Music Composers Unite!
This is a work that I began as a composition exercise, in preparation for writing a fugal variation to Gerd Prengel’s Beethoven sketch. It was originally to be a short, self-contained fugue based on the D-S-C-H motif. But the music didn’t seem to want to cooperate with that plan — it grew into something much larger, that was not a single fugue, but 3 fugal expositions interspersed over several — eventually, 5 — mostly non-fugal sections, each with its own distinct character, separated by shorter interludes and bridge passages (called Episodes in the score). At the moment I’m calling it Fugal Variations, though the title is subject to change.
Unlike my String Quartet, this work is solidly tonal, though it is tonally restless and never stays in one key for very long. There are also fleeting moments of bitonality in Variation 2, and again in Variation 4. The piece is my creative reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, both in style and in expression — with modern civilization under threat, I’ve felt an urge both to reengage with old styles, and to write something that expresses the search for hope and deliverance in a time of darkness.
Fair warning: it’s rather long, nearly 23 minutes (sorry!) and is brooding and elegiac for much of its length. But Variation 4 develops a faster, flowing motion and builds to a bracing climax. Variation 5 is by far the longest and is the closest to being a fully worked-out fugue. It begins in deep sadness and remains sombre for over half its length. But then, an episode begins in which a song of solace and hope climbs gradually up the circle of fifths and into the highest registers. Fugal textures then return with renewed vigor, and a short coda ends the piece on a note of stoic acceptance and defiant affirmation.
I hope that you find it engaging, and ultimately uplifting despite the sombre moods. As always, constructive criticism is welcome. I think that as of this writing (7 September), I have made all the revisions to the piece that I have felt necessary, though I am open to suggestions for improvement. This is only my second completed work since discovering the wonders of notation software, and I know that I have much to learn.
The piece was written in Sibelius and rendered using NotePerformer, running under the latest version of Sibelius.
Update 2 August 2020: I have revised the ending slightly and the version on SoundCloud is now out of date. A demo of the current version is at the Google Drive link below. The volume level on Drive is somewhat quiet, so I recommend either turning up the volume or downloading the file and listening on your computer.
Update 5 August 2020: I revised the instrumentation and registration in bars 668-680. I have slight reservations about one change that I made, raising the entry of the subject in the 1st violins an octave higher; but other than that one point, this should be the final version.
Update 10 August 2020: I replaced the rendering with one that has nearly as little distortion, and is more faithful to the score. There were a couple of places in the previous rendering where NotePerformer quite noticeably rushed a pair of eighth notes. There was also one tiny change to the phrasing -- in bar 658, for the record.
Update 21 August 2020: No changes to the score, but an improved rendering that eliminates another pesky flaw where a pair of eighth notes was rushed. There is also less distortion in this one.
Update 7 September 2020: Some adjustments to tempo and phrasing, and a bar of silence before the final cadence in Episode 5 (bar 441). Unfortunately, in this rendering the pair of eighth notes that I mentioned on 21 August (cellos, bar 46) is once again rushed, and Sibelius is doing this consistently with this version of the score. There is also a sudden "explosive" swell on the last eighth note of bar 685. NP clearly does strange things sometimes, beyond the composer's control. This is otherwise one of the best renderings I've gotten yet, though.
Update 18 October 2020: Applied many small changes suggested by a local violist who has studied the score. Mostly the changes were to phrasing and tempo; also a couple of brief pauses were lengthened. Variation 5 is now taken a hair more slowly. I've given up on trying to control the number of players in each section because the NotePerformer string samples seem to sound best either solo, or in the default string orchestra section sizes. So this rendering is for full string orchestra, and there is little noticeable distortion or "swelling" anywhere. The downside is slightly less clarity of the various lines in the denser contrapuntal sections.
The current version of the score is attached.
Lilypond is primarily geared for typesetting, and was designed to produce beautiful scores. You can see samples at https://lilypond.org/. However, my recommendation comes with a caveat: vanilla Lilypond requires textual input, which many people may find too steep of a learning curve or just plain uncomfortable to use. (Personally I love that sort of thing, but I realize I'm the odd one out. :-P) Thankfully, there's a GUI frontend called Frescobaldi that provides a friendlier interface (though I have never used it personally, so I can't vouch for its user-friendliness -- I have heard good things about it, though).
As for composing on a DAW: if it's not your thing (it isn't mine, to be quite honest), I'd say just keep two separate Sibelius projects, one for the "real" score that you work on, and another where you implement whatever hacks you need to make the playback less unpalatable. Keep the pristine score separate, so that you don't get strange stares or looks of disbelief from your players when they look at it. ;-)
Lilypond looks VERY interesting, reminds me a lot of TeX/LaTeX ! I might actually be able to get into that sort of thing for preparing a final score to be sent to a publisher or performers. Sibelius's engraving is ok (better than Finale IMO) but it's not professional quality. Seems like this sort of thing could steal my neighbor's business (he does engraving for a hefty fee).
