Saturday, February 08, 2020

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in E major

Prelude (2:08)

Despite the "Allegretto" indication and the quarter note equals 144 beats per minute in the score, this prelude feels as though its harmonic rhythm is anchored to the half note and could have been scored at 72bpm in 2/4.  Music analysis in general and formal analysis in particular can become a realm of debate quickly and I know that other guitarists and music analysts could dispute this overarching point I'm about to make.  Nevertheless, I suggest we think of this prelude as a gentle and pastoral sonata, of the "Type 1” variety classified by Hepokoski and Darcy.  I realize that that is potentially a hard sell but I'm going to explain what I'm doing with the "elements" in Elements of Sonata Theory that I am using to make this argument.

Hepokoski and Darcy define sonata forms as explicable in terms of a number of concepts and one of the key concepts is called "rotation".  This means that a theme 1 and a theme 2 and so on will often appear in the same order across the larger structure, deformations of form excepted.  For instance, in a Type 3 ("textbook" sonata form) a process of Theme 1 and Theme 2 and Theme 3 in the exposition would be repeated in the development.  We'd see the themes appear in numeric order in the development more or less as they did in the exposition, and they will appear in 1-2-3 order in the recapitulation.  In a Type 2 sonata theme 1 may be dominant in the development and never appear in what we could call the recapitulation but theme 2 and 3 will appear.  The best example of a Type 2 sonata form in the guitar literature I can think of that explicates Hepokoski and Darcy's roadmap for Type 2 sonatas at large would be Diabelli's Op. 29, No. 3 guitar sonata in F major.  Another less inspired and inspiring example, for me, would be Molitor's Op. 7 guitar sonata.  We'll come back to the idea of rotation in time. 

What a Type 1 sonata has are themes, identifiable themes that appear in what's called a "double rotation" form.  Theme 1 shows up, Theme 2 shows up, then Theme 1 shows up in the recap and Theme 2 shows up in the recap.  There is no development as we'd normally think of it and also little to no transitions. 

Another aspect about "rotation" and sonata forms Hepokoski and Darcy highlight is that one of the common ways some composers chose to shake things up and subvert expectation was to start the recapitulation with the right theme (i.e. Theme 1) but bring it back in the wrong key.  If in a sonata the recapitulation norm would be that if you started in C major your Theme 1 would recapitulate in C major then one of the tricks composers could play is to bring Theme 1 back in A major or E major or A flat major or, basically, any key that was not the "home" key.  The recapitulation might eventually get to the "right" key but possibly only half-way through Theme 1 and sometimes not until the transition (if applicable).  I mention this because this kind of fake-out recapitulation in which Theme 1 comes back in a defiantly wrong key and doesn't get to the appropriate recapitulation key is a stunt Wenzel Matiegka pulls in his Op. 31 No.1 guitar sonata in C major and, personally, I think it's a very funny stunt. 

Why am I mentioning all of this stuff about early 19th century guitar sonatas and contested aspects of Elements of Sonata Theory?  Koshkin's little gentle prelude in E major makes sense to me as a Type 1 sonata.  It could also be mapped out as a simple ABAB form but I intend to explain why the modulations and key regions suggest sonata form to me.  A simple reason merely describing this prelude as ABAB is not going to suffice is although we can map out ABAB the key regions key shifting across A and B material.

Theme 1 of Koshkin's prelude opens gently with an arpeggiation theme in E major, exactly the guitar-friendly key we'd expect in a prelude.  About this theme there are two things I want to highlight. 

First, there's a descending melodic line inside the upper-string arpeggios that can be thought of as the "official" tune but it tends to center on beats 2 and 3 of the measures.  There's a counter-melody in the bass that has sustained notes and its melodic activity clusters around beats 1 and 4.   As the melody in the bass register rises the melody lurking within the arpeggios in the upper register gently tip toes down.

The call and response between registers clustering in beats 4-1 and 2-3 respectively would, in another context, be what Mark Burford describes as the "gospel seesaw" that shows up in recordings done by Mahalia Jackson and Mildred Falls.  Koshkin's got an elegant and simple Theme 1 in E major but what's less simple when you get past the rippling arpeggiated surface is there are two strands of melodic activity at work that move in alternating beat region spaces.  Asya Selyutina does a wonderful job of both separating these rhythmic regions to let the melodic interest come through for both the upper and lower lines and doing so in a way that lets an alert listener sense that there's a lot going on here.  What looks on the page like a merely two-line texture is, in an actual performance a harmonically rich soundworld that has four to six note chords shimmering in ways that the notes on the page don't really convey.

