Fugal Variations in C Minor

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Update 2 August 2020: I have revised the ending slightly and the version on SoundCloud is now out of date.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

    In light of the length I wanted to let you know I made a note of this and will be back with comments after some time digesting it.. I'm excited to listen to it! Please take my comments with a grain of salt. My observations are often very subjective and not based on any concrete  text book conclusions. Have a good day!

  • Hi Tim,

    Thanks for replying, I'll be very interested to hear your thoughts when you've had a chance to listen to it. I may replace the recording and score later today as the last 5 bars don't quite sit right with me - for one thing, I think it needs one more bar, an upbeat to the augmentation of the (diatonic) inversion of the DSCH motif in the first violins. But everything I've tried so far doesn't quite work either - I run into problems with the range of the violin (2nd violins) unless I raise the upper two voices one octave, and then it doesn't sound solemn enough since I've restricted myself to four voices, and the intervals are then too wide, too spread out.

    And then I've noticed distortion in the rendering that seems to happen mostly if I've used the sound chip in my computer a lot in the last few hours. That doesn't make sense -- Sibelius doesn't use the sound chip to render to a file (I don't think so, anyway), but I've noticed the pattern and it's pretty consistent.

    Anyway those are my only plans for the immediate future, and the rest of the piece should be pretty stable at least for a while. ;)

  • I've revised the ending as I promised but haven't uploaded an mp3 yet, because of the aforementioned distortion issue - I need to give my sound chip a few hours of rest before trying to render to a file. But I've attached the new score. ONLY the end of the coda has been changed, the part marked "con solennita". I added a few bars actually; the inverted DSCH motif is now given to the 2nd violins and is not augmented, and I'm not sure you can even hear it. But a non-inverted form of the motif now appears in each of the lower voices to intensify the cadence, and they're very audible. The rallentando has also been increased from 70% to 50% (not visible in the score of course). This effect is much closer to what I wanted and I'm (almost) totally satisfied with it. (Ha! Never completely satisfied! ;))

    I'll replace the SoundCloud mp3 later on this evening.


  • Evening, Liz,

    Firstly congratulations in getting an opus this magnum together. Sheesh, it must have taken some work.

    I mean...22 minutes. That's one side of an LP!

    But it coheres very well. Given there's only a little variation in tempo and dynamics are mostly kept to a low level it was indeed listenable and enjoyable. (Perhaps it's time I got away from the atonal, noisy stuff!) At first I thought a more sprightly variation wouldn't go amiss but on reflection that would have destroyed the calm completely! 

    What's so good and a mark of the work you put into this is the interweaving of the parts most noticeable in the violins, swapping the upper parts, that made it flow. Another point that held my interest all through was the harmony is never static, moves chromatically all over the place with some nice suspensions. You included a fair bit of syncopation from the first few bars onward. And I can't leave without mentioning the grand tierce at the end, dutifully loud! and the way you approached it from con solennita

    I didn't look at how the variations worked - that honestly would have meant studying the score (though I did follow it) and I have to do some practice before the day's out. I'm not good at classical styles so perhaps others will have things to say about structure. 

    All good. If I had any crits they'd almost certainly come down to the rendering and balance but, hey, the sound is miles better than your earlier quartet and we're talking about the minor-est of points here. To think you put this together without a keyboard is amazing.

    All the best,


  • Hi Dane!

    Wow, thank you so much for the kind words! Your detailed descriptions really make your opinion much more meaningful. Yeah, it was a lot of work. I began it on 15 May and finished it yesterday, and I'm supposed to be preparing for the fall semester and haven't gotten enough done because it's been such an obsession. I kind of wish you had waited before commenting on the final cadence - it is substantially different now (though still forte and con solennita), but I still don't have a rendering of the revised version to upload to SoundCloud. Maybe I'll try in a bit.

    The variations don't really "work" - I just call them that because, as in formal variations, they have distinct characters. They're really just different approaches to applying and developing the basic material from the exposition. As I said, the title is subject to change, and variations might not be the best descriptor.

    The dynamics are not really supposed to be as low as written - the ending, for instance, should really be ff not just f. Sibelius/NP renderings tend to distort at high velocities, so I wrote all of the dynamics about one level softer than I really wanted. The other thing is that the volume level of this rendering on SoundCloud is oddly subdued, and I don't know why. I used the same mixer settings as in my quartet pieces, which sound much louder and fuller. The original mp3 that I uploaded doesn't sound so quiet either on my system. Weird.

    Thanks again for listening and commenting, Dane. All the best to you!


  • I had to get out my work computer to get an acceptable rendering of my piece with the revised ending, but it's finally done and it's up on SoundCloud now. Same link as before.

