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Lili Boulanger was born into a distinguished family of French musicians. Her grandfather, Frédéric Boulanger (b. 1777) had been a professor at the Paris Conservatoire and was married to Marie-Julie Haligner (1786-1850), a mezzo-soprano at the Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique who had sung in the premiere of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment in 1840. Lili’s father, Ernest Boulanger (1815-1900), was also a professor at the Conservatoire and a composer of numerous comic operas, having won the prestigious Prix de Rome award at the age of only 19.
But perhaps the most famous and influential member of the family was Lili’s sister, the musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), whose students included some of the leading composers, arrangers and performers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti and Astor Piazzola, to name but a few.
Lili, a musical prodigy like her father, won the Prix de Rome in 1913, the first woman ever to do so. But whatever musical gifts she might have received by family inheritance, they did not extend to her physical health. An early case of bronchial pneumonia when she was a child, and the Crohn’s disease which she later developed, left her severely immunocompromised and in frail health throughout her short life. She died at the age of 24 in 1918, the same year as Debussy.
Virtually all of her surviving compositions date from the period 1910-1918, her Deux Morceaux for violin or flute being composed in 1911 and 1914 respectively. In these pieces she displays an interest in the finely nuanced tone colours typical of French impressionism.
The nighttime stillness of Nocturne is conveyed in the lulling drone of its slow-moving harmonies, underpinned with long-enduring pedal tones in the bass that shift harmonic interest to the delicately nuanced tone colours of the upper voices. These pedal tones echo up and down through three octaves of the texture to swaddle the piece’s thoughtful, wandering melody in a warm harmonic glow throughout.
Just before the end, connoisseurs of all things Debussy will no doubt notice a sly quotation from The Afternoon of a Faun, prompting an exchange of raised eyebrows and knowing glances with their fellow Debussyists sitting nearby.
Cortège is more buoyant in mood, its title indicating not a funeral procession but rather a joyous parade. Its four-square phrases, jaunty syncopated rhythms and happy-go-lucky melody make it the ideal tune to hum while strutting arm-in-arm in chummy company down a boulevard in Paris, twirling one’s walking stick or umbrella while taking in the sights of the city.
Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major
The Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, composed between 1923 and 1927, was Ravel’s last chamber work, and its austere style of instrumental writing contrasts strongly with the lush textures of his previous works for chamber ensemble. Gone are the full keyboard sonorities and great sweeping washes of harmonic colour that characterize, for example, the Piano Trio of 1914. Instead, we hear a much thinner, more linear texture, with one or two single-line voices in the keyboard part accompanying the violin’s solo line. Ravel sets out to emphasize even further the difference in sound colour between piano and violin by his frequent use of bitonality, i.e., writing in two keys at once.
The sonata comprises three contrasting movements, composed in widely different styles but linked by a shared use of musical material. The first movement Allegretto is in a free sonata form. Its first theme is announced by the piano as a wandering melody in an exotically chromatic version of G major, soon joined by two important sub-motives: a cheeky bitonal ‘chirp’ in F# major (while the violin is in G major) and a colourful rainbow of parallel major triads in the whole-tone scale.
The second theme area chimes like a clock announcing the hour in groupings of even long notes within a small range, each chiming note sounding out a kind of ‘fractured’ octave, just a semitone short of a consonance. In this section the texture is starkly thin, bone-bare and spare, the piano accompanying the melodic musings of the violin with a virtual ‘no comment’ of open 5ths.
The development section ruminates over all this material, eventually whipping itself into a froth of excitement to climax in a flurry of violin tremolo until calm returns once again with the serene arrival of the opening theme. The recapitulation sees melodic activity slow to a crawl as the various musical motives that animated the movement disappear into a sonic vapour in the upper register of both instruments.
The second movement, entitled Blues, reflects Ravel’s keen interest in the new currents of jazz arriving in France from the United States in the 1920s. This movement is a French stylized version of American blues music, with its characteristic syncopations, ‘bent’ pitches imitated by glissando slides in the violin and ‘blue’ notes, i.e., flattened 3rds and 7ths, along with some honky-tonk style rhythmic moves from the piano. Playing ‘straight man’ to all this stylish chatter is a constant ostinato of quarter notes, begun by the violin in pizzicato as the movement opens, then taken over by the piano, playing in both G major and A-flat major at the same time.
The 3rd movement Perpetuum mobile is a breathless whirlwind of violin figuration in a steady stream of 16th-note busy-banter that puts the violin in the centre spotlight for its entire length. But like a car that needs a few key-turns in the ignition to get going, it starts up slowly before taking off like a buzzing bee. In the course of its travels this movement revisits many of the musical motives of previous movements, including the first movement’s little ‘chirping’ figure (which opens the movement), its rainbow of parallel whole-tone triads, its many open 5ths and its ‘fractured’ octaves – as well as a few passing references to the flattened 7ths of the Blues movement. Listeners familiar with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major will be pleased to hear hints of that work’s exuberant last movement in the finale of this violin sonata.
William Grant Still
Suite for Violin and Piano
Composer, conductor and arranger William Grant Still was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural movement centered in New York between the two World Wars that gave a voice to the African-American identity in the arts. The grandson of slaves, he studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory and privately with French composer Edgar Varèse. He later went on to receive three Guggenheim Fellowships, the last of these in 1939, when his music was performed daily at the New York World’s Fair – although he was not able to attend the Fair to hear it without police protection, except on “Negro Day”.
His creative output comprises nearly 200 works, including nine operas, five symphonies, and numerous art songs, as well as chamber music and solo instrumental works. Known as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” he was a patriarchal figure in Black American music in the early part of the 20th century. His Afro-American Symphony was the most widely performed symphony by any American composer up until 1950.
His Suite for Violin and Piano (1943) is in three movements, each inspired by a work of visual art from the Harlem Renaissance period. “When I was asked to compose a suite for violin and piano,” he wrote, “I thought of three contemporary Negro artists whom I admired and resolved to try to catch in music my feeling for an outstanding work by each of them.”
The first movement takes its inspiration from a sculpture entitled African Dancer, a writhing nude by sculptor Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) that conveys the strength and muscular vitality of the dancing African body under the influence of music.
The composer’s melodic gifts are on full display in the second movement, inspired by a number of paintings and sculptures each entitled Mother and Child created by Sargent Johnson (1887-1967) in the 1920s and 1930s. This lyrical and soulful lullaby, with its gentle syncopations and constant wavering between major and minor, encapsulates the complex emotions of maternal love.
The final movement in the suite is based on the bust of a small child entitled Gamin by sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962). Light-hearted and carefree, it evokes an age – long past – when small children were allowed to play in the streets to fashion as much mischief and mayhem as their little minds could devise.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major Op. 47 (Kreutzer)
Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata is a monument in the violin repertoire, remarkable for its unusual length and for the technical demands it places on both violinist and pianist. The willful juxtaposition of its three oddly disparate movements may perhaps have been motivated by the equally odd circumstances of its rushed composition.
