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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Update 2 August 2020: I have revised the ending slightly and the version on SoundCloud is now out of date.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.

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Hi Tim,

Thanks so much for listening and offering your comments! I think the interweaving of the string lines comes from Holmboe - he is one of my favorite composers and I've learned a lot about polyphony by listening carefully to how he does things.

Your idea of maybe scoring this piece for orchestra, with possibly some additional counterpoint, is intriguing. I will have to give it some thought. It might be apparent, though, that originally this thing was to be for string quartet, but I quickly realized that there aren't enough pauses in it to get a decent demo out of it with NotePerformer because of the timing issues - couldn't splice together a working demo from separate renderings without getting pops and clicks that I'd never be able to remove completely. After a while I decided I preferred the string orchestra sound for the piece anyway and now I wouldn't go back. But scoring it for chamber orchestra, with maybe a flute, oboe, clarinet, some brass, sounds like it could work.

I'm not sure what you mean by a formula? Unless you're referring to starting it as a fugue and then deviating? Yes, the music didn't want to cooperate and I didn't want to force it into a mold that didn't fit. Maybe it's also that my skill at counterpoint isn't quite up to writing a true fugue from start to finish. Of course that leaves me with the problem of what to call it: it's not a fugue, it's not really variations (except maybe in the sense of Vaughan Williams's variations in search of a theme), and it only starts in C minor - there's very little of that key in it, and it spends most of its time in the E-flat minor / B-flat minor / F minor tonal space, and in one place goes as far afield as the opposite pole of F-sharp minor.

As to the main theme, that's really the fugue subject that opens the piece, that starts with DSCH. Variation 2 introduces a modified inversion of the subject that wants to modulate upwards by major seconds. I think there's enough combining and metamorphosis of ideas in it that you can't really pick up on everything in one hearing. The other principal ideas that I can name are; the syncopated counter subject that descends chromatically; the material in the duet between the V2s and the violas before the cellos enter; and then a little figure consisting of a suspension that resolves downward with a "turn", introduced in Episode 3, that then appears in various contexts right through to the final bars. I think that's really it. To be honest, some of the derivations were unconscious and I'm still discovering them as I review the score.

The only really major change I made was to the ending and I'm glad you heard the final form. Originally I had the piece end with a grand flourish and a tierce de Picardie that was just wrong. This ending is much more inevitable and I think fits better emotionally with the rest of the piece.

Again, thanks so much.

Hi Liz, just wanted to mention that no apology is necessary when correcting me about the number of voices used in your piece, I want to know when I'm wrong. Of course we can always discuss things as well, my comment about texture was technically incorrect and since you are using ensemble patches you couldn't have thinned your texture much anyway.

But I do like Tim's idea of orchestrating this piece if you are so inclined.  I think orchestration would help us to appreciate all of the intricacies that you have here. Also orchestration is NP's strong point I believe, it's combinations work well together and you avoid all of the effort required to get a library to assemble all of that. And you probably know that Sibelius has a plug in that can find parallel fifths and octaves in a piece, hidden ones too I believe.  Of course that would be cheating.  Didn't stop me though.

Hi Ingo,

You weren't completely wrong. I played through the piece again today in Sibelius and realized that there were more places where I sustained all 4 voices  for a while than I'd thought. Usually one or another voice goes away for a while though. The part that most bothers me is actually in an extended 3-voice passage, after the fugal textures resume after the 'solace and hope" episode. It isn't that it's 3 voices for a long while, it's that it's the SAME 3 voices in the SAME registers. I tried for a bit on Monday to find a solution to that, but no joy. It's still on my to-do list for the piece.

If you say I couldn't thin the texture much because I'm using ensemble patches (not sure what those are), I'm not sure exactly what you mean by thinning the texture. I assumed it meant just reducing the number of voices, but now I wonder if you mean reducing the number of players in each section. If so, that may not be impossible. Right now I'm using NP midi messages to limit the number of players to 4 in each section. What I don't know is whether those settings are global or whether they can be changed on the fly. That might be worth checking into.

Actually I didn't know about a Sibelius plug-in to find parallel fifths and octaves. Usually they jump out at me but I'm sure I miss some. Good to know, especially since I'm not above a little cheating either... ;)

I uploaded a slightly better rendering (better as in: less distortion) to Google Drive and wanted to provide the new link, for anyone who has not yet heard this or who gave up on the rendering up on SoundCloud.

The version of the score in an earlier post in this thread is still the current one.

This sounds much better Liz!

I hesitated to comment on mix volume prior because I reckoned it was low on the list of priorities as compared to say, arrangement and parts mixing.

The Google upload seems much better  in terms of overall loudness. I would be interested to see what was different about it compared to the SC upload.

Thanks, Tim, for the feedback! I think there are two possible reasons for the difference: one is just that SoundCloud did some attenuation on my file in their post-upload processing. I don't know for sure if that is true, and your Death Shadow piece on SC doesn't seem to suffer from this problem.

The other possibility is that this rendering was done slightly differently. Because it is so hard for me to get a distortion-free playback with Sibelius/NP these days (not sure why), I had to splice the new coda onto an older rendering, using Audacity. Unfortunately iTunes ate the copy of the older file I had tried to save to its Library, so I had to pull the older rendering off of a burned CD. And looking at the graph of the audio in Audacity, it now has a much higher overall volume level. In fact, when playing through the final cadence, the bar graphs go into the yellow and even a bit of orange now. Apparently iTunes did this when burning the file to disc initially - since I copied the .aiff file directly off of the CD to recover it. So maybe that is why it's so much louder.

 Hi Liz,

 You file very likely was attenuated by SC. All of those services will limit what the algorithm thinks is too loud. It's a fine line really to get within their specs and stay loud enough to be heard ok at mid volume on most systems, but not be too loud.

