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084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

Posted by jeff on Jan 18, 2017 in Classical, Personal, Song Of the week

Shostakovich, Prelude in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)   (1987 version, if you want to be really anal about this)

Shostakovich, Fugue in B-Flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)   (1992 version, what the hell, take a walk on the wild side and mix them)

Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolayeva)

In the late 1990s I went through a musical transmogrification. Prior to it, I knew American/British pop/rock music pretty thoroughly, from 1956 on up into the 1980s and 1990s, when I found precious little new music of interest. I found myself haunting Used LP stores, lying on the musty carpet, crawling back under the stacks into the dusty bins of throwaways, looking for unfamiliar vinyl gems of oblique interest, such as Post-Peter Noone Herman’s Hermits or ‘The Fleetwoods Live at the Pink Lady’ or ‘Pete Best’s Greatest Hits Vol III or ‘Petula Clark Sings Robert Johnson’. I said to myself, “Perhaps this seam is mined out, Jeff, and it’s time to broaden your horizons.”

To tell the truth, I was going through some other mid-life bumps, changing jobs and a lot more. I needed an aural detoxification program. Who does one turn to? Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750), of course. I spent over a year listening almost solely to ‘Art of the Fugue‘, ‘Musical Offering’, the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and the solo ‘piano’ repertoire: the English Suites, the French Suites, the Partitas, the Toccatas, the 2-Part Inventions and 3-Part Sinfonias, the Goldberg Variations, a great CD of atypical flashy virtuoso pieces called “Brendel Plays Bach”, and of course, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.

In Bach’s time, keyboard instruments (harpsichords and klavichords) were tuned to a specific scale (key)–C, F#, whatever.  Theorists had come up with a scheme in which the keyboard would be tuned in equal intervals, a compromise solution which enabled playing in any key on a single instrument. Bach tried out such instruments, and composed two works to demonstrate their chops, “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” Volumes I (1722) and II (1744). Each one consisted of a cycle of 24 pieces, each one with a prelude and fugue, written in ascending order, major/minor. Together, they’re known as “The 48” (2×24). In other words, each one is constructed thus: C major prelude and fugue, C minor prelude and fugue; C# major prelude and fugue, C# minor prelude and fugue, etc.

Sounds pretty dry, I admit, but artists have been employing artificial conventions as vessels for their inspiration since time immemorial (“Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”–Robert Frost), and Bach is Bach, and The 48 is one of the greatest works of art made by man.

So back in the late 1990s I listened to The 48 several trillion times, and was duly moved and transported and spiritually consoled. I used to view Bach as imposing arbitrary order on a chaotic world, eliciting sense out of disorder. I still do, actually. And then one day I happened upon an homage to The 48 written in the early 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Shostakovich was a thoroughly modernist composer who maintained a rocky relationship with the oppressive Soviet regime under which he lived. He was Russia’s most prominent composer, too well-known and respected to be sent to the Gulag or to be disappeared, although a friend testified in 1948 that “he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” He was twice denounced for anti-Socialist ‘formalism’ (in 1936 and 1948). He sometimes wrote personal pieces he knew could not be performed, sought professional refuge in teaching or writing for films or politically proper venues. For example, in 1939, Leningrad Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov commissioned from him a “Suite on Finnish Themes” to be performed by the marching bands of the Red Army as they entered the conquered Helsinki. Shostakovich never claimed the composition as his own.

Siege of Leningrad

This same Zhdanov, who decided during the siege of Leningrad to give food to the defending army rather than to the starving populace, became Minister of Culture, Stalin’s right-hand man, and masterminded the post-war cultural purge. In 1950 he rehabilitated Shostakovich in order to humiliate him by sending him abroad as official representative of the Soviet Union. The event was a festival in Leipzig marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death, where Dmitri was a judge for the first International Bach competition. One of the competitors was a 26-year old pianist Shostakovich had met in Moscow, Tatiana Nikolayeva. She performed pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier (which Shostakovich had played as a young piano student, although they had nothing of the stature they were to gain from the 1950s onwards) and won the gold medal.

