feb 24

Polyphonic Sketches

The following are excerpts from a project of mine called fugues-a-mess. I had mock-recorded these 7 fugues for violin alone with the intention of recording them at The Academy of Arts and Letters at some point. These are rough drafts. Each fugue is coupled with a small write-up to better introduce the piece and composer.

Béla Bartók: fuga (risoluto, non troppo vivo)

Very few composers “grab” me more than Béla Bartók. In fact, many musicians and composers consider this 20th century Hungarian to be on par with J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. This Fugue is one of the movements from Bartók’s ambitious sonata for solo violin. Written for Lord Yehudi Menuhin, the solo sonata was the last completed work Bartók composed before his death in 1945. The movement is marked ‘Risoluto’ (determined); composing in bed while dying of cancer, one can imagine why he marked it such. This movement is act two of four in what I have come to refer as “the chemotherapy sonata.” Bartók reserves any wistfulness for other movements. Here, the Fugue is unwavering with its relentless and gripping quality. Rage, confusion, helplessness: Bartók presents a vast spectrum of colors surrounding his frustrations in this dark and stormy masterpiece.

Max Reger: fugue in e minor

The 20th century arrived like a whirlwind for classical music. In the first decades, tonality was nixed by Arnold Schoenberg in favor of serialism; Impressionists like Maurice Ravel substituted structure in favor for texture. Some composers, however, dwelled in the ruins of the old, longing to take it to even greater heights. Max Reger was one such composer. Rightfully nostalgic for the times of Bach through Brahms, he wrote prolifically in the style of the old German masters. His works were highly criticized and he never achieved much notice. Certainly, Reger’s convictions were as strong as any trailblazing modernist’s. And I find his works to offer much delight. When listened in conjunction with those he best emulated, Reger’s works hold tremendous value. Regarding his fugal compositions, he is quoted:

“Other people write fugues — I live inside them.”

This short yet wonderfully crafted piece is taken from Preludes and Fugues for Solo Violin No. 3 Opus 117.

J.S. Bach: fugue in g minor

I must admit that Fugues feel a wee naked without their usual Prelude (in this case, an Adagio). So, here, I will do my best to “introduce” it. J.S. Bach’s opening Solo Sonata in G Minor (BWV 1001) is one of the most played and recognized of his Six Sonatas and Partitas (Six Solo). This seemingly short and swift little ‘fuguette’ is actually more than three times longer than any Fugue Bach wrote for keyboard. In fact, all three Six Solo Fugues are quite epic in scale. With regard to its architecture, Bach is not overly strict. We find the music breaking away from the Fugue subject to explore material on a good number of occasions. Bach’s genius is his ability to both adhere to the rules of the Fugue form, while allowing the music to wander free. Remarkably, the Six Solo only began to rise out of obscurity some two-hundred years after they were written. The Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti is largely responsible for promoting their importance which, unquestionably, is now felt by all.

Eugène Ysaÿe: fugue in g minor

Eugène Ysaÿe, the great Belgium violinist, composed Six Sonatas for Solo Violin (Opus 27) out of his immense regard for J.S. Bach. The sonatas pay homage to Bach’s own master opus, written two-hundred years prior, via structure and form. But Opus 27 is far from neo-classicism. It’s a vehicle for a whole new brand of violin playing. This Fugue is the second movement from the first Sonata and is titled ‘Fugato’ — a movement with fugue-like stylings. Not unlike Bach’s Fugue from his first Sonata in G Minor, this is more of a Fugue fantasy. Free and exploring, this work is not chained to the Fugue subject at every moment and what results is an incredibly expressive yet well mannered piece of music. From its timid opening to its enormous coda, ‘Fugato’ is a musical smorgasbord and is exemplary of Opus 27 as a whole. We violinists peer into the past and marvel at the greatest virtuoso who ever lived with these Sonatas. Yet I am certain Ysaÿe would have been floored to learn that his master opus would go on to join the ranks of Bach’s.

J.S. Bach: fugue in c major

Classical Guitarist Paul Galbraith once wrote that J.S. Bach’s Six Solo serves as narrative for the birth, passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This has become my outlook as well. What crystallized it for me was the final Sonata in C Major (BWV 1005). The Sonata begins with a sorrowful Adagio: imagery of a limping Jesus Christ carrying a cross on his back is hard to miss. What follows is a celebration of life in the form of a Fugue. It is filled with ecstasy and joy. In fact, the highest notes of the whole Six Solo are present herein. The Fugue subject is rooted with the Lutheran hymn Komm Heiliger Geist (Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God). In the final development section, the Fugue subject is introduced flipped on its head. This inverted material creates a small Fugue within a Fugue keeping things whimsical and fresh. This is the longest known Fugue Bach ever wrote (for any instrument). The lengthy coda is a gesture of completeness: theme and coda serving as bookends on a joyous musical story of jubilee.

Alfred Schnittke: fugue in d minor

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts by composer Alfred Schnittke is his Fugue for Solo Violin (Opus 11). He was just a teenager when he wrote it and a “good-pupil” sensibility is clearly present. But as prim and proper as it is, Schnittke’s signature snarl resonates throughout. His music can be violent like Shostakovich and angular like Schoenberg. Listeners can sometimes feel disoriented or abandoned — but those were his intentions, I believe. Schnittke often sandwiches opposite subjects like heaven and hell, life and death. In fact, no other modern composer juxtaposed good versus evil more thoroughly or successfully. This Fugue is eerie and wonderfully demonic. The fugal subject itself is reminiscent to a wounded hell-monster limping closer and closer. Or how about the unrelenting “blows” before the climax? The demon that cannot be slaughtered and is endlessly approaching can only be escaped by fleeing. This work is a gem and serves as a good precursor to the breathtaking Schnittke compositions that were to follow.

J.S. Bach: fugue in a minor

In the time of J.S. Bach, a significant burgeoning of violin playing was taking place in Germany. Also a splendid violinist, Bach would have been inspired by the enormous talents the German School of violin playing was producing. The difficulty of this Fugue in A Minor (taken from the second Sonata of the Six Solo BWV 1003) indicates the enormous ability of the new violinist. There are passages within that are commensurate to something one would find in a Paganini caprice. Committing it to memory is certainly not easy, either. It’s a little like retaining the directions to a long and confusing maze. Bach is at his absolute best here with this complex work. He weaves the fugue subject into myriad of shapes all fitting perfectly into each other. Time seems to stand still as the music spans into infinity. But, alas, Bach brings us out of his musical labyrinth resolving it on a enormous four-note chord in A Major!


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