In 1803, the violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860), a musical prodigy of mixed Polish & West Indian parentage, had arrived in Vienna and been introduced to Beethoven by his patron Prince Lichnowsky. A concert date was set for them to appear together, for which Beethoven hurriedly wrote two sonata movements to precede a finale movement in A major that he had originally intended for his Op. 30 No. 1 violin sonata. Relations between the two musicians were exceptionally cordial, by all accounts, to the point that Beethoven even allowed himself to tease his bi-racial violinist colleague with a jocular inscription atop his manuscript of the sonata that reads: “Mulatto sonata, composed for the mulatto Brischdauer [i.e., Bridgetower], a great madman and a mulatto composer.”
But relations later soured between the two, for reasons unknown, and Beethoven changed the dedication of the sonata, devoting it instead to the celebrated French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831), who apparently found the work unintelligible and was not known ever to have performed it in public.
When the sonata was published in 1805, its title page bore an inscription referencing its unusual characteristics that read: “written in a very concertante style, almost like a concerto.” The grand style in this ‘concerto-like’ work is evident in the sonata’s epic proportions and display-oriented virtuoso figurations, in the first two movements especially.
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The work opens with an Adagio sostenuto slow introduction, as if it were the first movement of a symphony. The opening bars, however, are played by the violin alone, in multiple stops, as if to proclaim and display the skill of the violinist right from the outset. The piano then re-states violin’s A-major musings but in A minor, establishing a dark suspenseful tone in what follows. But suspense is not the only thing happening here. Over and over the motive of a rising semitone gets repeated and repeated in small two-note phrases, in what will become a kind of motto for the succession of themes in this movement.
When the pace quickens to Presto with the introduction of the first theme, a series of strutting quarter notes in A minor, it begins with this rising semitone. The second theme, a slow chorale-like tune, begins with it as well, while the first phrase of the closing theme in E minor is virtually nothing but a series of rising-semitone two-note gestures. Gluing the exposition together is a succession of muscular passagework figurations rumbling and rambling over wide swathes of the keyboard that seem aimed at filling the ear with as much piano sound as possible. In writing this sonata for his violinist duo partner Beethoven makes sure the audience knows who it is who is making him sound so good.
These same textures are used intensely throughout the development section as it spirals through key after key until Beethoven prepares for the arrival of the recapitulation in a series of dramatic pauses, each followed by coy hints – and many rising semitone gestures – that the first theme is in the wings ready to emerge, which of course it eventually does. Not satisfied with his forthright review of previous material, however, Beethoven adds a beefy coda that toys with bringing the movement to an end several times before it rushes clattering to a final emphatic cadence in A minor.
The second movement Andante presents an expansive theme followed by four variations and a coda. Supported by the simplest of harmonies, the theme carries a gentle lilt from frequent off-beat syncopations in the melodic line, while numerous trills in both the violin and piano parts prepare us for the series of ‘frilly’ variations that follow.
First honours are given to the piano in a texture rife with trills and mordents twinkling atop a pattern of triplet 16ths outlining the basic harmonies of the theme. The second variation gives pride of place to the violin in a constant stream of repeated-note chatter over an oom-pah accompaniment in the piano. The obligatory minore variation comes next, slip-sliding through the notes of the minor scale in a turgid series of chordal harmonies that change on every 16th note. Variation IV returns to the major mode to create the most embellished thematic variant of all, featuring real and written-out trill figures in the upper register connected by thrilling chromatic runs. In this variation we can hear already the composer’s interest in creating walls of pure sound with trills, a fascination he will explore in later works such as the finales of the Waldstein Sonata Op. 53 and the Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111.
The Presto last movement presents Beethoven with the problem of how to get the listener’s ear from the F major tonality of the variation movement to the A major tonality of the finale. The rough-and-ready solution he arrives at couldn’t be simpler: a sonic sledgehammer. He just comes crashing down with a massive two-fisted A major chord in the piano, extending sonorously over four octaves, and the job is done. F major? What F major? We’re in A major now.
This last movement – the one that Beethoven had already written when he assembled this sonata for his concert appearance with George Bridgetower in 1803 – is a buoyant sonata-form finale with a much lighter, more transparent texture. The heavy saturated sonorities of the two previous movements are nowhere to be found, replaced instead by the joyous interplay of individual melodic lines tossed merrily between the instruments in a relentless chatter of lively dialogue. Its two principal themes, the first introduced in a kind of fugato at the beginning of the movement, are both infected with the toe-tapping rhythm of the tarantella. And while Beethoven in a pair of short Adagio sections in the coda tries to convince you that things are moving too fast and need to slow down, in the end there is no denying the momentum that has built up, and the movement rushes to its concluding cadence with the hilarious inevitability of an inflated beach ball falling down stairs.
Donald G. Gíslason 2022
Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano D. 821
Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was composed in 1824 but only published in 1871—long after the composer’s death in 1828, and almost as long after the principal instrument for which it was written fell out of favour.
The six-stringed arpeggione was a kind of large bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity after its invention in 1823 by the Austrian luthier Johann Georg Stauffer (1778-1853). It was fretted and tuned like a guitar, but held between the legs without a floor peg and played with a bow like the cello. Schubert may have been prompted to write a sonata for the instrument through his acquaintance with the Viennese arpeggione-player Vincenz Schuster. While the instrument still exists, its adepts are few in number and Schubert’s sonata is mostly played nowadays in transcriptions for viola or cello.
The work opens with a memorable tune, more wistful than melancholy, in the home key of A minor, delivered with the direct simplicity that would later characterize the opening theme of the Schumann piano concerto in the same key. By a mixture of mincing steps and bold gestures we are led to the movement’s principal glory: its toe-tapping second theme. Constructed out of a series of harmonic sequences and carefree leaps, this second theme is what a Happy Face emoticon would sound like, if it could sing. Playing it in subways and public squares could collapse the market for anti-depressants. It’s the joyful music your dog hears in its head when running to fetch a ball for you. And while the development section spends much of its time in the minor mode, the underlying effervescence of its musical material keeps it from veering in a dark direction.
The Adagio second movement is hymn-like in its steady processional pace, with a Beethovenian earnestness of sentiment and a fireside warmth of tone that foreshadows Mendelssohn. It slows to a crawl at the end to provide a springboard for the moderately paced Allegretto finale that follows immediately on. The opening refrain theme of this rondo is so Brahmsian in its dignified pace and emotional restraint, one can almost hear the chorale theme from the finale of the Brahms First Symphony just waiting in the wings to be composed. The livelier contrasting episodes flicker in and out of the minor mode in a way that suggests Hungarian folk music, but the major achievement in this movement is the way in which Schubert creates contrast while maintaining an unflappable evenness of mood.
