Saturday, May 12, 2018

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor

Prelude (starts at 0:25)

This prelude is in 6/8 and maps out as A A' a" B with coda.
The prelude opens with a rocking 6/8 bass line of F#, C# and D natural.  Despite the 6/8 meter in the score what this most evokes is the moderato con moto from the Third string quartet by Shostakovich.  If you want to hear for yourself go over here and start listening at 7:04.

Nothing wrong with a sound that evokes one of the greatest string quartets of the 20th century! Since Koshkin has mentioned Shostakovich as an influence if you want to play or study music written for the guitar that draws on Shostakovich and Stravinsky then Koshkin's music is what you'll want to keep coming back to. 

So, we've got ourselves what can be thought of as a macabre waltz that's "disguised" in 6/8.  The reason I have charted out this music as I have is that each block of melodic/harmonic activity can be defined by its resolution with a descending run in the bass strings (measures 10 and 22 specifically). 

This macabre waltz features a couple of secondary dominants and also a phrygian supertonic because if you're a guitarist and you're writing in any kind of F sharp the phrygian supertonic (i.e. neapolitan) chord is G major, the guitarist's best friend.  For the most part guitarist composers who have written in F sharp or G flat find the neapolitan supertonic irresistible.  They do not necessarily go for a more "locrian" vibe which could let them exploit the key of G major but from a modal rotational perspective of always coming back to F sharp, although personally I endorse this option because locrian F sharp sounds pretty cool.

I'm writing in a more nebulous way about this one because there are so many charming little details in this prelude.  Take measure 11 where Koshkin breaks out of the lilt of compound meter to introduce a duple rhythm march in just this one measure (50-52)

A (measures 1-11) is defined by a consistently lilting compound meter approach to 6/8. 
A' (measures 11-22) starts with a duple meter eruption that feints toward a meter change in duple time but quickly reveals a more "3/4" approach to compound meter.

a" (measures 23-33) introduces a hemiola of dotted eighth notes against eighth notes.

Here the duple is really duple against triple and can be thought of as the B in a larger scale A B structure.  Splitting measures down the middle in each measure is demonstrated more clearly by the descending lines in the first half of measure 33 that culminate in an F sharp major theme that is the new B material that rounds off the prelude (which you can hear at 1:48)  I consider this transitional passage work because the duple against triple creates tension but after six measures Koshkin leads us back into the lilting, rocking rhythms of straightforward 6/8 as he moves toward the B material in F sharp major at the previously mentioned second half of measure 33 (1:48).

The syntactic climax of the prelude is at 2:09 (measure 41) we get a recapitulation of the F#, C# and D natural bass line but the harmonies are in F sharp major in the treble strings. This fits a Shostakovich-style happy-sad or tragicomic coda, an ending that is somewhat more optimistic than the music was at the start but still permeated with a tone of macabre humor. Like a Shostakovich waltz there's something lurking within all this laconic crepuscular music.  The prelude winds down toward an unresolved half cadence that suggests an end that is never arrived at.  We're hearing stirrings that intermittently creep up as if from behind shadows, such as the duple meter moment at measure 11, that suggest there is something just beyond view that is waiting to erupt from behind this prelude.

Fugue (starts at 2:44)
What does erupt is the fugue.  This is an explosive two-voiced fugue but it has three presentations of the subject that simulates a three-voiced exposition. They appear as follows

Subject enters at measure 53 in the tonic on the sixth string (2:45)
Subject answered at measure 56 in the dominant at the fifth string (2:49)
Subject enters at measure 60 in the tonic in the treble strings (2:53)

The exposition is over by 2:57.  Even with the third entrance of the subject up top that is a 12 second fugue exposition. 

This is a three-measure subject in 2/4 that is much more like a rock or metal guitar riff than what might conventionally be described as a "fugue subject" by any measure of the keyboard or string literature.  It almost seems too explosive and brief to be a fugue subject but it has a vivid melodic profile and enough constituent parts within it to break them apart and to build a fugue from these fragments and possibilities.   The violence and brevity of the subject gives all the more reason for the "false" third entry that completes the exposition.  If Koshkin restricted himself to only as many presentations of the subject as would be strictly required in a "scholastic" fugue the exposition would be over before inattentive listeners would have been able to perceive there was even a fugue exposition. 