Back in the USSR (ouch!), Shostakovich was inspired to compose his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. These were dangerously personal pieces, but he was protected by the fact that Bach was perceived by the Evil Empire as a champion of the proletariat! According to the lengthy article on Bach published in 1973 in the Soviet Musical Encyclopedia, “The national and democratic tendencies of Bach’s creativity find their source in the protestant chorale. It was Friedrich Engels who described one of the most famous examples, Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) as ‘the Marseillaise of the 17th century.’”

Shostakovich worked quickly, averaging only three days for each piece. As each was completed he would invite Nikolayeva to his Moscow apartment to show off his work. The complete work was written between October 10, 1950 and February 25, 1951. He dedicated it to her, and she premiered it in Leningrad December 23, 1952.

On a formal level, Shostakovich’s Opus 87 (not to be confused from his ’24 Preludes’ Op. 34) has significant differences from Bach’s 48. The compositions don’t move upwards in chromatic steps, but rather in relative major/minor pairs around the circle of fifths: C major, A minor, G major, E minor, D major, B minor, and so on – the same organization as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s set of 24 preludes (1815) and Chopin’s and Joseph Christoph Kessler’s sets (both 1839, apparently a very good year for such cycles).

“In his Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich never loses sight of the Bach model that inspired him, but still employs all the harmonic and other possibilities available to a mid-20th-century composer. Many of the pieces in the cycle possess an improvisatory, unfettered character; they are aware of tradition without being paralyzed by it. Shostakovich does not make obvious direct references to the Bach cycle. The preludes and fugues in each pair are more closely linked thematically and harmonically than is the case in Bach, and there is no pause between them in performance.” (Harlow Robinson).

From the piece’s premiere till the 1990s–the same years I was listening to rock music–the only three recordings of real note were by Tatiana Nikolaeva, 1962 and 1987 (Melodiya) and 1991 (Hyperion). But since then the cycle has been widely recorded, perhaps two dozen versions, a very popular one by Keith Jarrett (which I feel lacks the gravitas of the Russian’s) and an audacious one by Finnish Olli Mustonen, who coupled Bach’s and Shostakovich’s pieces, interspersing them in order.

It’s Ms Nikolaeva’s 1987 version that I’ve listened to all the years, and the one that remains my point of reference. Our Song of The Week, then, is Prelude & Fugue No. 16 in B-flat minor.

Here’s Tatiana Nikolaeva’s 1987 version, prelude and fugue, playing along with the score. And here’s her 1992 version.

And here’s Keith Jarrett’s very legitimate take on the same piece.

Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues is not music for the light of heart, lazy of mind, or facile of spirit, and No 16 is one of the darker pieces in the cycle. But we do have the benefit of the composer, a fine pianist in his own right, offering us his own interpretation. Here’s the prelude and fugue.

Here’s a video clip of Tatiana Nikolaeva playing Prelude No. 17.

Like Bach, like all great artists, like all great tennis players–the formal constraints provide rules and boundaries; but it is what is expressed in them–the living, breathing, personal, unique expression–that leaves its mark.

I’m still in a pretty dark place. An inconsolable place. Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues provide no facile answers. But they do formulate the questions in a way that makes my heart understand that it’s not alone in this universe in visiting the darker side of the human experience.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 005:  Toccata in Cm, JS Bach (Glenn Gould)

SoTW 077: ‘The Art of the Fugue’, JS Bach (The Emerson Quartet)

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077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9’)

Posted by jeff on Jun 8, 2016 in Classical, Song Of the week

My knowledge of classical music is patchier than an Iowa quilt. But my wife still harbors delusions that I’ll grow up some day, and in her mind listening to Bach is a more dignified and mature activity than listening to The Beach Boys. Well, a lot of people with highly-refined musical sensibilities don’t really understand Brian Wilson, but the opposite is the opposite, I believe. Anyone – even a corner-boy drug dealer from West Baltimore, who takes a moment to pause and listen to “The Art of the Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) – must grasp that he is standing before a grandeur and beauty rare in the course of our ordinary lives. Like standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon. Like gazing at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Like hearing your grandchild say “I love you, Poppa.” Those moments in which we transcend the traffic-jam that is our life.

