Tag Archives: so you want to write a fugue

kick-awesome project

Frederic Rzewski actually once said to me, “You should play the Hammerklavier. You’d be good at it.” So, that’s what I’m going to do.

He said this to me at the Music09 festival in Switzerland, and I have been pondering it ever since, weighing whether it was feasible and whether it would be worth it. It’s one of those notorious pieces where everyone claims it’s ridiculously difficult on multiple fronts – and part of me believes them (because why would they lie?) and part of me doesn’t (because how many have played it over the last 200 years?).

So, I have “permission” from my professor – that as long as I understand what I’m getting into and how big a project this will be, then do it. He also said he would be learning it with me – he’s never actually made a real study of it, but has taught it and read it many times. So that will also be very cool.

Okay then, next question: what to program with it? My first reaction is something French, like one book of Debussy’s Images. So that’s out – I’m definitely looking for something less obvious and more intriguing. This stumped me for a good year – what the heck do you program with it?! So then switched trains of thought: What do people think of when they hear “Hammerklavier”? First, that it’s enormous; second, that it’s real difficult; and third, partially because of the fugue. Fugue – what to pair with a fugue? A PRELUDE.

This was definitely more what I had in mind. Pull together a smattering of preludes by pretty much everyone – Debussy, Chopin, Shostakovich, Scriabin, maybe some late Baroque ones, etc., and end the set with Rachmaninoff’s Bb prelude – both a good set end and a good setup for the Beethoven. Solid.

So I approached my prof about it. He also thought it was a cool idea, but suggested possibly doing a complete set of preludes by one composer. I have to admit, I had considered it, but for some reason dismissed it as being too much (as if the Hammerklavier weren’t already). So he started suggesting complete sets. And I think we both lit up when he got to Shostakovich. I have always wanted to perform them as a set, and I think they’re a great counterbalance to this program.

So, as it stands, that’s my next solo recital program:
Shostakovich: Preludes, Op. 34
Beethoven: Sonata in Bb, Op. 106
It will take me at very minimum a year to learn. And it’s probably the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. No, not probably – it is. This may work, or it may prove too much. But what better opportunity will I ever have than now?

Seriously though, I’m so excited.

Also, if you’re wondering where “kick-awesome” comes from, it’s (of course) in a sbemail:


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My guide then led me to the lowest level. Though by sight it appeared much less torturous than the previous levels, the air was thick with extreme unrelenting anguish. We were in a brightly lit hall housing rows of tables as far as the eye could see. Every few meters along each table sat a man or woman, hunched over what seemed to be stacks of paper and pencils. Along each row walked a man in a powdered wig. It was eerily quiet – indeed, the proctors’ footfalls were the only thing to be heard – but occasionally the silence was broken by a wail or a moan. Among the seated could be seen a man gnashing his teeth and rending his hair.

Instinctively inching closer to my guide, I said, “Herr Bach, what is this awful place?”

“Ah, my child, you have now reached the lowest level of Musicians’ Hell. This is Suspension, reserved for only the greatest crimes against music.”

I turned away from the hall and looked up at him as he nodded to one of the proctors. “But sir,” I said, “I don’t understand. What did they do?”

Looking into the hall, he sighed. “They are guilty of writing bad liturgical music.” The proctor gave him a sideways glance, but said nothing. He looked back at me and said, “They are writers of what you call ‘Worship Songs’.”

A shudder went through my body and I slid even closer.

“These composers, for lack of a better term, are guilty of the most blatant disregard for good music. They have cast aside artistic integrity and solid craft in the name of ‘accessibility,’ of producing great quantities of music at great speed, and caring nothing for the quality of what they produce. Their individual crimes are numerous, but the sum of these crimes is nothing compared to the whole.”

“Sir?” I asked, not daring to finish the question as a wail split the silence.