    Just a comment on the new ending: Dane described the final cadence as a tierce - yeah in the previous version it was, and that is exactly what I was trying to avoid. The reason I started the coda in F Minor was to prepare the cadence I wanted, which is F Minor to C Major - sort of a plagal cadence with the 6th flattened, except that C Major is also the dominant of F Minor so that can sound like it's ending on the dominant. This is not a new cadence, it's been done a dozen times before (if not more). My solution was to let the violas clinch C Major as tonic with a B natural leading tone. I really like this because it's part of the inverted DSCH so it works perfectly. The effect is quite a bit more solemn than a tierce - if you heard the first version, please listen to just the coda and see what you think.

    The volume level is still very low in the file on SoundCloud - not sure why, must be something they do to it in their post-upload processing. Anyway you might want to crank up the volume to listen to it - it is NOT supposed to be a quiet piece.

  • At first I thought, a twenty minute fugue? That's pretty intimidating to listen to let alone write. Then I thought well, time being short I'll divide it up or do something else while listening but you got my attention and held it. I'm not an expert on fugues or baroque music at all but this is certainly convincing for the most part. You have quite a talent for drawing out ideas and adding subtle but diverse variations, very well done! The occasional dissonance may not be baroque but they seem appropriate here, again not my place to say. I suppose you could have some more dynamics, also textural variations, we don't need all four voices all the time but that's only a nit pick because you have them working quite well together. And I remember you don't like the solo sounds as much although NP sounds good to my ears here, I know you have your doubts but still. The ending seems appropriate and convincing but I was hoping for a little more action, 'stetti' I think they call it?; to offset the solemnity but that probably wouldn't work. This is quite different from your first piece here and I do like it better, very good work, I'm impressed!

  • Hi Ingo,

    Thank you for your comments! Yes, I was very nervous posting this because of the length, I'm sure it's off-putting. But thank you for taking the time to listen to the whole thing. It is really not a fugue, though parts of it are fugal. Maybe you could call the last 9 minutes (Variation 5) a fugue (it's marked "Fuga" in the score), but even there it departs from fugal textures enough that I don't think it can really be described as a true fugue.

    I didn't actually set out to write something in a baroque style - really the work that eventually came to be my model for this was Carl Nielsen's Commotio (yeah, the one for organ!) which is in sort of a neo-baroque style but could never be mistaken for something from that era. As you say, there's too much dissonance in my piece too, and even a bit of bitonality in a couple of places.

    I have to quibble a little with one of your comments though (sorry!) - the tutti parts probably stand out, but really there's only a few places where all of the voices are active at the same time, mostly in the fugal expositions when everyone has finally joined in, and at the climaxes. I'm not yet good enough at counterpoint to sustain 4-voice stuff for too long, so mostly the textures are 3 voices and in places, only 2.

    Oh, and, touchy point here: because your post is timestamped only a few minutes after I posted my update, I have to wonder which version you heard? The cadence in the revised version is NOT a Picardie tierce but a very solemn (and rather dissonant) hybrid cadence under a long-held pedal in the 1st violins.

    Thanks again for giving my piece your attention - I really appreciate it!


  • Shame to drop the tierce de Picardy. The work is a long tapestry of counterpoint (I don't know if it follows the rules of strict counterpoint - well, I know it doesn't exactly) and could be Liz Atems, Haydn (of the 7 last words) and Palestrina put in the blender, if you'll forgive me saying so ( hopefully, he pleads), so the coda came over very well. It left no doubt.

    Yes, souncloud is weird. How it does its allegedly lossless compression is anyone's guess. You aren't alone in wondering what goes on. I rarely bother with it now, happier to do an MP3 at a bit rate that allows me to post it direct to this site (<7Mb). I seem to be getting away with that.

    (I'll try to listen to the new ending later on. Got a few admin things to do this morning.)

  • Hi Dane,

    Well, apart from the fact that the tierce was not what I was imagining, when I heard that first ending it sounded perfunctory to me and not well prepared. But I also had the DSCH inversion in my head as what I wanted for the last word and had to face up to the fact that I couldn't have both that and a "plagal" cadence. So I gave the inversion to the 2nd violins and went with the plagal (that's not really the right word for it but I don't know what it's called). At some point I may even drop that inversion altogether as it was already stated a few bars earlier, and is strictly a technical detail now that you can't hear, and the four chords it belongs to now sound a bit too bland to my ears. But the last part, under the pedal C, is exactly as I imagined it.

    Gosh, what bit rate do you use? I doubt I could get a 20 minute piece under 7 MB and still have it sound decent. But it might be worth considering for shorter works.

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