Johann Sebastian Bach
English Suite No. 2 in A minor: Prelude | Well-Tempered Clavier 1: Fugue in C minor | Concerto in D minor (after Marcello): Adagio | Partita No. 2 in C minor: Capriccio
In Bach’s time, the instrument closest to the sound world of the guitar and mandolin was the lute. Bach wrote suites for the lute, transcribed his own works for the lute, and much of the music he wrote for the harpsichord (another plucked-string instrument), imitated the arpeggiated texture of French lute music. So, transcribing Bach’s keyboard music for these two chordophone cousins of the lute works particularly well, especially since their difference in timbre offers the opportunity to imitate the contrasts of tone colour available on a two-manual harpsichord.
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The Prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor BWV 807 is an exhilarating two-voice moto perpetuo movement with the motoric rhythms of a Baroque concerto grosso. Its main textural feature is the rhythmic contrast between a ‘chatter-box’ stream of 16th notes and a plodding accompaniment in lumbering 8ths. Harmonies change like clockwork at the beginning of every bar, sometimes as part of harmonic sequences using the circle of fifths, at other times creating harmonic tension through the use of a pedal tone in the bass.
Rhythmic pulse plays a major role, as well, in the appeal of the Fugue No. 2 in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. This pulse is driven by a playful, mordent-like ‘tick-tock’ figure sounded three times in its opening subject. And as in the Prelude, this rhythmic ‘hook’ in the fugue subject, with its many leaps, is dogged by a countersubject of scalar running figures in lumbering 8ths. But in this fugue the harmonic rhythm is much faster, sometimes changing with every 8th note.
Soothing relief from all this rhythmic counter-play comes in Bach’s keyboard transcription of the Adagio from the Oboe Concerto in D minor attributed to the Venetian composer Alessandro Marcello (1669-1750), in turn now transcribed for guitar and mandolin. This work remains at the centre of the Baroque repertoire for the oboe, a virtual operatic aria for the instrument, with its unusual texture of a piercing and reedy but lyrical soprano voice set in high relief against a sympathetic string accompaniment. This work may well have inspired Ennio Morricone to create the same texture in his film score for the film The Mission.
The gentle pulse of its opening bars immediately engages the ear, as the dissonant close interval of a major 2nd resolves rewardingly into a dominant seventh, and then finally on to the tonic harmony from which the melody of the solo instrument takes upward flight. Lingering dissonances such as these, and the tension created by their delayed resolution, contribute in no small measure to the pathos emanating from the solo melodic line in this movement.
The Capriccio in Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor supplants the partita’s traditional gigue finale but nevertheless displays many gigue-like features. Prominent amongst these is its fondness for wide leaps in the melodic line – leaps of a 10th, in fact – that by dint of constant repetition in various registers come across as buoyantly whimsical and good-natured. Also very gigue-like is its structural layout in binary form, with the second half beginning with a melodic inversion of the first half’s leaping motive. Most ingenious of all in this movement, though, is the fact that it’s actually a fugue!
Opening No. 1 from Glassworks | The Poet Acts from The Hours | Etude No. 9
Philip Glass is a giant amongst American composers. He is widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of the minimalist movement in Western music, along with composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, although he prefers to think of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.”
The general idea of these composers is to limit themselves to the most elementary musical elements and by dint of repetition to create a kind of aural tapestry that undergoes kaleidoscopic changes of tone colour while pulsing, vibrating or shimmering in tonal space.
This is music that is simple, tuneful and direct, meant to be immediately appealing without irony or even emotional complexity. While the harmonies are diatonic, i.e., based on the notes of the major or minor scale, there is little feeling of harmonic tension and release, few leading tones to guide the ear in pre-ordained patterns of expectation, so every change in harmony becomes equally surprising, equally emotionally resonant.
Opening No. 1, originally scored for solo piano, is the first movement of Glassworks (1982), a six-movement suite for piano and chamber wind orchestra. It is conceived as a series of four-voice harmonies, one chord to a bar, in repeated four-bar and eight-bar phrases, the three upper voices of the harmony constantly rocking in intervals of 3rds, 4ths and 5ths, in a 2-against-3 rhythm.
The Poet Acts is an emotionally resonant excerpt from Philip Glass’ score to the film The Hours (2002), which deals with the suicide by drowning of the British writer Virginia Woolf. This film score won a BAFTA for Best Film Music and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, a Grammy, and an Academy Award. Here, too, there are constantly wavering harmony lines in the textural in-fill, but shining through them from time to time is also a mysterious melody fragment repeated in the tonal range of the cello.
Etude No. 9, from the collection of 20 piano etudes that Glass wrote between 1991 and 2012, is similar in texture to other works on the program in that its texture features ostinato patterns in pulsing 8th notes. But often superimposed over them are parallel streams of simple triadic harmonies in the treble. And as in many of Glass’ works, triple metre ripples in constant contrast to duple metre in the texture.