What makes this fugue subject so fun is not just its pentatonic blues/rock character, it's that the subject by its nature does not resolve but rushes headlong toward whatever is next.  August Halm wrote that a good fugue subject must never have too firm a resolution since it is supposed to be the catalyst for continual development and transformation but it must also have a recognizable enough a melodic shape that the subject can withstand or catalyze such growth.  I believe that's what Koshkin's subject, brief and explosive as it is, provides in this fugue. 

The initial episode culminates in a run in measures 67-68 where we get something very guitaristic that is not so "good" for fugues, strong beat accented parallel motion by compound fifths.  Guitars are great for parallel fifths but for fugues, for polyphonic writing generally, parallel fifths and compound parallel fifths weaken the independence of line. 

In this case I would have leaned toward the sixteenth note figures at top of the clef in 67 would sequence downward while substituting E for C and D sharp for D natural.  That uses contrary motion to get the two lines of the fugue to contract inward for the arrival of the first middle entry at measure 68 and the topmost note could be G natural--tenths are stronger than open compound fifths in terms of traditions of polyphonic writing.  Don't get me wrong, I like this fugue a lot, it's just that there are moments in this fugue where it is, so to speak, guitaristic to a degree where some things that are guitaristic aplenty would be considered weakness in counterpoint in a more traditional sense.  You can do parallelism if you want to, and Koshkin wanted to. 

The first middle entry is at measure 68 (3:03) and the subject appears in E minor in the lower register.  This is followed by an agitated descending episode in tenths and sixths every other measure that arrives at a new middle entry at measure 74 in B minor (3:10). 

This is immediately followed by a new middle entry in F sharp minor (3:13). We can hear how swiftly this subject moves along and if you can read along with the score we get the voices exchanged.  It's not so much that there's a countersubject in this fugue as that Koshkin presents the subject in the lower register and has a descant in the upper register and then in the next middle entry he effectively flips the relationship.  This is an incomplete presentation of the subject, though, as the rising of the subject in a middle entry that completed its line at measure 79 would make the melodic activity in the bass strings impossible on technical grounds, if not theoretical grounds.  But the linear trajectory of the subject is restored at measure 80.  There's room for rewriting a subject in a middle entry when technical and musical necessities call for that and this is a good example of how, at the practical level of writing a fugue, you can change the subject through interpolation or intervallic revision and still have an identifiable subject. 

From this middle entry Koshkin writes out a length episode with bustling sixteenth note runs and jump bass lines in counterpoint against the runs.  This winds through a couple of key regions to reach a new middle entry in the second half of measure 95 in A minor (3:35). This is followed up by single line riffs that evoke, if briefly, a kind of Shostakovich-style ragtime that destabilizes the key.  By measure 105 (3:47) Koshkin brings the melodies down to the lowermost strings with a dark perpetual motion evocation of the subject in running sixteenth notes, emphasizing the F sharp minor again but with a strong phrygian, almost metal sense of foreboding. 

Koshkin revels in the agitated churning of sixteenth notes in the bass strings right up to measure 117 (about 3:58) when the guitar is called to play a blistering rising solo line that takes it the upper reaches of its register at measure 199 (4:02). From measures 122 to 123 there's a pattern of two sixteenth notes followed by a triplet of sixteenth notes that, honestly, reminded me of a drum beat from a Guns `n Roses song.  This really is the fugue in the cycle where Koshkin rocks out.  The triplets on sixteenth nots carry measures 124 to 125.  In the middle of 125 Koshkin presents the subject in F sharp minor and introduces quasi stretto presentation of the subject in the upper register (4:10 to 4:15)

From there Koshkin rushes along with sequential development of the initial fragment of the subject.  It rises up to a presentation of the subject at measure 138 (4:23) that's in E minor where the subject is presented as at the fifth rather than the root.  This is an inspired way to redeploy the subject within the coda.  It's not a middle entry and it's certainly not the syntactic climax of the fugue but it's a fine passage showing how you can take a solid subject and present it as being on a different factor of a chord (i.e. the third or fifth rather than the root) than it was in its "prime" form, thereby revealing new possibilities about the subject.  This is something I wish Koshkin had done more and more extensively with this fugue but I'll get to that later on.