“These writers are perhaps best known for their abuse of the modulation. For lack of ability to write anything musically captivating, or even interesting, they modulate, and almost always upward. It is not unheard of that a piece should end a perfect fifth higher than it began, simply from modulating toward the heavens. Contrary to their beliefs, these modulations did not actually get them to heaven,” he said with a grin. “Furthermore, they believe it interesting to begin a new unrelated key in the middle of the previous one, with no preparation whatsoever. It is not interesting, it is jarring and painful. There are pieces documented having upwards of twenty-one modulations.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“But that is not all!” he continued. “Far from it. The sin that pains me most is their ludicrous syncopations. One rhythmic side-step to make things interesting is all well and good, even desired! But these people write insanity. Not a single note on a beat. The music falls over its own feet! It cannot stand up, much less dance. And they expect people to play and sing this nonsense – particularly untrained musicians! An abomination.”

He drew several breaths, looking at the floor, and gathered his composure. “Voice leading,” he said quietly. “They have no regard for voice leading.”

“But sir, aren’t the rules not rules, but conventions?” I asked.

“Yes, conventions that make it better for the singer! Hence the name: voice-leading. These parts are anything but easy to sing. Why should anyone be required to jump from a B-flat to an E at a final cadence? That is, quite simply, a crime. But besides that, their reliance on parallel fifths alone could earn them a place here. Parallel fifths, in and of themselves, are not necessarily terrible. But when a string of seven of them, being the bass of seven parallel major chords, comprises the entire phrase…” he trailed off. He needn’t say more.

I interjected. “Sir, B-flat to E? A tri-tone? At a cadence? Surely…”

“I assure you my child. It has happened. One time is too many, but it has happened far more than once. Why? Because these ‘composers’ have a complete disregard for harmony. Their love of unresolved suspensions is despicable beyond language.” He passed his hand over his brow. “They believe that so long as a section (never a whole piece!) begins and ends in the same key, they have the freedom to wander whither they will without consequence. It does not sound interesting – it sounds what it is! Aimless wandering! My child, the tri-tone at the cadence results from the favoring of the lowered seventh in major modes. Some unnameable cluster of notes including the B-flat comes just before the final blaze of C major, and the poor tenor must negotiate this leap because the ridiculous composer didn’t think.”

“Sir, that’s awful!” I said as I looked out over the masses. Still hunched over, still scribbling, gnawing on pencils, erasing furiously.

“Yes. It is. But so are the accompaniments they write for their vocal music.” He looked aside in disgust. “Many of them have a pre-recorded CD, so no instrumentalists are needed. These CDs, I assure you, are some of the most awful things produced. The CDs with live accompaniment are of some poor garage band or pick-up orchestra playing along to a click track. Every single one has a drum set, and rules of orchestration never enter the equation. Let us not mention the MIDI CDs. In the event that a piece comes with an actual instrumental part, it will be banal, awkward, or both. None of these composers understood that there was else a pianist could do besides arpeggios, octaves, and full chords.

“And the annoying tempi! There is no difference between a dotted quarter at sixty ‘steadily,’ or an eighty-four quarter ‘worshipfully,’ or a one-oh-six quarter ‘joyfully.’ They should all be obliterated and marked ‘Moderato: droll’ so as to not delude anyone into thinking they warrant energy or excitement.”

A proctor stopped at a man in the third row from us, bent over his work. The proctor pointed to a place on his paper; the man wept. He reached for a new piece of paper; the proctor moved on.

“And the thing you will perhaps find most disturbing, my child, is their bastardization of existing pieces. All that I have said before, all these terrible things, are applied to pieces already in the canon. I hope you never have to hear the worst that was done to the Star-Spangled Banner, or any number of hymns, or – I am sorry – the beloved theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the so-called ‘Ode to Joy.’ These people change keys, rhythms, meters, harmonies and texts absolutely recklessly, without any regard for the original composers’ intentions, completely changing the meaning of the piece.”

Bach looked out over bowed heads with a mixture of loathing and pity. I swallowed the lump rising in my throat. “Sir, what could possibly be fitting punishment for so great a crime?”

He turned back to me with a glint in his eye.

“Species counterpoint.”

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preludes, etudes, and mazurkas (oh my!)