JS Bach, 1746

Bach wrote this work during the last decade of his life, parallel to the B-minor Mass, another momentous work. But if the Mass is an exploration of how God informs and transforms the human soul, “The Art of the Fugue” is a demonstration of the counterpoint between the sublime, infinite perfection of God’s laws of nature and the workings of the human mind.

Let’s start with a couple of terms, just to get us on the same page of the score.

Fugue – a composition built on a subject and one or more ‘imitations’ (variations), which recur in opposition to each other. A fugue usually has an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation returning to the subject in the tonic key.

Counterpoint – the interaction (literally ‘point against point’) of two or more voices that are independent in contour, rhythm and harmony.

The two usually go together. In other words, you have two or more independent lines interweaving, comprising a unified whole. There’s a whole world of theory underlying this, which I wouldn’t try to explain if I could. But it’s way, way beyond my Pooh-brain’s capacity. In “The Art of the Fugue”, Bach set out to explore the extreme limits of this form.

He begins with ‘simple’ fugues (believe me, that’s a technical term, not a lay description), which are actually two voices—a main theme and another completely independent line which plays against it. Then you get an inverted fugue, where Herr Bach turns the score upside down and continues playing it. But not necessarily in the same voice–he can move it up a third, or a fourth, or an eleventh, whatever he feels like on that fine Leipzig morning. That’s four lines intertwining, yes? But then he’s getting bored, so he combines the two, the original fugue together with its inversion, maybe taking one of the lines at half speed, one at double speed. And then, after a cup of coffee, he’ll write another ‘mirror’ line that can be played the same either forward or backwards.

And that just takes us halfway through the work, which comprises fourteen fugues and four canons. The structure of the pieces in the second half are so complex that even anal I can’t get through a single paragraph describing the workings under the hood.

“The governing idea of the work is an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.” (Chrisoph Wolff). Each of the fugues uses this theme as its basis:

Here it is in a stripped-down harpsichord version, Contrapunctus 1.

“The Art of the Fugue” is unique in that it’s primarily a theoretical work. Bach didn’t even name it. His son-in-law attached the name “Die Kunst der Fuge” (BWV 1080). Bach didn’t even bother to orchestrate it – he failed to mention what instrument/s should play it, apparently because its performance was of secondary importance to him. Hence the many, many different settings in which it is played.

If you, like me in my weaker moments, think that various versions of a classical piece are inherently indistinguishable, try this exercise. Here are a number of versions of the same fugue. What will jump out and bite you is not only how greatly the orchestration impacts the piece, but how individual and discrete each one is from its colleagues.

For our Song of The Week, we’re presenting Contrapunctus 9, a 5, alla Duodecima. I have only the foggiest idea what that means, but it shor is pretty. We’ll start with my very favorite, the version I listen to most often, my default music for soothing my soul:

The Emerson Quartet

David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson Quartet: “I don’t know if there’s scientific evidence to support it, but when I listen to this music I feel my brain cells being realigned. The fugues are so complex yet so perfectly ordered, so respectful of the laws of physics that govern music and make it a universal language. Just hearing Bach’s work, even without much concentration, is like having my musical windows cleaned–all other music around me becomes clearer and more understandable.”

Bach didn’t quite finish “The Art of the Fugue”. While he was writing apparently the final fugue, based on the notes B-A-C-H (B natural), the score peters out. Bach’s son says he died while writing it. Here’s what the original looks like. Here’s what it sounds like, in Glenn Gould’s rendition:

Contrapunctus XIV (Fuga a 3 Soggetti) unfinished]

I confess–for me, listening to Bach isn’t so different from prayier. They are both human attempts to impose an artificial order upon an inherently chaotic world.  They’re both beautiful; and, thank God, they both make a lot of sense.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

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113: J.S. Bach, ‘Prelude to Suite #2 for Unaccompanied Cello’ (Casals)

Posted by jeff on Oct 7, 2011 in Classical, Song Of the week

Tonight’s the night when we Jews face up to the way we lead our lives. It’s the night when God sits in judgment and hands down the final verdict of what is going to be in the coming year, for each and every one of us.

