Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some thoughts about writing fugues for solo guitar, D flat and B flat minor

D flat major is a very unforgiving key for guitarists. If you don't care about actually writing tonal music then you can incorporate all sorts of notes that aren't in the key that are easily obtained on open strings. I have considered this possibility once in a while. It would be easier to write a prelude and fugue in D flat major if I were just going for a pitch center without worrying about modality or traditional harmony.

Yet for what I want to do with my 24 preludes and fugues I don't want to take this route. The opening preludes and fugues have a deliberately conservative style harkening as much back to Legnani and Haydn as to Bach. The C minor prelude and fugue, particularly, are stringently old-school Baroque in bearing. I played the prelude in C minor at church last Sunday and someone actually asked me if I played a piece by Bach. No, but thanks for thinking what I wrote sounded enough like Bach to be confused with s0mething he wrote! The fugue I have not played in any public setting but it has fully invertible triple counterpoint, which is no small feat in composing for the guitar.

The C sharp minor prelude and fugue were done a long time ago and are much more modern. Yet I don't want to have D flat major just jump straight into a modernist sound. I would like it to stay more or less in a Baroque or Classic era style. As any guitarist will have surmised this far into this blog entry a purely or even primarily diatonic treatment of D flat major presents numerous difficulties. There are reasons so few guitarists have written much in this key signature.

When we guitarists talk about how our repertoire is as beautiful as other msuic in the classical repertoire this often feels like a kind of defiant self-rationalization. When I hear guitarists talk about how terrible and impersonal the piano sounds I have some idea what they think this means but I don't believe them. The guitar is not more inherently expressive an instrument than a violin or a piano or a drum or the human voice. In terms of how guitarists seem to approach the repertoire as performers and composers we are a group that can pay lip service to wanting a comprehensive approach to our instrument and then play the same old warhorses over and over again, frequently transcriptions of keyboard literature by Bach and Albeniz that enterprising guitarists adapted to the instrument.

Consider that in his method for the guitar no less than Sor himself said "a tolerable pianist cannot be a bad guitarist." He also wrote:

To arrange any piece for an instrument which cannot render it properly, is rather to derange it; and instead of saying "arranged" for such an instrument, the expression should be "sacrificed to" such an instrument.

Clearly many pieces of music have been sacrificed to the guitar.

For this reason it is valuable for guitarists, even merely competent guitarists, to not be afraid of composing in even the most difficult keys. However modest the results may be it is better that we as guitarists should not pretend that our instrument is more forgiving than it is. But we should also not pretend that our instrument is less forgiving than it is, either. Keys such as B flat minor and A flat major present substantial difficulties and certainly no form or style of music reveals this difficulty more than traditional contrapuntal music.

But by now two non-guitarist composers, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Rekhin to be precise, have shown that contrapuntal music for two guitars and even one guitar is possible, if admittedly not practical for most guitarists. I trust that the great guitarist and composer Nikita Koshkin will establish that contrapuntal music written by a guitarist will be even more idiomatic and appropriate in terms of form and expression.

I had absolute no idea these composers had all blazed new trails before me when I started composing my project back in 2006. I learned about the duet first around 2007, Rekhin's solo in 2009 and Koshkin's project just a few months ago. I have been pleased with what I have been able to study of each cycle.

What these more recent cycles for solo guitar establish is that despite the grand claims made on behalf of the guitar that our repertoire is not inferior to other repertoire for other solo instruments this is a debatable claim. It's easy to claim the guitar is more versatile in its solo repertoire than solo repertoire for the bassoon or the flute. Not even Robert Dick's extended techniques on the flute can create as much musical texture or harmony as a guitarist playing a simple etude by Sor or Giuliani. The most outlandish multiphonics available on the French horn are still not as commonly employed as simple chord patterns on a guitar.