So why ARE they called Preludes? They’re short pieces, one in each key, major and minor. Okay, like the Well-Tempered Clavier. But Preludes to what? To the next Opus? To each other? To the next thought? They’re just little character pieces, covering the spectrum of emotions – light and airy, dark and brooding, exuberant, lazy, everything. Preludes? My best guess is that it’s a nod to Bach. The counterpoint is such that only a study of Bach could teach, as is the rhythmic play – it just happens to be in the style of the times. This might be Chopin’s way of saying, “these pieces are like Bach’s Preludes of the WTC. Varying in character and in techniques, small little pieces, each a little gem on its own. And counterpoint is the highest art, really.” I can hear the precursor to the Shostakovitch Preludes in here, again little character pieces, but those with homage to Bach in a different sense – more in character than in style.


Oh, the etudes. As much as I don’t think I’m in love with Chopin’s music, I think I’m just telling myself that because I find it the most difficult thing in the world to play. And frankly I’m terrified of the Etudes. I love them – I love the characters, the brilliance, the sounds, the washes of line, color, everything. But when I heard Rubinstein never recorded the Etudes because he never felt like he could play them, that sealed the deal. Why should I, a lowly mortal, even try? Oh, to have the chops to play Chopin well!

I just hit PLAY on the recordings I have on hand: Ashkenazy and Murray Perahia. Just on the first etude: Ashkenazy has crystal clarity on every. single. note. It’s incredible. And Perahia has the wave effect going on – washes up and down the keyboard, still with incredibly clarity, but not to the effect that you are forced to notice every note – your ear is more drawn toward the line. Continuing on, I’m not sure whose I like better. Ashkenazy seems more interesting, sometimes even quirky, but Perahia appears more coherent. Is the a “definitive recording” of these etudes? You know, sometimes there’s that ONE recording that everyone talks about. If there’s ONE of the Etudes, I don’t recall.


Listening to the Mazurkas (and considering the Preludes and Etudes), I’ve concluded that Chopin should officially have the title, “the master of the character piece” alongside Schumann. Just because they’re in a specific form or idiom doesn’t mean they aren’t some of the best character pieces ever written. The expression, the compositional style, everything. Each one is a consideration of a mood, or a thought, or an image, or a feeling – so eloquent, poetic.

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die frauen

fanny mendelssohn

das jahr

January. The first word that comes to mind when hearing this piece is “bleak.” The outer registers of the keyboard, the sparse textures, it all sounds like a snow-covered dead world. The opening descending bass sounds like the hopelessness of winter. The high chords that attempt to counter it are the weak sunlight trying to push through the clouds and melt the snow, but to no effect.  Even the more lyrical, major middle section is searching more than declaiming – saying, “oh, it’s not so bad, remember it will be over soon.” Then a look back out the window reminds us that winter is still everywhere.

February. This charming little scherzo is a fun romp in the snow. Snowflakes, snowmen, snowball fights, snow. Little gusts of wind nip and bite, and the sun shines a little brighter. So what if there’s a blizzard? There’s more daylight! At least we can enjoy it.

March. The coming of spring. First, the rain showers, and the puddles. Not particularly beautiful, but necessary for new life. Then, what sounds like a spring prayer. Incidentally, I immediately identified this chorale-like section with a Lenten prayer, the kind I used to sing in church as a child. The kind of song that only gets sung in drab, grey weather, hoping for new sun. Then, finally, the song of Thanksgiving. The sun! The glorious warmth of a new day. All the grey waiting was worth it, and the world has returned anew again.

April. Alternating between enjoying the new weather and a flurry of activity. Air out the bedding! Clean out the storage! Company is coming! There is work to be done! Tend the garden! But oh, isn’t the air wonderful? Stop and breathe for a minute, don’t waste it after such a long winter. Then everything stops… was that a raindrop? Oh no, take cover! Thunderstorm! The rains aren’t over yet. It is, in fact, still spring.

May. A time for social outings. Enjoying each other’s company. The lilting rhythm gives a laid-back feel to the whole atmosphere, but do I sense some anxiety in the trills and harmonies? (Does she like me?)

