Fugal Variations (revised version)

I finally have a draft to share of a REVISED VERSION of the piece I wrote over the summer and have been tinkering with, on and off, ever since.

The title of the piece is sort of a misnomer as it is neither a fugue, nor a set of formal variations. It is really a polyphonic fantasia on a fugue subject and its countersubject. Fugal texture is only used as a device, and the development is largely non-fugal, though always polyphonic. The “variations” part comes from the fact that there are 5 large-scale sections (after the fugal exposition that opens the piece) that each have their own distinct characters. They’re marked as “variations” in the score, but aren’t true variations of the kind you find in Beethoven, for example. Between the “variations” there are shorter interludes and bridge passages, called “episodes” in the score. The form of the piece was loosely based on Carl Nielsen’s Commotio, but I think it has more of sonata form than the Nielsen does.

When I first presented the piece, one listener complained (and I agreed) that the early parts didn’t have enough variety of expression. I always felt that Variation 4, sort of a “development section” in the sonata form sense, took too direct a path toward its “grand climax”, and the winding down afterward seemed not to really have much of a point. In this version, the development is fleshed out quite a bit more, and the music passes quickly through many contrasting moods. The downside is that the revision lasts a couple of minutes longer than the original, though some of that is due to a slower tempo in the concluding “variation”, which lasts 10 minutes now instead of 9.

(I’m unsure whether the tempo is TOO slow now, though I feel strongly that the original tempo was too fast. I also have some doubts whether the new material - beginning around 10:00 - damages the coherence of the piece as a whole, as at one point the basic theme gets mutated into something almost unrecognizable, which then never occurs again after Variation 4.)

As always, constructive criticism is most welcome.

Sibelius / NotePerformer rendering, broken up into three "spans":




The whole enchilada (25 minutes):



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  • Hi Liz,

    So far I've listened up Var IV, around 11 minutes and though the tempo rarely changes more than a smidgen it held my interest easily. In fact, if you could excuse me saying so, the contrapuntal weaving of voices is clever. I was going to say that my reaction was 'neo-baroque' but it drew me back to Beethoven's Op 131, first movement, difficult to call it other than beautiful, a minor key but that twists in and out of the major during that long fugue. You certainly captured a similar mood. It was that work that first attracted me to the expressive potential of the medium.

    People here who can't modulate could take a lesson from this work. The harmonic rhythm carries through many different harmonies, the vertical always seeming to be well-spaced and when it isn't that's fairly obvious by design. And there are clashes (by design) that sometimes bring a sharpness of flavour to my ears, if that makes sense. The dynamics are superbly handled (I assume this is notation software, not a daw rendering and I doubt those dynamics could be done much better in a daw except in the smallest nuances during sustained notes).

    I could go through the score pointing out the many bits I noticed re my remarks but there are too many. Of interest is your use of accidentals in the string parts. Well, you probably know about the way string players finger chromatic intervals. (I'd quote the first example but don't want to lose my place in the score!) and you seem to have a feel for how this works expressively.

    Frankly, there's nothing so far to criticise musically/technically; no performance problems (as I see it). At first I wondered about the almost constant tempo but wasn't uncomfortable as the piece unrolled up to this point.

    So...congrats on this revision so far. I'll try to devote some time to the rest later today - and blimey, the sun's shining!


    Keep safe,


  • Hi Dane,

    Wow! Thank you so much for your very kind words regarding my piece! The comparison to Op. 131 is about the highest praise anyone could give, and my first reaction would have been "oh, come on"... but since you're the third person so far to be reminded of the Beethoven, I guess I should just humbly accept the compliment. Actually Op. 131 wasn't even on my radar as I was writing the piece... Bach was, and Nielsen, and to a lesser extent Mahler... and very much Prengel! Gerd's very fine Adagio on B-A-C-H was a major inspiration for the work.

    I should warn you that I replaced the link and the score this morning with a new version. The only changes are to the tempi in Variation V - I decided the middle part dragged too much and nudged the tempo after the exposition up just a tad (from crotchet = 60 to 62). The more active later sections of Var V are a smidgen faster too.

    I will say that the tempo changes more than it might seem - the metronome markings range from crotchet = 60 all the way up to 82 (in Ep and Var IV), and that's not counting rallentandos at cadences. But the transitions are usually quite gradual, so that blunts the effect I think. Really my metronome markings are for the rendering (Sibelius + NotePerformer) and I wouldn't expect performers to follow them faithfully. The piece really is in one basic pulse, except faster in Ep and Var IV, and the minute changes of tempo are mostly to simulate what a human interpreter might do for expressive purposes. They certainly aren't intended to be authoritative - just "composer's preference" ;) (and seriously, that might change next week).

    When you say accidentals in the string parts, do you mean the way the notes are spelled? I really don't know the fingerings of the instruments, but I've had some help from a local violist in sorting out the enharmonic choices. Liz (yes, her name is Liz too!) is also patching in herself playing the violin and viola parts to make a demo string quartet version that's (mostly) played by humans. For the moment she's using the exported cello line from Sibelius, but so far that sounds weird enough that I might end up hiring a cellist. :)

    Thanks again for your review - at 11:00 you're into the new material, and I look forward to your impressions of the rest of the piece.