But this is all smoke and mirrors compared to the keyboard literature. There have been a few works for solo guitar that have aspired to be the "Hammerklavier" of solo guitar music and arguably none of them sustain the intensity of Beethoven's thematic and structural deveopment. Certainly none of them are able to match the sheer density and length of Beethoven's masterpiece from his piano sonatas, much less his late B flat string quartet or his Fifth symphony.

Sor's illustration from his method is useful, if we take a symphony and shrink it down to one third of its proportions then we will have a work for piano. If we repeat this process and shrink the piano's music down to one third of what it is then we have the guitar. We're talking about, at most, obtaining about one fifth of what is possible for a chamber orchestra (remember that orchestra's in Sor's time were not nearly as big as the ones we think of). If the guitar is a miniature orchestra Sor concedes that it is a miniature orchestra stripped of a great deal of its colors and tonal range as well as capacity for musical detail. A great deal can be done but he still ends up saying that adapting music to an instrument is to sacrifice the music to that instrument.

So rather than continuing to arrange Bach or Albeniz and to sacrifice so much music to the guitar; rather than sacrificing Bach's brilliant counterpoint to the guitar in so many ways; shouldn't guitarists be brave enough, even foolish enough or reckless enough, to attempt to create our own native contrapuntal repertoire? A few great guitarists have attempted this in the past but never on the scale of 24 preludes and fugues as Koshkin recently finished. I'm not done with my set and I can't claim my set will be anything as brilliant as what Koshkin has created because I am not a great guitarist, merely a competent one.

On the other hand, I'm not doing this to compete with one of my favorite living composers but to have fun. There is something to be said for doing something because nobody told you it couldn't be done. It's not a matter of proving anyone wrong, really, but just doing the hard work, sometimes immensely hard work, of figuring out how something can be done rather than giving up or never giving the thing a thought in the first place. I've been wanting to do something like this for about a decade and have only in the last few years finally developed the conceptual and technical competence to work on the project.

So, to this D flat key. Because my hands are what they are and my instrument is what it is, I have to think about what is and isn't practical in D flat major. It's a fairly dark key and not a very resonant key. Consider that an apparently simple difference in key makes for a huge difference in resonance and in what a great guitarist considers doing in a given key. Let's consult Legnani's caprices.

For C sharp minor (caprice 26) Legnani opens with a lively tempo and fancy fretwork. He knows that it won't be long before he shifts to relative major and so he can afford a complex musical texture. Of course if you know the caprices you know none of them are very long but even for their brevity tempo and texture are highly instructive.

If we want to see just how fast and free Legnani is willing to get in the relative major key of C sharp minor, good old E major, consult caprice 36 and 11. Because he knows he can rely on open strings he takes a more unfettered approach. He knows he can lean on open strings and does not need many drastic position shifts for the left hand to get a pleasing musical texture.

By contrast caprice 32, in B flat minor is slow and stately. What is more even its secondary theme is in D major, a substantially easier key. The 16th caprice in D flat major is comparably slow and stately, much like the introduction to a Haydn symphony or string quartet. Neither of these caprices has particularly thick or busy textures. Slow and steady (and short!) wins the race. If you have access to the scores you will also notice a propensity to interrupt fuller chords with many asides, small solos and two-voiced textures that imply rather than flesh out.

As for Rekhin's prelude and fugue in B flat minor--yes, it's quite fast, it also lasts barely one minute. The corresponding fugue is 2 minutes long and has a mid-tempo subject that exploits the B-A-C-H motif. So Rekhin, not committed to a strictly Baroque or Classical style, readily and wisely exploits the chromatic nature of the BACH motif to get open strings working in his favor.

Rekhin's prelude in D flat major is 2.5 minutes while the fugue itself isn't even 2 minutes, closing around 1:45 and not even staying strictly in D flat for long at all. The textures in the prelude, if you happen to have the score or recordings handy, are actually quite thin and are wonderfully evocative of a much fuller harmony than the two or three voices ever fully spell out in any one moment.

