Monday, August 08, 2011

Some more ruminations on contrapuntal literature and the guitar

In the first half of the 1700s Bach compiled what has become the Well Tempered Clavier (aka The Correctly Tempered Keyboard). 48 preludes and fugues have defined Western musical literature and concepts in ways so far-reaching that it would be tedious to rehearse what so many other better scholars, musicians, and composers have already said.

However, as a guitarist with an interest in the history of contrapuntal literature for the guitar there are some things that I believe are worth saying. More than ten years ago Matanya Ophee said that we guitarists should shed any inferiority complex we have about our instrument and its literature. This I agree with. He also said that chamber music was arguably the best way for guitarists and guitarist composers to create a musical body of work that would win respect from general audiences but particularly from non-guitarist professional musicians and academics. This, too, I heartily agree with.

In the last five or six years I have seen a few discussions amongst fellow guitarists about how we should not see ourselves as constrained to playing second rate music because we don't play the keyboard. Well ... my worry has been that while that is something I can grant as true I grant that on a technicality. There is a lot of great music for the guitar, but often what guitarists seem to really mean when they say the guitar and its literature is as good as anything written and performed on a keyboard is that the guitar is more "expressive" and has "soul". Some cite Segovia as saying things such as that the piano is a monster that screams when you touch its teeth. These sorts of statements don't help guitarists with the non-guitarist historical-musical world, do they?

Supposing we say for the sake of discussion that the guitar is not inferior to the keyboard and keyboard literature. Suppose we even pretend that the guitar is more expressive. Suppose we even go so far as to say that Bach didn't write for the guitar but that he didn't write for the piano either. Well ... klavier can refer to any stringed instrument played by means of a keyboard, right? So whether the strings are played by plucking or by being struck with a hammer it's the keyboard that activates the sounding mechanism. Even if we guitarists try to claim that Bach didn't "really" write for the piano that doesn't change the reality that Bach wrote for organ and for harpsichord and that harpsichord still fits the definition of klavier.

Notice what was going on in that argument/assertion I responded to. The goal was to say that Bach essentially didn't write for the piano because he wasn't writing for the same kind of keyboard the piano is, therefore the pianist can no more say Bach wrote for their instrument than he wrote for the guitar. But this seems like a slippery and remarkably disingenuous argument, doesn't it?

Let me come up with a historical counter-example. Let's note that Bach compiled both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier somewhere in the space of 1720 to 1740. When was the first set of preludes and fugues for any number of guitars composed? Well, that would be Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's charming cycle for two guitars that he wrote in the 1960s. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, we note, famously was a pianist and not a guitarist.

Okay, so when was a cycle of preludes and fugues for solo guitar composed? That would be Igor Rekhin, who composed his cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar between 1985 and 1990. So far as I know Rekhin is not himself a guitarist. If he is there needs to be better publicity and we must not take at face value his remarks about getting acquainted with the guitar as an instrument in the forward to the published complete set.

So now I am very much looking forward to the publication of the scores and CDs of Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar. Notice that these works have not yet been published. The score will be available, Koshkin has written, through Editions Margaux, and his wife Asya Seyultina is recording the cycle. So for the sake of historical discussion I'm not even mentioning my own yet-to-be-completed cycle as relevant since I'm not a professional composer. Maybe that will change in the future (I hope).

My point is that if we consider 1720 to be the compilation point for book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier and consider that Koshkin's cycle will constitute the first time in classical music that a guitarist composer will have published a set of 24 preludes and fugues this means there is effectively a three century gap between Bach's first 24 and Koshkin's 24. Three centuries is not a small temporal gap, to put things mildly.

Of course Sor wrote works in pretty much every key, though not in a particularly systemic way. Luigi Legnani wrote his 36 caprices and if this could be taken as one of the formative compositional cycles in which a guitarist insisted on composing in every possible major and minor key around 1822. That is still, if we assume Legnani to be the first guitarist to deliberately tackle every key, a whole century after Bach assembled Book 1. Sor's own fairly comprehensive approach to the keys was taking shape in the 1820s so guitarists were coming into a comparable comprehensive mastery of all keys a century after Bach for reasons that, let's face it, can't be hard to discern.

We guitarists should shed any inferiority complex about our instrument and its literature but if we do this by attempting to claim Bach as as much ours as keyboardists we'll be making a big mistake. Bach belongs to all musicians but we know he wrote at the keyboard. There's no pretending that Bach didn't write at a keyboard. There is also no avoiding the reality that though the greatest guitarist composers chose to write in every key possible and expand the possibilities of the instrument most guitarists do not really go out of their way to play this sort of literature.

And while we should have no inferiority complex about our instrument and its repertoire we will not solve any problems or create any goodwill from other people in the music community by having a superiority complex about how the guitar is more expressive than the keyboard. No one gains anything for the cause of our instrument by saying the piano has no soul or expression and that there is no way to gain vibrato or tasto or ponticello on the piano. That doesn't mean that Beethoven's Op. 111 piano sonata is really less expressive or meaningful to people than one of Diabelli's guitar sonatas. Diabelli was one of Beethoven's contemporaries and I trust we all know that if we compare a Diabelli guitar sonata to a Beethoven piano sonata we're going to find most people consider Beethoven's work to be more moving. Only a case of classical guitar nerdiness that exceeds Wolverine fans can imagine that a Diabelli sonata for guitar trumps a Beethoven sonata for piano, just as only a Wolverine fanboy can imagine that Wolverine will actually beat Captain America in a fight. Yeah ... I know, I went there but I can't pretend I'm not kind of nerdy about everything. By analogy, those sorts of disputes about comic book characters fighting each other are comparably esoteric and meaningless to the average concert-goer.