Dört Şehir (Four Cities)
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 41
Fazil Say’s Cello Sonata (2012) is a musical travelogue inspired by the composer’s memories of four culturally rich cities in his native Turkey. It pays tribute to the layout of the traditional sonata with a melodically-focused first movement, an energetic scherzo-like second movement, a meditative slow movement and a playful finale.
The musical style of this sonata is much influenced by the folk music of the region, especially in its use of drone tones, irregular time signatures, ostinato rhythmic patterns and phrases constructed from the repetition of small melodic fragments.
The timbre of folk instruments such as the kemençe, a pear-shaped unfretted bowed instrument with a distinctive wailing tone, is evident in much of the writing for cello, as is the saz, a plucked long-neck lute used in Ottoman classical music. The piano, for its part, often provides harmonic fill for the cello’s solo line but at other times becomes a purely percussive instrument, punching out disruptive Stravinsky-style rhythms either in dense clusters of tonal ‘mud’ or as quasi-pitch-less ‘thumps’ produced by muffling the piano strings with one hand while playing the keyboard with other.
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Sivas is a city in central Turkey known for its conservative culture and large population of Alevis, a mystical sect of Islam. Inspiring this movement are the sad songs of the blind Alevi poet and songwriter Âşık Veysel (1894-1973), especially his song Sazim (My saz). The melancholy mood of this poet’s music is well represented by the cello’s sad recitative that ends the movement.
In Hopa, located in northeastern Turkey on the Black Sea coast, we arrive at a village wedding just as the dancing breaks out. The dance in question is the fast-paced horon, a line-dance in 7/8 time traditionally accompanied by the kemençe. Manically joyous as if inspiring acrobatic dance moves, this movement features explosive sonorities pulled from the extreme ranges of the keyboard and edgy hoe-down-type wailing from the cello.
Ankara, Fazil Say’s hometown, is the scene of mysterious ruminations pervaded by fragments and phrases of the famous Turkish patriotic anthem Ankara’nın Taşına Bak (Look at the stony road of Ankara) dating from the era of the First World War and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923).
In Bodrum, the “Turkish Saint-Tropez” so popular with tourists, we hear a quite different kind of music. Wandering from bar to bar in the town’s busy streets we hear a kaleidoscopic variety of sounds, from swing jazz to popular songs. But what’s this? Right at the end the piano and cello begin to argue, each aiming home truths at the other and spoiling for a fight. And that’s our cue to leave the bar, taking our ears with us, as the first punch is thrown in the work’s final notes.
Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major
It will be a while yet before the Huffington Post is read by musicologists as a scholarly journal, and yet Alan Elsner, the Huff-Po reporter hot on the trail of breaking news in 19th-century Belgian music, is not wide of the mark in observing that:
“There is a kind of breathless religious ecstasy to Franck’s music—soaring themes; simple, pure harmonies; those ceaseless, swirling, gliding accompaniments. This, one feels, is truly the music of the angels.” (29 Nov. 2011)
The work inspiring such shortness of breath and heady spiritual delirium in the intrepid journalist is, of course, Franck’s Sonata in A major for violin & piano, a wedding present by the composer to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The sonata was in fact performed at the wedding in 1886 by Ysaÿe himself and a wedding-guest pianist. This setting of the sonata for the cello was created by cellist Jules Delsart, and was the only alternative version sanctioned by Franck.
The Allegro ben moderato first movement floats in a world of harmonic uncertainty. It opens with a number of dreamy piano chords, each followed by a simple chordal interval, as if giving the pitches to the instrumentalist, who then obliges by using them to create a gently rocking, barcarolle-like melody, the outline of which will infuse much of the work as a whole. This theme, played by the violin (or in this case, the cello) over a simple chordal accompaniment from the piano, builds in urgency until it can hold it no more, and a second theme takes centre stage in a lyrical outpouring of almost melodramatic intensity but ending in a dark turn to the minor. The violin will have none of it, however, and dreams both sleepwalkers back to the major mode for an amicable review of the two themes, both in the home key. The serenity of this movement results from its rhythmic placidness, often featuring a sparse, simple chordal accompaniment in the piano, and little rhythmic variation in the wandering pastoral ‘de-DUM-de-DUM’ triplets of the violin.
Where drama breaks out for real is in the Allegro second movement, one of the most challenging in the chamber repertoire for the pianist. This sonata-form movement bolts from the starting gate with a swirling vortex of 16ths in the piano, fretting anxiously over a theme in the mid-range that is soon picked up by the violin. Its worrisome collection of motives is based on the same small-hop intervals that opened the first movement, but reversed in direction and cast in the minor mode. A sunnier mood prevails in the second theme which, however, ebbs away as both instruments take stock of the ground covered in a sober interlude marked Quasi lento. The development section engages in a full and frank discussion of the two themes until the convulsive agitation of the opening theme returns in the recapitulation. Despite the turbulence roiling at the heart of this movement, it manages to pull a major-mode ending out of a hat for its final cadence.
The slow third movement, a free-form meditation marked Recitativo-Fantasia, is bruised with the memory of the first movement’s bliss. Its piano opening is almost a bitter parody of the sonata’s very first bars. As this thematic material is brooded over, the violin tries to change the subject several times in distracted flights of fancy, but eventually agrees to join with the piano in a ruminative journey that passes through nostalgic reminiscence to end in heart-wrenching pathos. The searing intensity of the octave-leap ‘wailing’ motif at the end of this movement is the most profound moment in the sonata. No major-mode ending here.
All tensions are eased, all hearts healed, however, in a last-movement rondo that offers up a simple tuneful melody in continuous alternation with brief sections of contrasting material. This tune, so harmonically rooted as to suit being presented in strict canonic imitation (like a round), is shaped from the melodic outline of the theme that opened the sonata, bringing its cyclical journey full circle. Even the ‘wailing’ motif from the previous movement is recalled to the stage to give it, too, a happy ending.
British musicologist David Fanning got it right when he intuited the celebratory meaning beneath Franck’s remarkable use of imitative counterpoint for the end of this “wedding present” sonata:
“It is hard to resist reading this as a musical symbol of married bliss, especially when the dialogue is placed even closer together, at a distance of half a bar rather than a full bar, on the deliriously happy closing page.”
Donald G. Gíslason 2022
Bach’s Clavier-Übung (1726-1741)
The works on this evening’s recital are selected from Bach’s collection of keyboard pieces published in four parts between 1726 and 1741 under the collective title Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise). In this collection Bach systematically lays out for amateur and professional keyboard-players alike his mastery of the genres, compositional techniques, and national styles used in the keyboard music of his time.
Bach’s self-financed publishing project from the first half of the 18th century has much in common with the promotional strategies of contemporary musicians today who establish a YouTube channel to make their music more widely known, to establish their ‘brand’ in the mind of the public, and to ‘monetize’ their talents in the wider marketplace.