June. To me, this movement is staring up at the starry sky and getting lost in thought. Concern about every day problems, love, life, family, reaching out to existential issues – why am I here? I am so small, in comparison with the rest of this world, of this sky. What’s beyond the sky? What that I do here in my infinitesimal life will have an impact on anything out there? And then, having found no answers, going to bed.

July. The harmonies tell us it’s getting hot. Hazy. Oppressive. Nobody wants to move, they just want to sit around and try to be as comfortable as possible. Are those clouds on the horizon? Can’t really tell for the haze.

August. Is that… Yes! The fair! The entire neighborhood is out enjoying themselves. Socializing, playing games, seeing the sights, eating, haggling, staying out late, watching the parade, having a great time. The horn calls must be played by a live band, and announce its opening.

September. It’s starting to get colder, the leaves are starting to change. The wind swirls around, there’s a chill in the air. A short uplifting middle section asks, aren’t the leaves beautiful! Yes, they are, and it’s getting darker earlier. Time to pull out the heavier blankets, light a fire in the fireplace.

October. Horn fifths can only mean one thing: the hunt! All the excitement and chase of the hunt is captured here. The tromping through the forest, running after the prey, and finally triumphantly returning home to the women, who absolutely glow over the catch.

November. The opening betrays concern about the upcoming winter. There is wonder about how bad it will be, whether they are prepared enough. Attempting to reassure themselves, that it is just another winter. But why does winter have to come, why can’t it still be summer. And then, the first snow. Swirling and flurrying and dancing and blowing. This blustery episode gets everyone excited for a while before it ends. And then, in descending motion, everyone understands: winter has begun.

December. This begins with seeming disbelief at the snow, then acceptance and even joy at seeing it. Then, once more, the song of thanksgiving. However, this time it’s a different kind. It’s thanks for the past year, for family, friends, and all the joy that it brought. It’s a warm blanket instead of a shout to the heavens.

Postlude. This chorale reminded me of a Bach chorale. I didn’t need to know the words to imagine that it was a prayer, asking for a blessing, for guidance in the coming year, for wisdom, and love.

My favorites: March, July

clara schumann

four character pieces op 5

Impromptu, “Le Sabbat”. This scherzo-like piece is quite playful. Its semitone grace notes and constant leaps give it the attitude of a troublemaker. The dance rhythms, strong accents, and triple meter keep it moving forward.

Caprice a la Bolero. This sprightly Spanish dance is full of fiery energy. With strummed broken chords in the left hand and rapidly picked scales and repeated notes in the right, it is every bit the imitation of a guitar. The slower, middle section is more lyrical and more pianistic, with a lovely undulating accompaniment beneath the singing melody.

Romance. A simple, and simply beautiful, Romantic Romance. It is a heartfelt melody brought to life by really beautiful harmonic turns. There are no rhythmic tricks, just an outpouring of emotion.

Scene fantastique (Le Ballet des Revenants). Translation: The ballet of returns. It opens with tritones in the bass in a characteristic dance rhythm, which return throughout the piece either as those same tritones or as fifths. This piece isn’t so much music for a ballet as a musical depiction of the ballet. Fast, light figures depict quick movements across the stage; grace notes show the flash of toes in leaps; a single melody against a thicker background denotes a solo dance standing out from the troupe.

variations op 20

My notes on this piece are in the next paragraph, a play by play per variation. But as I listened to it, what I found most interesting was how it compared to Robert’s variations, how it compared to more traditional Classical variations, and by that token, how of left field the Symphonic Etudes are. Because they are variations, but other than being based on roughly the same harmonic structure and having a scrap of the opening melody, each movement is wildly different. In Clara’s Op. 20, as in most (if not all) Classical variations, the original material is still clearly heard, recognizable. It’s dressed in different colors, under different guises, takes a new mood, but doesn’t vary wildly from one variation to the next and never gets lost. This seems to be the M.O. for Clara’s music: it’s not particularly inventive, but it’s beautiful and well-written. It won’t cause any revolutions or new schools of thought, but it would certainly sell tickets.