I suspect a DAW is in my future at some point, maybe next summer. Without NP, Sibelius's playback is pretty god-awful, and even NP has significant problems. It all depends on whether Arne and his team can fix those issues in a reasonable time frame. The timing issues they're working on, but Arne does not hear the harshness and sometimes outright distortion that I hear. Some people hear it, others don't. Since it's only audible when several instruments are playing, it must have to do with beats or perhaps interference due to phase relationships between the individual instrument samples, or both. It's a very odd effect which I've never heard with DAW output using commercial sample libraries. And interestingly, it is NOT present when playing back any of the Sibelius sample scores using NP - nor are the timing issues.
If you're familiar with TeX/LaTeX, you'll feel right at home with Lilypond!
Yeah I figured as much. :-) I used LaTeX with Thesis style for my dissertation. Last summer I wrote a paper with RevTeX. For professional-quality mathematical typesetting there is nothing like it.
And I would dare say, for typesetting music, there's nothing quite like Lilypond. It's not perfect, but the quality you get for free is simply not found anywhere else. And the flexibility is definitely not found anywhere else that I'm aware of (take a look at the samples on the website). If you care about the quality of your scores, I highly recommend it.
I hope the members here who have heard this already will forgive my bumping it to the top. I haven't made any changes that would justify asking anyone to listen to it again, but we have a number of people who either joined since I first posted it a couple of months ago, or who just recently started participating again, and I was hoping for some feedback from one or more of them. I have been working with a local professional violist on improving both the notation and musicality of the piece. She has suggested a few changes to phrasing, and I have also made another, more significant change that I mention in the latest update in the OP.
Once again, apologies for the length of the work... I think it is fairly compact though and does not sound as if it's excessively spun out (she says, hopefully)...
Dear Liz, what a gigantic labour you must have put into this work! It took me several attempts to get into these varations. This morning in vaccation in the awesome dolomites of northern Italy when I listened to your whole work again. I'd like to say this:
You have a great main theme here and I very much adore the last third of the work starting at 13:11 till the end. There is such a beautiful transcedence and solemnity as I know it only in Beethoven' op. 131 c#-quartett, 1st. mov. (and what I also tried to express in my B-A-C-H fantasy). But the first part should have more variety, I think. Sometimes I felt like crying out for flowing 1/16 notes with a crescendo to a climax ... a beautiful passage in the part is the one with the pizzicato.
But I would ask you whether you would consider to shorten this first part?
In any case it is a great work, and the recording from a technical view is awesome..
Thank you so much for listening and for your comments! I'm flattered by the comparison to Op. 131, as that is a height of expressive fugue writing that I could never hope to approach. My model for this piece was actually Carl Nielsen's last work, Commotio for organ, mainly in the sectional structure and the use of fugue as a device rather than a sustained texture throughout.
Of course, Variation 5 from 13:07 on is my favorite part too, and especially from 17:15 until about 19:00, which I wept while composing. As for the first 13 minutes, others have also commented that they wanted faster note values as a contrast. One of the first decisions I made (after realizing that it wouldn't be a short exercise) was that there would never be note values shorter than 8th notes, and that the tempo would only shift by subtle degrees. I had hoped to introduce variety through harmonic and textural means, and apparently I did not entirely succeed there. You mention the need for a climax, but there is a climax of sorts, from 11:00 to 11:49 or so, which I would have written one dynamic level higher, except for distortion in the NotePerformer string samples (or perhaps in the post-processing within Sibelius) that becomes most problematic at high dynamic levels. There are no ff's in the score for that reason. The final engraved score will have more dynamic range. What you heard is of course a demo, and I hope that a real performance would address some of these issues. But I concede that there may not be enough variety in Variations 1-4.
By the way, Gerd, it was your beautiful Adagio on B-A-C-H that gave me the impetus originally to try to do something with the D-S-C-H motif!
Once again, many thanks for taking the time to listen all the way through (again) and giving your feedback, I really appreciate it.
After thinking about Gerd's comments, I decided to try to make a conservative change or two to at least give the impression of greater variety in the first four variations. At this point the only changes I made were to tempo and articulation. Mainly, Variation 3 is slower and Episode 4 and Variation 4 are faster, with more of a forward rhythmic drive. The ritardando leading up to Variation 3 is more noticeable now and the variation has more of a sad, morose quality.
Gerd, do you think some expressive tempo changes could improve your impression of the first 13 minutes?