This evening’s recital presents the second and fourth instalments of Bach’s Clavier-Übung series. Part II explores the national styles of France and Italy in the Overture in French Style and Italian Concerto. Part IV gives us a monumentally exhaustive exploration of the variation form in the celebrated Goldberg Variations.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Italian Concerto in F major BWV 971
Baroque music was all about national styles and Bach learned the Italian style by copying out and transcribing the works of composers such as Vivaldi, Albinoni and Torelli during his early years of employment in Weimar (1708-1717). It was this knowledge that he applied in composing his Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto (Concerto after the Italian Taste) included in the second part of his Clavier-Übung published in 1735.
To compose a concerto meant reproducing in some way the textural contrast between the solo instrument (or instruments) and the orchestral tutti on which the ritornello form of the Italian concerto relied for its forward progress. It was for this reason that Clavier-Übung II was written exclusively for the two-manual harpsichord with its possibility of creating dynamic contrasts by means of hopping up and down between keyboards. This could be done with both hands at once, or one hand at a time, allowing for a wide range of effects to be achieved.
The two protagonists in Bach’s Italian Concerto are clearly audible in the first movement, in which the ‘orchestra’ which opens the movement is given a fuller more resonant texture by dint of block chords and a wider range in the bass while the part of the ‘soloist’ is written in a smaller range, higher up, peppered with smaller note values and occasional ornamentation.
The distinction is even clearer still in the slow movement in which the role of the ‘orchestra’ is given entirely to the left hand, its ostinato pattern of repeated thirds and long pedal notes a strangely austere accompaniment to a right hand ‘soloist’ spinning out long strands of highly ornamented melody.
The Presto finale returns to the ritornello form of alternation between the louder, fuller texture of the ‘orchestra,’ obsessed with its dramatic octave leap downwards and swift follow-up run, in continual dialogue with a more nimble ‘soloist’ more occupied with broken chord passagework and harmonic sequences.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Overture in French Style in B minor BWV 831
The 11-movement Overture in French Style from Clavier-Übung II counts as the longest suite that Bach ever wrote. Beefing up its imposing heft is the grand and imposing French overture movement that opens the work and gives it its name. Brilliantly encrusted with the bright ornamental flourishes that characterize the French school of harpsichord playing, the French overture lurches between chordal ‘poses’ in a jerky sequence of dotted and double-dotted rhythms, linked together by exhilarating run-ups and other fast-darting upbeat embellishments. The tone is one of pomp and grandeur that then yields to the more animated and playful—but learned—texture of its fugal middle section. Bach adds weight to the movement as a whole by repeating this middle section and its following reprise of the opening material.
The 10 dance movements that follow are comparatively slender by comparison, but remarkable for their variety of moods and their sheer number. Each is in binary form, comprising two roughly equal halves. Repeats of each half allow the performer scope to vary the performance on a second run-through and tastefully ‘riff’ on the printed score. Additional opportunities for varied repetition come in the ‘double dances,’ the passepieds, gavottes and bourées, which appear in contrasting pairs, the second dance acting as a kind of ‘middle section’ between the presentation of the first dance and its reprise at the end.
Needless to say, these are not pieces meant to accompany dancing but rather imaginative recreations of these dance genres that reproduce the general character and identifying rhythmic signature of each. That said, the dancelike quality of the slower more serious dances can be hard to discern beneath the thick contrapuntal weave of polyphonic conversation in which they are set. This is especially true of the flowing but irregularly phrased Courante and the harmonically rich but melodically wayward Sarabande.
A more toe-tapping pulse and regularity of phrase structure is generally to be found in the ‘double dances,’ and especially in the light skipping steps of what would normally be the final piece in the set, the Gigue. But Bach gives us a bonus piece to close off this suite, a strutting and punchy Echo intended to tickle the ear with rapid-fire alternations of soft and loud ‘echo’ effects.
These were to be created by means of daring leaps between the two keyboards of the dual-manual harpsichord for which this suite was written. But given that the modern concert grand has only one keyboard, contemporary audiences will have to use their imaginations to experience the dare-devil, Cirque du Soleil thrill of the acrobatic ending that Bach had in mind for the performers of his day.
Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen was published in 1741 as the final instalment of his Clavier-Übung series of keyboard works. This monumental exploration of the variation form ranks as the largest single keyboard composition published in the 18th century, in which Bach displays his command not only of the popular musical styles of his day, but also of the most advanced virtuoso techniques for playing the harpsichord, not to mention his genius in the arcane skill of writing canons at any given interval.
After its publication, a change in musical taste toward simpler, more transparent textures meant that the Goldberg Variations were largely forgotten, although Beethoven appears aware of them when composing his Diabelli Variations and Brahms his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. They entered the 20th century as the privileged domain of the feathery flock of harpsichordists, with Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), who first recorded the set in 1933, as Mother Hen to the brood.
For big-name pianists, though, the scaled-down, intellectually concentrated sound world of the Goldberg Variations, with their ‘sewing machine’ rhythms, probing explorations of chromatic harmony and awkward hand-crossings, was considered too ‘antiquarian’, too ‘esoteric’ for the piano repertoire. Until June 1955, that is, when a 22-year-old Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, walked into the New York studios of Columbia Records to record his debut album—an album that became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.
What Glenn Gould revealed, in a career bookended by his landmark recordings of the Goldberg Variations, was the emotional richness and feverish excitement that lay hidden in this much-neglected work. Like an art-restorer cleansing the Sistine Chapel of the grime and haze that had built up over centuries, in his 1955 recording Gould brought to a public inured to the warmly pedalled sound of Romantic piano music a dazzling clarity of texture and kaleidoscopic range of tone colours, accomplished by the fingers alone. In his 1981 recording, in which the tempo of each variation is regulated by a “constant rhythmic reference point,” he revealed the intellectual depth of the work, and the breadth of interpretive possibilities which it offers to the performing pianist.
Glenn Gould single-handedly placed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the standard repertoire – and not only of the piano. According to the Goldberg Variations Discography website, since 1955 there have been more than 600 recordings made of the Goldbergs, including versions for organ, for string trio and for saxophone quartet. While performance by a historically informed recorder ensemble would no longer be a novelty, a breathless world has still not heard this work on kazoos or in car commercials. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.
The theme that Bach wrote for his variations is a sarabande tendre, identified by its stately rhythmic profile, recurring emphasis on the second beat of bar, and highly expressive style. Floridly ornamented in the French manner, its 32 measures unfold in the traditional two-part form of a dance movement, with each half repeated. These repeated sections, as in a dance suite, provide an opportunity for the performer to vary the performance by means of changes in dynamics, articulation and ornamentation.
The harmonic rhythm of the Aria is deliberately slow, one chord to the bar, which allows for maximum freedom in spinning out a wide variety of variations, since these are based not on the melodic content of the Aria, but rather on its bass-line and underlying harmonies, in the manner of a chaconne.