Second, the theme never completes when it's introduced.  By measure 9 we're at a new phrase (0:19) but the key is now C major.   With the call-and-response "seesaw" texture abandoned this would be the appearance of our "B" material in an ABAB structure but since the phrases are continuous it's tough to say this is binary or even rounded binary.  We have a theme 1 gesture that lasts 8 measures and what sounds like a theme 2 or a continuation phrase that continues to move further and further away from the opening tonic key.  This new theme is a simple descending tune that dips down and then rises back up with steady pulsing accompaniment figuration underneath it.  But ...

the melody in this second gesture (aka Theme 2) overshoots its theoretical destination and instead of returning to a chord in C major shifts up to a melodic note of B flat above an E flat chord.  Koshkin's working with short 4 and 8 measure phrases that refuse to land on their expected cadential landing points.  Noting in passing as I have that guitar sonata movements by Molitor and Molino can be built around what seem like half-themes in the piano literature, I'm suggesting here that Koshkin is working on a very small scale but he's outlined two contrasting thematic ideas with contrasting figuration and contrasting key regions.  It may be a very small exposition but I think it fulfills the structural and rhetorical functions of a sonata form in spite of the fact that there are no firm cadences and we have more of a "continuous melody" thing going on.

The common thread in the first half of the prelude is that Koshkin gives us a melodic line that deliberately spins off target from whatever the just-established tonal region is to go in a new developmental direction.  Theme 2, like Theme 1 before it, doesn't complete.  Instead Theme 2 spirals up to a high E floating (0:34) atop an F major seventh chord with a melodic line that reprises the Theme 1 "seesaw" material.  This, I propose, is where we get a tiny, tiny development section that will transition us back to a more formal return of Theme 1.

Theme 1 does return at 0:46) but we're firmly in the key of A flat.  Now we're at the point for which I've written so much earlier about how composers can subvert expectations at one level while fulfilling them at other levels.  Koshkin, if he were writing this as a sonata form, has brought back Theme 1 where it would be expected, either in a repeating exposition or in a recapitulation or in a development but only in a development would presenting Theme 1 material in A flat major "make sense" if we've started in the key of E major.  It isn't too long before the loping "seesaw" theme moves to Theme 2 material which now, finally, is in E major (1:02) and moves to G major by 1:11.  We keep having phrases and continuation phrases and then new phrases but Koshkin avoids cadences across this little prelude.  As Theme 2 material moves along we get a sequence of teardrop chromatic lines in the bass rising above a sequence of thirds in the treble strings sounding out in half note values (G sharp to B to D).  At measure 45 Koshkin sets up an extended half cadence in which Theme 1 material is pulsing over a dominant pedal point. It's not until measure 51 we finally get a cadence in a spacious E sonority with a 12th fret harmonic on string 1 floating above the open sixth string.

While this little prelude is a mere two minutes long I would suggest that the way to make sense of it musically is to think of it as a beautiful little sonata, a Type 1 sonata as Hepokoski and Darcy have their types.  It’s true Koshkin avoids all of the cadences that would be expected but the thing that makes Elements of Sonata Theory useful is that we musicians can use whatever elements work in helping to elucidate what seems to be a sonata form and then jettison all the other elements (like the necessity of firm cadences as non-negotiable points of structural delineation) that don’t apply to this particular piece of music.

Finally, should it seem I’ve played a bit fast and loose with how small “themes” can be when Koshkin’s prelude seems to be phrase after phrase that avoids firm cadences, let me quote Fernando Sor on the issue of accompanying.  Sor explained how, if you will, the symphony is to a life-sized portrait of a person what the guitar might be as a reproduction in book might be.  By way of Merrick’s translation:

Method for the Spanish Guitar
Fernando Sor, translation by A. Merrick
page 36
A pianoforte accompaniment, if well made, should be constructed like an orchestral quartett or trio. Now, by taking that accompaniment as a pattern, I can, thereby, regĂșlate that of the guitar. Comparisons greatly assist the comprehension, and I request the reader to allow me one to prove, that if the guitar does not give the same notes as the orchestra, either in quantity or pitch, the accompaniment will not be less the same. If a portrait be made as large as life, it may exhibit all the smallest details that are observed in the original: this is the orchestra. Let a copy be made of this portrait in dimensions only one third of the former, a great part of the little details will be suppressed: other parts, which in the full size were developed, will be represented perhaps by a single point—the relative proportion of the features will always be the same, and although each will receive fewer touches of the pencil, the same object will be seen: this is the pionoforte. If of this copy another be made again reduced one-third, it will be necessary to make many more suppressions. A small circle of the original may be represented by a point, and yet produce the effect of the small circle; so that the means of seizing the resemblance being fewer in detail, the likeness will be perfect if the features preserve the same relative proportions ; and this is the guitar.

When we assess what sound to be sonata forms written on and for the guitar we should not necessarily dismiss the possibility that a guitarist composer has written a sonata form because guitar sonatas since the 1790s have not behaved the way piano sonatas by Beethoven or Schubert or Haydn or Mozart have behaved.  There are possibilities, constraints and material exigencies to writing for the guitar we guitarists must always keep in mind but we should be conversant enough in theoretical and historical literature to be able to recognize, as I’ve just argued, that Koshkin’s Prelude in E major can be taken as a lyric sonata movement even if by the “textbook” definitions handed down by pianists and conductors it would not seem as though a sonata has been written at all.

Of course if Koshkin wasn’t thinking of writing a sonata form he’s welcome to say so but I’ve had fun making a case that he did write a wonderful little sonata movement along the way.  As one of my music professors said long ago, the beautiful thing about music theory is that you and I could have different convictions about what just happened in the music and we “could” both still actually be right.  Now let’s get to the fugue.