I shoot for a -3 to -6 db master channel limited using the LUFS scale mostly, but occasionally I'll use RMS or the K-system. I had a mix way too "hot" recently and one of my friends pointed it out to me. I must have missed something in the mastering phase. I don't use limiters in extreme settings for classical type work usually. 

The main issue with getting the material all into the yellow is the quiet passages are compressed into the same space as the louder passages. I try to trim the tips off of the peaks that threaten to go over 0db so I can boost the lower passages better. Go too far and you have what looks like a brick in the audio graphic representation. Not far enough and you won't hear everything well. That last mix was pretty good though!

Hi Tim,

The only master channel limiting that I do is within Sibelius, using the NP mixer. I play everything back now at -4.0 dB. I have no idea which scale that uses, and to be honest, I don't know anything about the different scales you mention.

And just to be clear, since you mentioned arrangement and parts mixing: I haven't done any. I save the rendering directly from Sibelius/NP to an aiff file, then import it into Audacity and (usually) export directly as an mp3 without any processing. With Fugal Variations there is almost nowhere I can do any splicing anyway, and that's the only audio editing I've done on any of my pieces. At -4.0 dB I don't need to trim the peaks as (normally) they don't go anywhere near the yellow. I've never done parts mixing as I haven't seen any need to, and can't think of any situation where the result would be work the extra work. The amount of work that would be needed to fix the timing issues that are such a problem with solo strings in NP just boggles the mind. I would need to carefully time and mix in each part phrase by phrase, since the timing of each instrument seems to shift at the beginning of each legato phrase.

That's why I switched to the chamber strings setting, and I haven't looked back. ;)

Another (very) minor tweak this morning, to the dynamics in the final cadence. A link to the rendering of the current version and the score are in the OP. No need to listen again; this is mainly for those who have not heard the work.

Gave this a second listen.  I have to confess the first time round I didn't get much out of it beyond "Shostakovich-like string threnody".  This time round, though, I think I'm starting to discern the various sections, and recognize the theme and its various appearances (can't say I caught all of them, but definitely better than the first time!).  In spite of its length, you've managed to avoid falling into the "more of the same" trap of long pieces; each section has something new to offer, if perhaps a bit more subtle than a casual listening would pick up. The way you subtly weaved in major key sections that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb in an otherwise dark and sombre piece was quite well done. There's also a general overarching progression, gradual but noticeable upon careful listening, that builds up to the hopeful conclusion.  I particularly liked the way you turned the sombre theme and mood in the passages leading up to the conclusion to build tension in a way that gives a sense of finality. Quite skillfully done, IMO.

Even though personally I'm not particularly inclined to this kind of darker music, I think it has generated enough interest that I might revisit this again sometime.

Hi H.S.,

Thanks so much for listening (again) and for your comments!

Yes, someone on Facebook also commented on the darkness of the piece, and it's true that much of my music seems to incline toward dark moods... here though it seemed called for by the nature of the fugue subject, which is why the piece came gradually in my mind to be about the time we are living through.

It is possible that there are too many subsidiary ideas that play an important role in the later development. It gives the impression of there being more subtlety than there actually is in the piece. There also seem to be derivations that I didn't intend, but probably did perform unconsciously.

The idea of carrying the concluding bars up into the higher registers was new with this revision, and I agree that it makes it much brighter and more affirming. The actual reason I did it, though, was so that the viola's B-C-A flat-G (a diatonic transposition of the germ motif) would be more clearly audible.

Just today, I revised the instrumentation and registration slightly in bars 668-680 as it seemed like too much of the same to me. Now the 1st and 2nd violins hand off phrases back and forth, and when the 1st violins enter with the fugue subject, it is an octave higher. I'll eventually make a rendering of it and replace the link in the OP, but it's a minor change.

Finally, I hope that the major key Episode 3 wasn't TOO subtle - it really WAS supposed to stick out like a sore thumb! Sort of like someone showing up for a funeral in a bright white Sunday Communion dress. It even ties a pretty little IV-V-I bow around itself, not once but twice... the only place in the piece where that happens.

Thanks again for the nice comments!

Liz Atems said:


Yes, someone on Facebook also commented on the darkness of the piece, and it's true that much of my music seems to incline toward dark moods... here though it seemed called for by the nature of the fugue subject, which is why the piece came gradually in my mind to be about the time we are living through.

In this case, I think the subject matter justifies the dark mood. Even though I'm not usually drawn to dark music, I occasionally still do enjoy things like Shostakovich's 8th, etc.. And I did write a Threnody on a particular unhappy subject matter, complete with discordant, borderline atonal passages, so there's that.

It is possible that there are too many subsidiary ideas that play an important role in the later development. It gives the impression of there being more subtlety than there actually is in the piece.

I confess to doing the same in Exuberance. :-P My fugue skills were not up to snuff to get through several passages, so I just took the liberty to introduce new material, which I later on then retroactively reused to make it look like it was planned all along (it wasn't). Still, I'm quite pleased with the result, and am not overly concerned about a strict, technical interpretation of fugue.


Finally, I hope that the major key Episode 3 wasn't TOO subtle - it really WAS supposed to stick out like a sore thumb! Sort of like someone showing up for a funeral in a bright white Sunday Communion dress. It even ties a pretty little IV-V-I bow around itself, not once but twice... the only place in the piece where that happens.


Well, it did stand out, but I guess it depends on how sore of a thumb it is that you're thinking about... I meant it more in the way that it didn't sound out-of-place or awkwardly inserted into an otherwise dark piece; but certainly within the context of the piece itself it presented quite a contrast.

In any case, I think I'll need to listen to this again in order to get a better idea on its details -- a 20-min piece is far too long to completely grasp with merely 2 listens.

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