There is a large-scale symmetry in the way that Bach arranges his variations. First of all, the set is rounded out by the Aria’s appearance both at the beginning and at the conclusion of the work. Secondly, the set divides evenly into two halves. The first half ends on an enigmatic open 5th at the conclusion of the plaintive Variation 15. The second half begins anew, with a bang, on a robust G-major chord that begins the No. 16 French overture variation. (Many a performance will see a pause inserted at this juncture, emphasizing the contrast between the two halves of the work.)
Thirdly, the 30 variations are organized into ten groups of three, each group containing: (1) a dance or genre piece, (2) a virtuoso display piece, bright in mood, and most often featuring a number of hand-crossings, and (3) a two-voice canon, which is to say a round, in which a melody is accompanied by itself, entering a set number of beats after its initial appearance, and beginning a set interval above its initial note. In keeping with Bach’s systematic approach, these canons, spaced out every three variations, begin at the unison and progress to the ninth in Variation 27 (the only canon not accompanied by a running bass line by way of harmonic support). Such a layout ensures variety in the succession of variations, and is aided by the extraordinarily wide range of meters used: 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, 12/8, 9/8 etc. There is even one variation, No. 26, in which one hand plays in 3/4 while the other is in 18/16.
The display-oriented virtuoso variations feature two kinds of hand-crossing: the Italian type, à la Scarlatti, in which one hand crosses over and above the other to catch a note perilously distant from its home turf (e.g., Variations 5 and 14); and the French type, à la Couperin, in which the running melodic lines of the two hands cross over each other in the same patch of keyboard terrain, risking a digital derailment of both (e.g., Variations 8 and 11). The latter are usually indicated by Bach as being played on both manuals of the harpsichord, but alas! such an expedient is not available to the struggling pianist.
The inclusion of canon variations helps to mask the recurring regularity of the Aria’s four-bar phrases and ground bass, repeated in various degrees of elaboration in each variation. Moreover, the canons are not always straightforward rounds. Variations 12 and 15 each feature a canon inversus, in which the leading voice is accompanied by itself – turned upside down!
The emotional heart of the work comes in Variation 25 in the minor mode, described by Wanda Landowska as the work’s “crown of thorns.” At an Adagio tempo, it is the longest of the set, although it has the same number of measures as the other variations. Its extraordinary expressiveness and aching beauty derive from the combination of its plangent melodic leaps, agonizing chromaticisms and halting syncopations.
After this variation begins a build-up in energy as the work races towards its climax, with sonorous written-out trills invading the inner voices of Variation 28 and hammering fists of chords chopping between the hands in Variation 29.
The Quodlibet & Aria da capo
According to the pattern already established, one would expect a canon at the 10th in Variation 30, but here Bach surprises us with musical joke, a quodlibet (Latin for “what you please”) that fits two popular ditties into the harmonic scheme of the Aria.
The two overlapping folk tunes that Bach shoe-horns into service over the ground bass of his Aria are the urgent love lyric Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her (I have been away from you so long, come here, come here) and the anti-vegetarian anthem Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I would have stayed longer).
Coming just before the end of the work, there is something of the chorale in this final variation, something good-natured and healing that gathers all hearts in song, as at the end of a church cantata or Lutheran religious service, to which the final Aria da capo provides a contemplative and serene postlude.
Donald G. Gíslason 2022
Variations chantantes sur un air ancien
The Venezuelan-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn is best known for his contribution to the French song repertoire with his more than 100 mélodies published between 1890 and his death in 1947. He is equally well known as the sometime romantic partner of writer Marcel Proust, whose epic novel À la recherche du temps perdu paints in perfumed prose the social rituals and creeping decadence of a society ripe with elegance but rapidly approaching its best-before date.
Hahn was a perfect fit for this Proustian Parisian world of the Belle Époque (1871-1914). His musical aesthetic was refined, but conservative and essentially backward-looking, especially in matters of harmony.
Witness his 1905 Variations chantantes sur un air ancien (Singing variations on an ancient air), which exhibit not even a whiff of modernism and could easily have been composed 50 years earlier. Situated in the rear-guard of musical developments of the time, this work offers no hint of the colourful dissonances and convulsive rhythms that within a few years would astonish Parisian audiences in the revolutionary ballets of Stravinsky: Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).
Instead, Hahn reaches back for his musical inspiration to the 17th century, taking as his variation theme the aria Beato chi può (Blessed is he) from the opera Xerxes (1655) by Italian composer Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676). In Act IV scene 6 of Cavalli’s opera a high court official laments the tiresome rituals and constant intrigues of the Persian court and longs for a simpler life of ease and pleasure.
In keeping with the original operatic setting, Hahn’s Variations chantantes begin in an elegiac mood with a melody of dignified beauty lyrically sung out by the cello, a melody both courtly and sentimental. This theme remains clearly recognizable throughout the variations that follow, merely decorated with simple melodic filigree or slightly altered in rhythm.
Two musical motives from the original aria are highlighted throughout: an expression of longing conveyed by numerous two-note sigh motives, and the expectation of happier times in an oft-repeated four-note rising scale figure shared by cello and piano alike.
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Steven Isserlis relates in a press interview that while he had long been aware of this work, he was unable to find a printed copy of the score for many years. Until, that is, “after a world-wide search” he discovered it close to home in the library of London’s Royal College of Music, where he discovered as well “that he was the first to borrow it in seventy years!”
Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 117
Gabriel Fauré is a composer of what the French would call ‘discreet charm’. His discretion, composition-wise, is easy to spot in his Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, composed in 1921 near the end of his life. The work features the pared-down style typical of late Fauré, a style in which there are fewer things for the ear to keep track of while listening.
The texture, for one thing, is simple and transparent, the emphasis being on single-line melodies in both instruments, with few multiple-stops in the cello or thick chordal sonorities in the piano. The rhythmic patterning is relatively bland, with large sections proceeding at a steady underlying pulse, meaning that the major ‘action’ in the piece happens in the shifting shades of its pastel harmonies and the subtle chromatic inflections of its melodic lines.
Providing a steely underpinning to this work’s unruffled sonic surface is a surprising degree of academic rigour – not surprising from this Paris Conservatoire professor who counted Ravel, Enescu and Nadia Boulanger among his students.
The first movement Allegro, for example, begins with a simple scalar theme in canon between cello and piano, a theme rendered all the more intriguing by its many syncopations. A second theme, of considerably emotional warmth, is introduced in octaves by the piano, structured in a series of descending 3rds. The development section draws its urgency from its many chromatically climbing lines but issues into the recapitulation so ‘discreetly’ that you barely notice it’s happening until it is well underway. Hint: it’s the cello that introduces the canon this time, reversing the order of entry in the exposition.