Fugue (2:57)

Call it the conviction or bias of an American guitarist but I wonder if it’s possible to write a fugue in E major in the twenty-first century and not have its subject be some kind of blues riff.  Koshkin’s subject for this fugue is a laconic blues riff.  He starts on E, goes to F double sharp and drops down to E before jumping up to G sharp and dropping down to E to end the first phrase in the subject.  The subject is a three-measure line that doesn’t resolve or even start to resolve until the answer shows up at 0:10.  By this time the original line has moved from F double sharp down to F sharp and sets up a half-cadence that leads to the countersubject in the lower voice (also about 0:10)

What makes this countersubject fun is it’s a nice little ominous rising figure that starts on the second half of beat 3 at measure 60—D, E, F# in eighth notes through the end of the measure; G natural and F# in quarters at measure 61 on beats 1 and 2 which is followed up by a rest and then three eighth notes moving through B, C#, C double sharp at the end of the measure; then quarter notes throughout measure 62 on D, E#, F# and F double sharp.  What makes this countersubject fun is, you can see from the notes, ending on F double sharp means Koshkin can lead by way of a bluesy augmented second to G sharp in what will become an inner voice for the entrance of the subject in the third, lowermost voice at 0:49.  At this point the countersubject has been transposed and moves through G#, A, B on to C natural and B. The upper voice goes into half notes on E above and below this line, which is voice-crossing for those unfamiliar with the score at this point.

What Koshkin does next is move fairly directly by 0:28 to a middle entry in A major.  He’s made a point of having his middle entry perform the subdominant harmonic function that we might expect to show up in a blues vocabulary at this point.  That the musical lines here in the fugue, as they were in the prelude, never neatly resolve into a cadence is played to the advantage of keeping momentum going in this fugue and doing so in a way that pays homage to blues as a musical language, one which, we might have to add, is more than a century old and has spanned the globe.

Koshkin didn’t really need a second real countersubject. His subject and countersubject are good enough to build the entire fugue around, which is what we’re going to hear and see him do.

At 0:37 there is a new idea introduced, a descending trio of quarter notes.  G, E and D in quarter note values one after the other comes out sounding like a rhythmic augmentation of some kind of pentatonic ragtime riff.  This motto has the ability to let Koshkin rework the lower voices so that his harmonies shift from G major to C major and the cumulative effect with his high G notes is oblique motion.  It also lets him prepare for a rapid modulation to D minor by 0:46.

At 0:46 we get what sounds like a new middle entry in the key of D minor but Koshkin never completes the three-measure subject in this passage.  He pits two-thirds of his subject and countersubject against each other in what could be a middle entry but more strictly speaking is an episode.  By 0:54 he brings back the subject in E but this is a feint, as he harmonizes the subject as if it were cycling around the third factor of C major.  By 0:57 we have another sequence of the descending quarter note motto, now starting from B flat and going to G and F.  This time Koshkin uses the motto to set up a modal mutation that prepares for a new episode at measure 79 (1:08) in B flat minor based on a stretto of his countersubject.  This is followed up with another stretto episode on the countersubject at 1:13 in C sharp minor that leads to another stretto episode that sequentially develops this staggered presentation of the countersubject in three voices in A minor at 1:22.  As with the prelude what we’re seeing and hearing here is that Koshkin exploits thematic relationships and harmonic contrasts anchored in rising (or falling) thirds of different sizes. 

By 1:32 he’s setting up a drive to a new middle entry which shows up at 1:37 in G minor. Instead of presenting the countersubject here he creates quasi stretto effects in which the subject is stated in the uppermost voice and sneaks in half a beat after by showing up at beat 2 in an inner voice.  By 1:46 he drops us out of G major into E, signaling that we’re back in the “home” key and are reaching the structural climax of the fugue.  He embellishes the key ideas of the subject in sixteenth and thirty-second note flourishes before creating a big chorale style riff at 1:56 that places the subject as a kind of dominant pedal decoration that prepares us for the real contrapuntal feat to show off at 2:07.  This is the point where Koshkin presents the subject in augmentation in the treble voice against the subject in normal rhythmic values in the alto voice a measure later, while the bass register takes up the core of the subject to create the effect of a stretto across the three voices in the fugue.  With a fugue this versatile it’s possible Koshkin could have created a passage in which his subject was in the bass and he had it answered by the inversion of the subject harmonized in thirds in the upper two voices.  That would have been a fun passage to have in a fugue like this and … he’s got the right as the composer to have not chosen that possibility.  I mention it because for me, being a guitarist composer myself, such a possibility with this wonderful little subject would be irresistible.  Still, a kind of grand stretto where the subject is set in augmentation up top and answered by a quasi-canon on the subject in the lower voices is also pretty wonderful.  From 2:24 on Koshkin winds down the fugue with a little march of chords that call back to some of the more remote modulations and harmonies of the prelude and that could be fun to analyze on the basis of some kind of Audacious Euphony basis but I confess I don’t feel up to trying to analyze the coda at that level, though maybe someone else will want to.

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