I have found in my own attempts to create something pleasing in D flat major that I have constantly failed up to this point. I composed a pleasant fugue in B flat minor years ago and this was in no small part because I exploited the possibilities of a classic idea, an expanding chromatic wedge. But for D flat major this idea is not so readily used. Thanks to the length Baroque tradition of the passacaglia--of the descending chromatic line in a minor key--there are all sorts of fun ways to exploit a slow tempo and a wedge to great effect. The major keys, however, are not so easily navigated! Consider the scales as follows:

B flat C D flat E flat F G flat A natural B flat
D flat E flat F G flat A flat B flat C D flat

In B flat minor the leading tone is A natural, which means at least a handful of notes could be taken on an open string or from a simple position. In some cases the leading tone could be taken as a harmonic. Secondary dominants, of course, permit the use of E natural so that a phrygian half cadence is only taken if you want it for a strong harmonic effect.

D flat major, by contrast, has no notes that can be taken on an open string. You have to employ modal mutation and go into C sharp minor/D flat minor and enharmonically take advantage of open strings. I may yet do that, but for the sake of the exposition and the close of the fugue I want to actually be in D flat major and not necessarily in the opening of the 12th string quartet by Shostakovich kind of way!

As I've been strongly implying throughout, I have not yet come up with ideas I feel really happy with. I'm going for a particular sound, a fairly plain-jane Baroque/Classic era kind of tune with an unpretentious development into a three voiced fugue that may just be a two-voiced fugue. Per an earlier blog entry I believe that the point at which you add voices and cannot obtain fully invertible counterpoint between all your melodic lines is probably the point where you should cut out one of your ideas and go with the exposition tha DOES have invertible counterpoint. But that's just me. Clearly most fugue-writers in the last century don't (as far as I can tell) seem to have had that maxim.

At the risk of invoking a stereotype, there have been American Indian tribes that hunt this or that animal as a staple food and who make use of every part of the animal because an animal being the staple of your daily or weekly life doesn't mean you should just go hunt for another one when you've stripped the carcass of everything that could be used to make food. Well, that is how I think one should approach counterpoint. There is no necessity of hunting for yet another melody to add to your contrapuntal texture until you have figured out what you can do with the stuff you already have. I'm afraid that many fugues written by many composers are overstuffed and over-busy with a dearth of truly memorable tunes. Fugues are poems, like sonnets perhaps, where every word is essential and must do important work in the meaning of the poem as well as iserving a role within the poetic structure. I'm still working all that out for D flat major.

I can say, at least, that I am down to the prelude and fugue in D flat major, the fugue in D minor, the fugue in E minor, and the prelude in B major. I can also say that my survey of the not-very-many pieces in D flat major (Aubert Lemeland's Duo Variations for viola and guitar, for instance is in D flat major) has shown that it is a dark key but a key capable of warmth. It may be likened to a very strong drink, perhaps a mixture of rum and hot chocolate with spices in it. It is pleasant but dark and potent and best taken in in small doses and not too quickly. If D major is like water for a guitarist and can be drunk quickly and frequently with no ill effects D flat major is more like a strong wine. I guess, I'm not really much of a wine drinker most of the time, actually. Certainly I haven't gone out of my way to drink alcohol since I lost my job nearly two years ago! I'm just casting about for some metaphors that I hope may make this less inscrutable musical nerd gibberish and more like something that might make sense.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, really enjoyed reading it. Pleased your cycle has got so far - well done.

Paul, UK

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Thank you.

About a month ago I finished the prelude and fugue in D flat major and to my surprise it has turned out to be a double fugue. Two expositions, first in D flat major, second in A flat major and then I found a way to present subject 1 and 2 together at the climax of the fugue and develope the two subjecst together through the end. I even managed to round up the fugue with subject 2 being played above an augementation of itself. I ended up writing another entry more recently about tackling the double fugue.