The Andante slow movement is the star attraction of this sonata, having provided its creative impetus in the first place. You see, in 1921 Fauré had been commissioned by the French government to compose a funeral march for a commemorative service at Les Invalides in Paris marking the 100th anniversary of the death of the Emperor Napoleon. Unwilling to let this chant funéraire become a one-day wonder, Fauré re-used it in this slow movement, girding it in full chords in the piano part in imitation of the orchestral scoring of its first performance. Fauré’s chamber version retains the solemn character of the original setting with a slow trodding accompaniment in steady quarter notes accompanying a melody line expressing downcast grief and noble resignation with its many falling 5ths.
A lighter mood springs out of the Allegro vivo finale which features two contrasting themes. The first presents a polite disagreement between the instruments as to whether the melody should go up or go down. The piano keeps presenting rising melodic material while the cello insists that descending scale patterns are the way to go. But just as they are about to reach agreement on the matter, a four-voice harmonized chorale-like melody comes to the fore to change the subject. As these two themes are discussed throughout the movement a kaleidoscopic series of modulations keeps the conversation colourful.
Thomas Adès must surely rank as Britain’s leading contemporary composer, and one of its most imaginative – ever. This contention is amply demonstrated by his tour-de-force Lieux retrouvés, written for Steven Isserlis in 2009 as a co-commission from the Wigmore Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival and Carnegie Hall.
Adès is a great fan of Marcel Proust, whose perfumed prose captured like no other French writer the essence of moments in time and places visited. Each of the four movements of Lieux retrouvés (places rediscovered) conjures up in Proustian style an authentic sense of place, to create a concert piece that Steven Isserlis readily admits is one of the most technically challenging he has ever attempted.
This work has garnered the unstinting praise of critics such as Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, who wrote: “The purely musical elements of the work are what grabbed me: the rippling figures for piano and cello that spin out in crazed, cyclic riffs; the crystalline piano harmonies that sound as if wind were rustling the chimes in a pagoda; the feisty, industrialized propulsive bursts in the finale.” (New York Times, 21 March 2010)
Steven Isserlis describes it this way: “What can one say about this extraordinary work? Not only can Adès’s work as a whole not be categorized, even this piece cannot be pigeon-holed in any way. He takes influences from everywhere—from Offenbach, from jazz, from the French baroque, even from minimalism—and creates his own individual language within this one composition.”
Thomas Adès describes the work as follows:
“Les Eaux. The movement of the waters is recreated in flexible fluid counterpoint which eddies and flows according to how each line responds to the other current, whether in similar forward motion or opposition, or swirling around, or inside, an obstacle.
“La Montagne. In three parts: first, a harmonized tune marked “Tempo di Promenade”, presented in canon with itself at two different speeds. Then, a Ländler-trio with a new tune. Finally, the return of the Promenade tune of the first part, also eventually in canon, with the trio tune superimposed. There is a short coda of mountain air and then a flag is planted in A major.
“Les Champs. Slow movement.”
To which Steven Isserlis adds: “The slow movement takes us to a peaceful field at night, the animals at rest, their breath rising to heaven – rather riskily represented by the highest notes I’ve ever had to play lyrically.
Thomas Adès continues:
“La Ville – Cancan Macabre. Liszt wrote a marvellous late piano piece called Czárdás Macabre. This however is a galop, taking the most famous galop – Offenbach’s Cancan – as a model. There is also a Trio section, entirely in a high register.”
Adagio and Allegro Op. 70
Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 was written in 1849, and for horn, not for cello. Intended as a piece of Hausmusik (art music written to be performed in a domestic setting by amateur performers), it sought to take advantage of recent advances in instrument design that had allowed the horn to play in precise semitone steps by the use of valves. This, of course, is not a problem for the cello, violin or oboe, which are listed on the title page of published scores as alternate instruments for the piece.
Marked Langsam, mit innigem Ausdruck (slowly, with intimate expression) the Adagio is written in the sentimental Biedermeyer style of the period, with numerous languid sigh motives built into the melodic line and a frequent exchange of loving phrases between the instruments.
The love-fest gets an abrupt wake-up call, however, when the Allegro breaks out, marked Rasch und feurig (fast and fiery). Here the cello has its work cut out for it to reproduce the piercing fanfare timbre of the horn. But Schumann’s scoring of the piano part allows the solo instrument to shine when it needs to while providing a palette of rich harmonic support rising up from the bass regions of the keyboard. This is especially true in the contrasting middle section where the solo instrument gets to sing out in its mid-range as it recalls the introspective mood and tender tone of the opening Adagio.
Sonata No. 2 in F major Op. 99
The Sonata in F major Op. 99 is an adventurous work combining the restless energy characteristic of the young Brahms with the lyrical luxuriance of the composer in his mature years. Composed in the summer of 1886 while the 53-year-old Brahms was vacationing in the Swiss countryside, it breathes the clean fresh air of the mountain slopes and often echoes with hints of rural folksong. The sound palette is full and resonant, especially the piano part, which is written with a symphonic sonority in mind.
This is especially true of the orchestral sweep that characterizes the sonata’s opening, with its rich carpet of tremolando figuration in the piano supporting bold fanfares in the cello line, a melody line that seems to be shouting important news in all directions, like a town crier. The second theme, announced by the piano, is by contrast a more smoothly connected melody. The tremolo figuration of the opening is not just sonic filler: it functions as a stabilizing counterfoil to the disjointed character of the sweeping opening theme and plays a major role at the opening of the development section as well. Especially noteworthy in this movement is the magical passage that prepares the recapitulation, a passage in which time seems to stands still as the cello plays tremolo while the piano enacts great leaps from the bottom of the keyboard to the top.
The Adagio affetuoso second movement in simple ternary form carries the major emotional weight of this work. It opens with a procession-like tune in the piano setting the scene for the cello to emerge in full-throated glory, singing out a richly chromatic but ever-so-lyrical melody that shows off the instrument to advantage in its high range. A middle section in the minor mode gives the piano a place in the sun, as well, but the pool of light on the stage in this movement goes to the cello, which returns in the third section to wax lyrical once again, enveloped by an even more lavishly decorative piano accompaniment.
If the second movement belongs to the cello, the propulsive energy of the following Allegro passionato scherzo is driven by strongly assertive piano writing. Cresting and subsiding in waves of sound, the opening section builds up sound resonance through the frequent use of pedal tones in the bass combined with a constant chatter of eighth-note motion above. Adding to the intensity of effect are the typical Brahmsian techniques of 2-against-3 rhythms, and syncopations that recall the opening of the scherzo from the composer’s Quintet in F minor. Where the cello emerges more clearly is in the trio middle section, in which it hums a wistful melody configured in simple note values. Its irregular phrase lengths suggest the influence of folksong, but a number of odd melodic turns indicate that it has more on its mind than it is letting on.
The sonata ends with a fourth movement rondo much in the relaxed vein of the last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83. Gentle and tuneful, its principal theme alternates with a short series of contrasting episodes, none of which spoils the overall mood of contentment that characterizes the movement as a whole.