(L to R) Man, God

It’s our version of “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake”, but it’s no roly-poly bearer of shiny gifts chuckling yo-ho-ho. It’s a very stern, serious God up there, and there’s no levity surrounding the day. It’s a matter of life and death. Every person, if and when he can bring himself to look Life in the eye, takes the matter seriously. We all want to live, to live well, we and our loved ones. So we try to repent deeply in our hearts for what we’ve done wrong, and resolve to do better next year, and pray sincerely for God to judge us with mercy. Because to tell the truth, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. And if God judges us harshly, we really don’t stand much chance. So we can only pray for His mercy. Read more…

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005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)

Posted by jeff on Dec 23, 2009 in Classical, Song Of the week

Gould-Toccata in C minor BWV 911

After last week’s visit to The Beach Boys, it’s now the turn of another of the great B’s, J.S. Bach, for a piece from a rather obscure work of his, the Toccatas for keyboard (BWV 910-916).

Most of Bach’s works for solo instruments are composed of six units. These toccatas are seven, and they’re not widely performed. Two good reasons why they’re a favorite of mine. Oh, and the fact that they’re so great.

(BTW, don’t confuse these obscure keyboard toccatas with the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 for organ, which some of you may know through Garth Hudson’s expansive introduction to The Band’s ‘Chest Fever’, especially in concert versions).

I always think of these toccatas as Old Jack Bach’s jazz pieces, because of their very improvisatory feel, meandering from section to section, no rigorous structure. In the one we’re featuring here, BWV 911 in C minor, he starts out with a doodle, then seems to find a bit of a melodic groove with a counterpoint, then seems to lose interest and return to his doodling, then a pause where he seems so be wondering what to do next. And then he rrrrrrrrips into a mad, take-no-prisoners fugue, one of the longest he ever wrote, 4 pages in the score. Then he starts to unwind it, slow it down. You think the race is over, and – boom, right back to the whirlwind. Then a playful, elegant elaboration, with the main theme alternating between minor and major. Right on, Johann.

Serious musicians enjoy arguing about whether to perform Jack’s keyboard oeuvre on the clavichord or harpsichord (the keyboards of his day), or its well-tempered successor, the pianoforte, aka the piano.

I have a hard time getting all twisted up about that (gee, could that possibly mean that I’m not serious?). I go for the particular performance. And for me, almost every time, that’s Glenn Gould.

In a Social Skills school, Gould would be placed in a class with Howard Hughes and Bobby Fischer. You might not want to go on a camping trip with him. Serious musicians (them again) have a lot of reservations about him—he hums along with his playing (okay, not a great attraction), and his interpretations are ‘willful’ (i.e., eccentric, off-the-wall, wacko). He doesn’t adhere to the traditional tempi. Oy.

I have a problem with a lot of the performing arts, such as acting and classical music. So often, the performer performs the score—plays the notes, reads the lines—rather than portraying a living version of what underlies it. And it all goes right past my ear. I loved hearing John Barton, the legendary founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, say that he can rarely hear Shakespearean actors, that it’s usually just ‘words, words, words’ that fly past him. What I (and I think he) need is 100%, full-time, total engagément. Play no note, speak no line, dance no step, until you understand why it has to be. That kind of intensity is crazy. That’s why I listen to Glenn Gould.

And I find his performance here wild and wonderful, full of humor and passion and humanity, and I’m tickled to have the opportunity to share it with you.

More SoTW posts on J.S. Bach:

077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9′)

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

113: J.S. Bach, ‘Prelude to Suite #2 for Unaccompanied Cello’ (Casals)

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