(Notes: The theme is simple enough, a beautiful chorale. The first variation embellishes the voices and spices up the harmonies a bit via suspensions. The second is repeated notes, then a rhapsodic outpouring, back to repeated notes. Third, back to a chorale. Simpler than the first, but it avoids tonalizing itself until the second phrase. Seems to be more painful because of its simplicity. Suspensions are much more noticable. Ends in major! Fourth, melody in center of texture, RH has running arpeggios, LH chords or climbing figures beneath melody. Reminds me of Liszt. Fifth, octaves in LH, melody w chords in RH. Sixth, imitation in lower voice. Like a song. Seventh, Sounds like Chopin. Rolling chords, rolling gestures between hands for accompaniment. Transitions into Chorale, in major. Embellished ending.)

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rondo capriccioso

This is such a charming piece. It’s quirky and fun and just a joy to hear. The introduction is slow and lyrical, and links directly with the rondo itself, reminding me of the attacca link between slow and fast movements in Beethoven sonatas (and string quartets.) The opening melodic gesture of the Andante is a descending tonic triad (E major), linking the introduction and Rondo thematically. This singing line is embellished, and soon builds into sixteenth-note sequences, leading ultimately to fortissimo descending octaves. The original theme attempts a return, but is thwarted by the bass, suddenly turned minor, and trails off. A dominant arpeggio warily climbs the keyboard, and after wavering for a thought on the leading tone, plunges into the Rondo proper.

The main rondo theme is in e minor, in 6/8, built imitatively (right-left-right). The main motive – a pickup of two sixteenths followed by two eighths – becomes the building block for the rest of the piece. The LH’s supportive pattern is frequently eighth notes, but phrased such that the pickup eighth, downbeat eighth, and subsequent staccato eighth are unmistakably derived from the opening four-note motive. The form is a fairly straightforward rondo: ABACADcoda, with D being a combination of both B and C. The B section itself is fairly short, based largely on the original thematic rhythms and slipping into the fairly unadventurous key of G major. The C section, a rather extended episode, introduces the first lyrically melodic material since the introduction. First in the right hand with repeated chords in the left, then in the left with undulating arpeggios in the right, it eventually dissolves into a flurry of arpeggios and octaves. Another melody makes an attempt over top the original motive, but is thwarted. The Rondo section returns. It sounds as if it’s going to be the B section again, but now it’s in E major. And instead of the Rondo theme returning, it transitions directly into the lyrical theme – this time in E major also (instead of G). (The key scheme is remarkably like sonata form.) Again, it dissolves into a much extended cadence of arpeggios, and the main Rondo theme returns once more, in E minor, to close out the piece in a virtuosic coda full of octaves and V-i. It ends in e minor.

variations serieuses

This is a rather Classical set of variations – a theme provides the basis for the entire piece, and is gradually built upon, staying in the same key almost the entire time. The main theme is a mourning, chorale-like song in d-minor, containing an abundance of sighs, semitones, and sadness. The first variation maintains the melody and harmonic structure, and adds a winding sixteenth-note line through the middle of the texture (in the tenor), full of chromaticism.  The bass is now punctuated octaves, generally following the original line, but now more pronounced. The second variation maintains the melodic and harmonic structure, but fills in the sustained notes with sextuplets. The alto and tenor have them together while the soprano sustains, and the soprano uses them to fill in before large leaps while the alto and tenor sustain. The bass attempts to maintain its original line, but at times drops out.

Variation three marks the disappearance of the true four-voice texture. This variations is imitative between right and left hand, staccato chords in the right and octaves in the left. It maintains the harmonic structure of the piece, but not the melody. The fourth variation is again imitative sixteenth-notes in four-note groups, but this time concurrent instead of alternating. The right hand also has eighth-notes on the “and”s of beats.

The fifth variation is simple alternation of sustained chords between hands. It attempts to bring back the original melody, but the harmonic structure is changed. It maintains d minor throughout instead of cadencing on F major after the first phrase. The sixth brings back the harmonic structure. It is aggressive chords bouncing between registers, creating two different lines occurring simultaneously. Variation seven is very similar to the original theme in structure (harmonically, melodically). Full RH chords underlined by LH octaves are linked by rocketing RH arpeggios.

