored for an orchestra consisting of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4.horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

2 The letter m here and elsewhere refers to key centres that are modal in character.

3 See chapter two for a discussion on Nigerian Highlife.

Table des illustrations

Titre Ex. 1a
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Titre Ex. 1b
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Titre Table 1. First Movement: Overview of Form
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Titre Ex. 1c
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Titre Ex. 1d
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Titre Ex. 2a
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Titre Ex. 2b
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Titre Ex. 2c
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Titre Ex. 3
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Titre Ex. 4
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Titre Ex. 5
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Titre Ex. 6a
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Titre Ex. 6b
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Titre Ex. 6c
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Titre Table 2. Second Movement: Overview of Form
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Titre Ex. 7
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Titre Ex. 8a
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Titre Ex. 8b
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Titre Ex. 8c
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Titre Ex. 8d
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Titre Ex. 8e
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Titre Ex. 9
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Titre Ex. 10
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Titre Ex. 11
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Titre Ex. 12
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Titre Ex. 13
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Titre Ex. 14
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Titre Ex. 15
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Titre Ex. 16
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Titre Ex. 17a
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Titre Ex. 17b
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Titre Ex. 17c
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Titre Table 3. Folk Symphony: Fourth Movement: Overview of form
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© IFRA-Nigeria, 1995

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