At measure 143 (4:31) Koshkin gives us an abrupt F minor triad and octave shifting presentations of the initial fragment of the subject rising from octave to octave like the turnaround passage in a ragtime.  This is a short interrupting moment that leads to a relentless run of scale-work on sixteenth notes over a pulsing dominant pedal point.  This is the wind up to concluding the fugue. As Koshkin gets closer to the finish line he reintroduces the triplets of sixteenth notes and uses descending chains of parallel fifths floating above the triplet figuration to prepare final cadence, a modal tonic-subtonic, tonic burst on F sharp major that leads the fugue to an abrupt but triumphant finish.

Although I've had a few quibbles with parallelism a whole lot can be forgiven when the overall mood of this fugue is so aggressive.  The other thing too, is that at this tempo any of the flaws in polyphonic writing go by so swiftly you can't hear them unless you have trained your ear through study or your own writing of fugues.  

As fun as this fugue is and as much as it rocks out in a rock and roll style I do feel strongly that in this fugue there are some fantastic possibilities that went unexplored in the fugue.  The subject is pentatonic in the first two measures and introduces a diatonic descent on a sixteenth, sixteenth, sixteenth rest, and sixteenth pulsing figure.  For those of you who have the score I'll spell it out this way--that fugue subject can be presented in its prime form, its retrograde, its inversion and retrograde inversion and sounds really good in every one of those permutations.  This is a difference of conviction and compositional method, I suppose, but with a subject that has mixed pentatonic and diatonic writing where the dominant pitch class is pentatonic the possibilities of a fugue subject being presented in all four forms is something I find irresistible. 

I'm not saying Koshkin had to use all four forms of the subject as middle entries.  Nobody could recognize the retrograde and retrograde inversion for what they are if they appeared as middle entries but they could be the basis for episodic material.  But the inversion, the inversion of the subject sounds great.  Just flip the score upside down and transpose the subject into F sharp major and you can sing through it yourself and hear how fun it sounds!  Schoenberg has his detractors and defenders but one of the discoveries I've made is that a really great fugue subject can manage to sound good in more than just its primary form.

 Koshkin has a fantastic little fugue subject here and the E minor transposed form of the subject at measure 138 gets me thinking about how an inversion of the subject at the fifth rather than the root of the chord and in parallel major would be a fantastic middle entry.  In polyphonic cycles from Russian composers and composers from the formerly Soviet region subjects may often not be presented in inversion even when this is possible.  This has been noted about the Shostakovich cycle of preludes and fugues.  Sometimes you'll get a cycle like Rodion Shchedrin's where it's obvious he "could" present a subject in inversion as in his C major fugue and then you'll discover at the very end of the cycle that his prelude and fugue in D minor is a mirror/inversion of the prelude and fugue that opened the cycle.  That's cool and I like Shchedrin's cycle in general but I do feel that in the Russian tradition of cycles of fugues there can be a risk of cyclical thinking in large-scale terms that can sideline some amazing musical possibilities that, on a fugue by fugue basis, I think should be explored. 

Of course there aren't any rules against recomposing good ideas in new contexts to explore new possibilities.  Composers like Haydn did this as a matter of course.  There are a lot of untapped possibilities in this fugue but perhaps it’s just as well that this fugue in two voices has done as much as probably can be done given the speed and aggression of the subject.  For a chamber work in which there's more than one instrument, though, this fugue subject has a wealth of possibilities that in a strictly solo guitar fugue are swirling behind the subject itself.
Seeing as we've gotten through most of the preludes and fugues in Koshkin's cycle for which there are videos of performances it's going to be tougher going moving forward, dear reader, if you don't yourself own a copy of the cycle.  I hope by now I've made a case for why you, if you're a guitarist, should have a copy of this cycle by now.  It's a monumental achievement for the guitar and deserves to be regarded as one of the most substantial of Koshkin's works and not merely on the basis of its sheer length. 

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