Variation eight again does away with melody in favor of harmonic structure. Here are blindingly fast toccata-like triplets in the RH grounded by octaves in the left. In the ninth variation, the left hand joins the party. Both hands temporarily stop on and punctuate several downbeats to serve as a reminder of the original melody, and to underscore the harmonic motion.

Variation ten is a welcome break from this flurry of notes – a fughetta. It is a return to four voices, the first true four-voice texture since the second variation. Also, the A-G# and D-C# of the first two entrances of the fughetta hearken back to the very first notes of the melody. The eleventh variation is built on a texture that reminds me of the Songs Without Words – a lyrical melody, and a bass that alternates with a syncopated inner voice. Harmonically this variation is less stable: it is highly chromatic and tends to avoid tonic.

Variation twelve is back to the flurries of notes. Lots and lots of repeated notes. Original harmonic structure, non-stop double-notes. Thirteen places the melody in the tenor, with the bass punctuating and reinforcing it and the soprano running chromatic arpeggios and other commentary over top.

Fourteen is an absolutely beautiful Adagio in D major, bringing back the four-part texture (the bass doubled at the octave.) At this point in the piece, I am reminded of Bach’s D Minor Chaconne – an ethereal light of major in a sea of minor.

Fifteen is back to D minor, and rather moody – the bass begins in falling tritones, and the right hand is syncopated, sustained over the left, creating suspensions. The sixteenth and seventeenth variations link together, going back to the original harmony, triplets between the hands (downbeat in one, filler in the other). This eventually breaks down, until the original theme appears over a tremolo A in the bass… and then Presto (literally) alternating syncopated chords take over, based on the original material, closing out the piece in a virtuosic cascade of chords and arpeggios, ending solemnly on three D minor chords.

prelude and fugue in e minor

I really like the Prelude. It is both like and unlike Bach. It’s got the typical melody built into a harmonic pattern, but here the melody is stand-alone and the harmonic pattern is really more of an accompaniment (instead of giving rise to the melody itself.) In addition, the melody is in the inner voice, something typically Romantic. It’s a very songful melody, and at times I imagined it could have been from one of Mendelssohn’s songs. It was distinctly Mendelssohn, but respectful of the traditional Prelude we all know and love.

On the other hand, I felt like this Fugue was having an identity crisis. My very first thought was how complicated the subject was. I wondered, what in the world is he going to do with all this chromatic stuff? And to my surprise, he didn’t really do much. Sure, there were some non-tonic notes, but the fugue itself wasn’t nearly as dissonant as its own subject. He seems to have written really good counterpoint that reveres Bach. However, Bach was pretty dissonant. It’s rare to find a downbeat without a suspension, nevermind all four voices landing on that downbeat within the triad! Mendelssohn’s just sounded kind of safe. If he wanted to write Bach, write Bach. If he wanted to write Mendelssohn, stop trying to sound so much like Bach. Then he got into the sixteenth notes and shortened the subject – I figured, okay, he’s creating a new subject from the original. Double fugue… ish. The sixteenth notes get piled thicker and faster, eventually turning into a left-hand line, at which point I said out loud to my speakers, “What are you doing? Who are you?” The sequences, the forshortening, the dissolution of counterpoint, I was hearing the finale of Beethoven’s 110. Then it all slows down and out of nowhere comes the Chorale, in E major. It sounds like Bach. I don’t know which one it is, if it is. It doesn’t appear to have a motivic relationship with the fugue (not that that’s a bad thing, but it adds to its out-of-nowhere-ness.) Then the fugue itself returns, in its forshortened form, in E major, to close it out.

After I finished listening, I sat back and thought. Whereas the Prelude was a quiet nod to Bach,  in the Fugue it appeared that Mendelssohn was saying, “I love Bach! I love how he wrote! Listen! I love his music, it is incredible!” However, I lost them all in translation. I heard a lot of Bach imitation; whether or not the Beethoven reference was intentional, it was rather distracting; I heard too much of everyone else to hear much Mendelssohn. I’m still not sure whether I like or dislike it. I’m too confused to form an opinion yet.

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