Asturias for solo guitar
The best-known piece of Spanish guitar music, Albéniz’s Asturias, began as a work written for the piano. First published as a Prelude to Albéniz’s three-movement Chants d’Espagne in 1892, it was posthumously re-published as part of the composer’s Suite española just before the First World War with the title Asturias and the subtitle Leyenda (legend), under which names it is known today.
The publisher was quite mistaken, because this work has nothing to do with the northern coastal region of Asturias and everything to do with the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. Andalusia is the cultural homeland of the flamenco tradition, an art that developed under gypsy influence to embrace a passionate amalgam of guitar-playing, singing, wailing, dancing, stomping, clapping and finger snapping, the sonic echoes of which Albéniz transferred with consummate skill to the keyboard.
Many transcriptions of this piano work exist for the guitar, but the most popular is undoubtedly that of Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), who transposed it from its original G minor to the more guitar-friendly key of E minor, allowing the fingers of the right hand to play on an open string the work’s most ear-catching riff: a chiming pedal note in the treble that constantly sounds while the guitarist’s thumb picks out melody notes down below.
This opening section is structured as a long crescendo, eventually punctuated by brusque exclamatory full chords played rasgueado (strummed with the fingernails), in imitation of the sharp heel-stomp of a flamenco dancer.
The piece is in three parts. Its more soulful and pensive middle section features a free-floating melody with minimal accompaniment that eventually returns to the ‘busy-bee’ hum of the work’s opening section.
Manuel de Falla
Siete Canciones Populares Españolas
De Falla’s most popular vocal work was composed in 1913 from authentic regional folk songs to which the composer added a piano part bristling with added-note chords, strumming rhythms and other effects richly suggestive of the sonorities of the Spanish guitar. Its transcription for that instrument is thus a natural outgrowth of the composer’s original source of inspiration.
The work represents a musical travelogue through the regions of Spain, each song offering a glimpse into the daily life and eternal concerns of the common people, beginning in Murcia from which the first two songs derive.
The first, El Paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth), despite its dance-like rhythms – or perhaps because of them – delivers a mocking warning to young girls to avoid the “stain” of an illicit love affair. The Seguidilla murciana that follows is an intense argument of insistent taunts and bitter banter, conveyed in a shoulder-poking rapid-fire patter of repeated notes in the melody line.
The mood changes to one of bewildered sadness in the Asturiana from Northern Spain, the hypnotic figures in the accompaniment evoking the numbness of unfathomable grief. By contrast, nothing could be livelier than the Aragonese Jota that follows, a whirling piece in triple time danced to the rhythmic clicking of castanets.
The Andalusian Nana is a lullaby, said to be the one that De Falla’s mother sang to him when he was an infant. A rocking rhythm is created by a syncopated accompaniment over a soothing, sleepy pedal point in the bass.
The whimsy of love-sickness fills the Canción, a rollicking tune known all over Spain. The set ends in the deeply flamenco-inflected Andalusian gypsy music of Polo, with its rich build-up of guitar sonorities supporting the dark fury of its melismatic solo line.
Sonata for Guitar and Mandolin
Mathias Duplessy is a wildly eclectic French composer and multi-instrumentalist with an interest in classical music – Ravel, Stravinsky & Prokofiev in particular – and in world musical cultures, especially the music and guitar-like instruments of India, China and Mongolia. He is astoundingly prolific, having written scores for several dozen feature films and documentaries, and made more than two dozen recordings. As a performer he is described by one critic for Radio-France International in following terms:
A guitarist of the highest virtuosity, Mathias Duplessy is one of those rare performers capable of shining in every genre: classical, jazz, oriental music, flamenco … As a composer he has assimilated all of these styles in order to compose and perform music that is uniquely his own, alive and personal, brilliant and coming from deep within, sensitive and yet contemporary.
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The composer has provided these notes on his new Sonata for Guitar and Mandolin.
“These are three differently coloured tableaux, imprinted with different influences: film music from the 1970s, a bit of Ravel or Prokofiev, some jazz and some Baroque influences. It’s music with passion and vital energy. Just like Miloš and Avi, who are formed by different cultures, and love so many different styles.
The first movement is something of a homage to Ennio Morricone. It’s a movement based on arpeggios in the guitar idiom, fast and dramatic, over which the mandolin lays down a tuneful melody with a certain nostalgic quality.
The second movement features a romantic-style melody that unfolds in tremolo in the guitar, to which the mandolin adds its own tremolo. I was really intrigued by the sound of these two instruments both playing in tremolo.
The third movement is a funny kind of mix. I wanted it to be a fun movement in which Miloš and Avi toss out challenges to each other, with virtuoso fireworks, with an energy at times jazzy, at times gypsy, and harmonies that travel between the Baroque and Prokofiev.”
Donald G. Gíslason 2021