Donald G. Gíslason 2022
Johann Sebastian Bach
The Art of Fugue BWV 1080
By the 1740s Bach had largely withdrawn from composing new church music for Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, devoting his creative energies instead to a series of large-scale projects that responded more directly to his own personal and professional interests. These monumental works were encyclopedic in scope, systematic in design, and concentrated in focus.
That focus was the practice of canon and fugue, the two most intellectually challenging musical genres of his time.
The year 1744, for example, saw the publication of the second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a companion to the first book of 1722, both sets of which made the case for equal temperament in keyboard tuning by providing a collection of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys. Each of the 48 individual fugues in this two-volume work was composed with its own individual fugue subject, demonstrating, as Bach surely intended, the wide variety of theme types to which fugal procedure could be applied.
Most of the other major works from this decade take the inverse approach, showing the variety of contrapuntal techniques that can be applied to a single theme or motive. These ‘monothematic’ works include the Goldberg Variations (1741), the Musical Offering (1747) and the Canonic Variations on ‘Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her’ (1747).
But crowning this series of learned essays is Die Kunst der Fuge, a collection of 14 fugues and 4 canons that illustrate the range and variety of contrapuntal techniques available to the serious composer, from the elementary to the arcane. In the manuscript each fugue is labelled contrapunctus, in Latin, to enhance the magisterial authority of the project. The work was largely complete by 1742 but Bach continued to revise it and add movements throughout the decade, leaving it, at his death in 1750, with its final massive fugue incomplete. The manuscript was edited by his sons and published in 1751.
The Motto Theme
Running through The Art of Fugue is a theme of Bach’s own invention that acts as a kind of ‘motto’ for the work as a whole. The unique inner architecture of this theme is specifically designed to maximize the potential for ‘motivic echoes’ in whatever texture it appears.
Its triadic opening, affirming D minor as its stable tonal centre, sounds almost fanfare-like, enabling the theme to stand out in a multi-voice texture by virtue of its easily recognizable intervals: a rising 5th and two falling 3rds.
The remaining portion, however, presents the exact opposite, moving in scalar fashion, by step, to outline an unstable interval: the diminished 4th C#-F. This implied dissonance requires a resolution on the tonic (D) that arrives in the 5th bar.
In support of this harmonic resolution is an accelerating rhythmic pattern as the theme moves along – from half notes to quarter notes to 8th notes – providing a slingshot-like release of momentum driving the theme home to its conclusion.
Bach’s theme is a miniature masterpiece all on its own, but what he manages to do with it in The Art of Fugue is nothing less than miraculous.
The Simple Fugues: I to IV
The Art of Fugue is organized so that the fugues presented illustrate fugal procedure in increasing order of intellectual and compositional complexity: from the simplest to the most intricate. The ‘simple’ fugues present the theme — called the subject in fugue parlance – in a texturally clear manner that allows it to stand out at every appearance. In the simple fugues there is a clean division between single entries of the theme and background contrapuntal detail, so that the ear is never confused as to what to listen for.
Contrapunctus I seems to emerge from the depths of time, its key of D minor evoking the austere severity of a work in the Dorian mode from centuries past. A persistent 8th-note rhythm soon comes to dominate its onward progress with lively interchanges between the voices in sequential repetition occurring frequently in the episodes, i.e., the sections in which the fugue subject is not sounding in the texture.
Contrapunctus II takes a stylistic turn towards France by adding a dotted rhythm to the subject, a clear reference to the French preference for instrumental pieces with a jaunty, dance-like character.
In Contrapunctus III the fugue subject appears in both its inverted and right-side-up forms. But the emotional character of this fugue is dominated by the slip-slide-y nature of its highly chromatic countersubject, the term for a secondary theme that accompanies the subject virtually every time it appears.
Contrapunctus IV uses the inverted form of the subject, combining it a constant stream of motivic chatter that merrily repeats two fragments of the original right-side-up version. The first comes from the four descending 8th notes at the tag-end of the original theme, the second from the falling 3rds of its opening triad – which in their sequential repetition many scholars have thought sound like cuckoo calls.
Canon alla ottava
Four two-voice canons are found in Bach’s The Art of Fugue, each based on some variation of the motto theme. Filippo Gorini has judiciously placed these canons on his program as ‘boundary markers’ to set off the five principal groupings of fugues in the work.
A canon, for those unfamiliar with the term, is simply a round. Its answering voice, however, need not enter on precisely the same pitch as the leading voice, as it does in such round songs as “Frère Jacques” or “Row, row, row your boat.” Canons take their full technical name from the interval at which their answering voice does enter. “Frère Jacques” or “Row, row, row your boat,” then, would be referred to as all’ unisono (at the unison).
The first round in this work is alla ottava (at the octave) and it uses an elaborated version of the motto theme in which many single melody notes are transformed into triple 16ths while others are shortened into staccato 8ths. The resulting dance-like rhythm is almost gigue-like.
The Stretto Fugues: V to VII
In his second grouping of fugues Bach ups the intellectual ante a notch by introducing procedures that significantly increase the density of motivic reference in the fugal texture. He does this in two ways.
First, he introduces stretto, which is to say the close overlap of different voices singing out the same melody. The effect is like that of hearing a marching band playing a tune that echoes back from nearby buildings a beat or two later.
Second, he presents the fugue subject not just upside-down, i.e., inversion, as in previous fugues, but in augmentation (double note values) and diminution (half note values) as well. Being able to follow these various versions of the fugue subject presented at different time scales – often addressing the ear simultaneously – requires a degree of eyebrow-knitting concentration that not all listeners are born to achieve. Give yourself extra points if you notice how the opening statement of the subject in all three of these fugues is inverted in the answer.
Contrapunctus V uses a dotted-rhythm version of the motto theme with passing notes filling in many of its intervals. With all this passing motion the texture becomes creamy smooth but intensity builds up as the distance between overlapping entries in stretto is gradually reduced to a single beat.
Contrapunctus VI is another fugue in the French style, but not the French dance style. The abundance of heavily dotted rhythms, rushing 16th-note figures and ringing trills suggests more the pompous stop-and-go character of a classic Lullyan French overture. The same filled-in version of the subject is used as in the previous fugue, in both upright and inverted forms, both regularly paced and in diminution.
Contrapunctus VII is denser still in its tossed salad of motivic references, with the fugue subject working its way in plodding augmented note values from the bass all the way up to the soprano, in both right-side-up and inverted versions. There are virtually no episodes in this fugue since almost every bar is frothing, churning or gently burbling with some version of the subject.
Canon per augmentationem et in contrario motu
This canon sounds almost modern with its jagged melodic lines, ecstatic leaps and sudden chromatic detours. The contours of its two voices in canon are derived from the principal notes of the motto theme, but the answering voice is the inversion of the leading voice – in augmentation (!). This has the effect of making it sound like a ‘walking bass’ to the jazzy-sounding meanderings above.