At the risk of offering the blunt comparison of commercial recordings, how many commercially available recordings can we find of keyboard players who have recorded both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier? How many guitarists have made commercial recordings of all of Legnani's Op. 20 36 Caprices? How many guitarists have recorded the Op. 6 and Op. 29 etudes? How many guitarists have performed the Castelnuovo-Tedesco or Rekhin cycles? Even if we were to say these are works not written by guitarists we know that makes no difference. For instance, has ANYONE besides Anthony Glise recorded Diabelli's F major guitar sonata? Piero Bonaguri may have recorded them twenty years ago but good luck finding that recording if it still exists. I've never seen it or heard it myself so Glise's recording of the Diabelli F major sonata is the only one I know of.

Consider all those Asturias performances, for instance. Consider how many guitarists assume that audiences don't really have the patience to withstand movements longer than about three to four minutes. Consider how many guitarists suppose this despite the fact that plenty of people go to long operas or that people turn out in droves for Beethoven string quartets and piano sonatas that go on for epic lengths. If it is true we guitarists do not have inferior literature why have so few among us in the guitar world have sought to disseminate the great literature we have that encompasses the most challenging keys? The reality is that we all know perfectly well that while C major is relatively easy on the piano and C minor is relatively easy on the keyboard we know that on the guitar one key is drastically more difficult to play in than the other.

If we guitarists want to ensure that our instrument is fully appreciated for all the beauty it and its literature have to offer then we should go the extra distance to present the riches of our instrument that might go unknown. But to do that we have to get out of the comfort bubble of E major, A major, D major, C major, G major, D minor, B minor, A minor and so on. We need to make a case that B flat major, E flat minor, C minor, F sharp major, B major, D flat major, and F minor are all equally necessary in our repertoire. That Legnani and Sor did this nearly two centuries ago does not seem to be very much appreciated by many guitarists but we know that that work has been done.

That only now Koshkin has created for us a contrapuntal cycle, as a guitarist (give or take that focal dystonia has robbed us of more performances from him) should be both exciting and humbling. We should be excited because we can say that we guitarists finally have a great cyclical work written for the guitar by a guitarist in the tradition of Bach's legacy. We should be humbled if for no other reason than to concede that for the decades our members have denigrated piano music it just so happens it took centuries for us to "catch up" to the conceptual heights obtained in the "inexpressive" keyboard. We may also be humbled if it somehow transpires that Koshkin's music isn't very good. As a long-time Koshkin fan I seriously doubt that's going to happen.

Yet another historical irony about the guitar and contrapuntal literature is not simply that our first cycles were written by non-guitarists, but that when the time arrives that we guitarists can point to 48 preludes and fugues written for guitar they have been written by two men who are from Russia. Bach was German and the pinnacle of Western musical achievement yet for the solo guitar two books of preludes and fugues totalling 48 will be given to us by Russians and not by Western guitarists. As a fan of Russian guitar music I happily accept such a lovely gift.

Of course no one in the West was going to produce preludes and fugues in the style of Bach during the Classic or Romantic periods. That would have been a cultural and historical impossibility. Sor and Legnani gave us solid pieces in every key for the guitar but many guitarists avoid playing those or even dismiss them precipitously. The guitar is capable of sustained contrapuntal argument and development but three fully independent melodic lines are difficult to sustain.

Notice that I said "difficult" and not "impossible". They are impossible to sustain throughout but a studious composer and guitarist can nevertheless accomplish fully invertible counterpoint in middle entries even when he or she must relent in episodes. Even Bach in his violin fugues was content to imply in many places rather than directly state so we guitarists should feel no shame at implying if as great a master as Bach himself took what could appear from a purely scholastic perspective to be the path of a cheater.

I could write about how I have worked through the process of writing my own fugues for guitar but I am done writing on this topic for now. I would close only by saying that my approach to contrapuntal music for guitar has in the end benefited not merely from studying keyboard and string repertoire but from immersion in the earliest and most foundational of all contrapuntal musical art in Western history, choral music. Ultimately the guitar can only be enriched by its composers, performers and advocates having a most positive and sociable disposition toward all other sorts of music.

It is exciting to think that centuries after Bach we guitarists will be getting a contrapuntal cycle written by a guitarist. My hope as a guitarist is that Koshkin's cycle becomes widely heard and constitutes a collosal leap forward for the literature of our instrument. I even hope that the works get so widely known and played in the guitar world that I could even possibly complain one day about hearing them too much. Then we'll know that actual contrapuntal music, and not merely homophonic music with a contrapuntal countenance, has truly become mainstream in guitar literature.

1 comment:

CoffeeMatt said...

Interesting. I agree that, in the classical world, we guitarists should not try and play the keyboardist's game. Our music is legitimate for a hundred reasons, not necessarily the same reasons that make listening to other instrument's lit worthwhile.

A few random (and not particularly well-thought-out) comments:

Everyone pays lip-service to Segovia, but if anything, I think he pushed guitarists further into the ghetto. His personal tastes and idiosyncrasies made it easier to leave guitarists alone in their own little world. This, despite the fact that his discipline and performances and travel gave the instrument a lot of much-needed exposure.

Contrapuntal music is beautiful on the guitar. Gosh, the Bach cello suites are pretty much better across the board due to the additional sustain. It is so time-consuming to prepare though. You can take a Bach fugue that is a hundred measures and quite literally not have a single reusable fingering throughout the entire piece. They take sooooooo long to learn. People don't hear enough of them, or enough variety at least.

Finally, no instrument, short of the human voice, has had so much cross-over activity in the realm of popular music of the last century. I think guitar continues to make ivory-tower types suspicious. You can play Bach, but shredding power chords are always a temptation lurking just one flick of the wrist away.