Then, just to make things interesting, the two voices switch roles halfway through, the ‘walking bass’ becoming the ‘walking treble’ and the former soprano line going squirrelly in the nether regions of the keyboard.
The Multiple-Theme Fugues: VIII to XI
Bach’s next step up in complexity is to write fugues with more than one principal theme, each theme getting its own exposition (the term for the opening section of a fugue in which all voices present the fugue subject in turn).
Contrapunctus VIII is a triple fugue, i.e., a fugue with three separate thematic subjects. The opening theme is full of open intervals, wandering chromatically to outline the melodic descent of an octave. The second, coming after a resolute cadence, is a whinging lament in continuous 8th notes clearly audible in the texture by virtue of its insistent rap-tap-tap of repeated notes. Finally a third subject, a segmented descendant of the motto theme, exhales into the texture like laboured breathing, three quarter notes at a time, with a rest on the first beat of each bar. These three subjects are introduced in successive expositions, after which they constantly bump into each other until, mirabile dictu (wondrous to report), they all get combined together at a final gathering of the clan to create a climactic ending.
Contrapunctus IX, by contrast, is a peppy double fugue with an opening fugue subject that begins with an octave leap, making it instantly recognizable in the texture. This is eventually paired with an augmented version of the motto theme to create a merry-go-round of toe-tapping excitement so infectious, that this fugue has even been recorded by the Swingle Singers.
A mood of calm reflection returns in the double fugue of Contrapunctus X, which opens with a theme in sighing three-note cells, as in Contrapunctus VIII, and which later encounter a dotted version of the motto theme with filled-in passing notes. A small number of motives is presented in a seemingly endless variety of guises, unfolding in a constant flow of varied melodic lines.
The mighty triple fugue of Contrapunctus XI uses the same three subjects as animated Contrapunctus VIII, presenting them first in their inverted form and then in their original upright versions. But the emotional character of this fugue is much different, more profoundly searching in its advanced chromaticism, a chromaticism that seems to be reaching out to the furthest edges of the sound world.
Canon alla duodecima, in contrapunto alla quinta
This canon bubbles over with ear-tickling rhythmic effervescence, presenting an elaborated version of the original motto theme constructed out of roiling sextuplets that alternate with duple-value 8ths. The interval of a falling diminished 7th adds rhetorical drama to the melodic line.
The Mirror Fugues
Not content to have merely created two separate fugues in Contrapunctus VIII and Contrapunctus XI from the original and inverted forms of the same fugue subjects, Bach sets himself the challenge of writing pairs of single-subject fugues in which not just the fugue subjects but all the individual voices, and the textures as a whole, are exact mirror images of each other.
So the bass line in the first fugue of each pair become the soprano line of the matching second fugue, but with its intervals inverted, and similarly with the tenor and alto lines. The vocal lines and the textures they embody perform this switch in the middle of each so-called “mirror” fugue.
Contrapunctus XII preserves the melodic shape of the original fugue subject exactly, but puts it in triple meter to create a gently lilting rhythmic feel in both fugues of the pair.
Contrapunctus XIII alters the theme considerably with filled-in triplet 8th notes and a perky octave leap, that combined with this fugue’s pervasive dotted rhythms makes you actually forget what a dazzling intellectual feat is unfolding in your ear.
Canon alla decima, in contrapunto alla terza
The appeal of this utterly charming canon lies in its simplicity and easy-to-follow melodic lines, which mix long notes with innocently swaying triplet 8ths. Bach seems to depart from his austere pose as the learned composer of intellectually rigorous textures by offering the performer a bit of freedom at the final cadence with the indication cadenza – an invitation for the performer to improvise a bit of fancy fingerwork of his own to end the piece in style.
The Last Fugue
Bach’s final fugue in this series remained unfinished at his death in 1750 and the specifics of its overall architecture have been the subject of debate amongst Bach scholars. Given the systematic increase in intellectual complexity and contrapuntal skill demonstrated in successive groups of fugues as the work progresses, it is reasonable to assume that this 14th fugue was meant to crown the set by displaying Bach’s absolute mastery of the form in some way. But how?
The answer seems to lie in the three themes that Bach chose for this multiple-subject fugue, themes that sum up in one final work the different styles of melody presented so far and the emotional characters they evoke.
The first subject is a near relative of the motto theme, concentrating in long note values on the principal tones of the D minor triad. Proceeding at an even quarter-note pace, it recalls the austere mood of Contrapunctus I.
The second subject presents another kind of melody, ornamenting the motto theme in a continuous stream of 8th notes that twist and wind in a pattern that contrasts with the placid calm of the opening section.
The third subject increases the musical tension significantly, moving chromatically within a small range around the notes B-flat, A, C and B natural – not coincidentally the German musical spelling of the composer’s own name: B-A-C-H. And it is just at the point when Bach begins to combine all three subjects together that the manuscript suddenly ends, leaving us breathlessly bereft of what contrapuntal marvels might have come in the bars to follow.
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But is it ‘music’?
The extraordinary feats of contrapuntal skill displayed by Bach in his Art of the Fugue have given rise to bewildered push-back amongst astonished commentators, prompting them to ask: Is this really music? The mere act of posing such a provocative question implies an answer in the negative and is motivated by two distinct lines of thought.
The first sees the work as purely didactic, as Augenmusik (music for the eyes) intended merely for silent study by aspiring contrapuntists rather than as a work intended for the enjoyment of audiences in live performance. This, however, is a false dichotomy, as the artistic merit of Chopin’s Études, Bartók’s Mikrokosmos and Bach’s own Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach amply prove.
A second, more serious objection to the work’s suitability as concert music is a reproach often levelled at 12-tone serial compositions: that the essential structuring elements of these works is beyond the capacity of human perception to appreciate. And admittedly, the likelihood that even the most alert listener – with perfect pitch and a fresh injection of espresso – might remember the initial scoring of one of Bach’s mirror fugues well enough to notice its complete textural inversion halfway through is remote indeed.
And yet, as the saying goes in software development: this is not a bug, it’s a feature.
In the worldview of early-18th-century religious thought, which Bach shared, God was immanent in all Creation. All things on earth were imbued with the presence of the Divine, and manifested that presence in all its astonishing variety of forms and its underlying unity of purpose. To be bewildered by this astonishing variety and unity of purpose was to engage in an act of worship.
Bach, whose many manuscripts are marked with inscriptions betokening deference to the greater glory of God, conceived of his creative musical output as a sonic parallel to the variety and orderliness of the created world, a world that must inevitably surpass all human understanding.
So every fractal echo in his fugal textures of motives from the original motto theme – every rising 5th, every falling 3rd and every melodic phrase in stepwise motion – is a theological statement, standing proxy to echoes of the Divine in the natural world. In this regard, experiencing bewilderment at the dazzling complexity of Bach’s fugal textures is as natural as feeling overwhelmed with awe when contemplating the patterns of the stars in the night sky.
By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8788068
Donald G. Gíslason 2022