  • I replaced the audio link yet again. The climax of Var IV has a couple of phrases marked fortissimo, that were coming in way too loud. This afternoon I figured out how to adjust the playback dynamics in Sibelius, damped down ff just barely enough. Also wanted the Coda to end on a crescendo, but ff < was too loud and in fact went into the red in Audacity, so I made it f < instead and that seemed to work okay.

    I replaced the score too because of that one change, but it's otherwise the same as before so no need to download again.

    Sorry for all the replacings, I think this will be the last one for now. Every time I want to change a passage in the rendering I have to listen to several minutes worth before splicing to make sure there aren't any NP glitches, since I can only splice in at a silence to avoid pops and clicks. That gets tiring after a while, so I'm going to leave this alone for a while.

  • Hi Liz,

    With this material I would not make the piece more than 6 minutes or so. 

  • Hi Saul,

    Could you elaborate? I'm sure the piece is too long to hold interest for many people, but I don't understand "with this material". What about the material makes it unsuitable for a piece of this length, in your opinion?

    Thanks for weighing in.


  • Variations by nature are a repetition of a singular theme. To make this project sustainable and not boring one needs to create great contrasts between the different various variations. That means, in style, tempi, innovation and color/contrast/character.

    See for example Mendelssohn's D minor variations for piano. The differences between each variation are staggering and that what keeps the listener interested. But slow moving repeated string phrase that lacks all those things I have mentioned would render the piece uninteresting. So I for the lack of these differences the one remedy I would suggest is shortening the piece and minimizing the variations to a few short ones.


    Liz Atems said:

    Hi Saul,

    Could you elaborate? I'm sure the piece is too long to hold interest for many people, but I don't understand "with this material". What about the material makes it unsuitable for a piece of this length, in your opinion?

    Thanks for weighing in.


    Fugal Variations (revised version)
    I finally have a draft to share of a REVISED VERSION of the piece I wrote over the summer and have been tinkering with, on and off, ever since. The t…
  • Hi Saul,

    It seems I need to change the title, as you are the second or even third person who was misled by it (others were expecting a fugue). As I said in the OP, these are NOT really variations per se. I used that term because there are sections that each have distinct characters, but they aren't formal variations on a theme. They are more in the nature of short (at least the first couple) movements, but all based on the same material.

    The work is really a fantasia along the lines of Nielsen's Commotio, which also has distinct sections.

    You say that material like this "would" render the piece boring but I'm not sure whether you actually listened to it? If you did, and it sounds boring and monotonous to you, then fine, some people do have that reaction, and I'm okay with that. Since others feel differently, I'm not sure whether that's a deficiency in the piece or a matter of musical taste or preference... and frankly, it sounds a little as if you are prejudging the piece based on a mistaken idea of the form (which is partly my fault for choosing a misleading title).


  • I realize that it's a big ask to listen to a 25 minute work for string orchestra, based on a rather dreary-sounding fugue subject, so I broke up the audio file into three "spans" or sections, and put the links up in the OP. The full piece is still there, if anyone prefers to listen to the whole thing at once, or is ok with breaking away at random points (which might not work as well).

    The timings are: 06:00, 08:44, 10:18. Please listen to the last one if you don't have time to listen to the others; it's really the most important part of the work, expressively speaking, and can almost stand alone as a separate piece.

    I'm still trying to think up a better, or at least, less misleading title...

  • Hello again, Liz,

    I listened throughout last night without the score, then this morning following the score. It's a long work at a generally consistent tempo so I wondered how it would come across 'just listening' rather than getting intrigued by some pretty clever scoring. Again, Beethoven came to mind, his scoring of all those late quartets which in his time would have seemed weird but still producing beautiful music. 

    I still think it works fine. Toward the end I admit hoping for something different but it's difficult to think of what without upsetting the balance of the work as a whole so best leave it as it is if you're happy with it. There are possibilities like having an 'episode' or even a variation played totally pizz.

    I'm not sure that the nuances of tempo add a great deal to expressiveness which is already dominated by the music itself, the dynamics creating tensions and releases as it unrolls (and some fairly 'biting' build ups at that). Maybe slightly bigger changes at the start of new sections.

    I felt the coda dragged a bit. As it sets out at a medium  dynamic it would seem a chance to up the tempo a fair bit to, say, crotchet=72, perhaps 75, then start the rall at KK toward the adagissimo - but could that be at a faster pace, say =60? Again, the music carries the solemnity. If that were possible there'd be no need for a rall leading into the coda. It would be a fitting round-up of the work.

    But these are just my reflections, Liz. It's your work, and from me a most satisfying piece, so take no notice.

    Again, I noticed details in the scoring that come over as 'knowing'. Either you have a knack with string writing and/or you've been talking with string players. (I have a cellist friend who's done me so much good, trying out phrases and things and saying "Who d'you think I am? Janos Starker?!" with my impossible bits!

    So, a magnum opus, Liz, well done. I reckon you should put this aside now with no further tinkering for a few months then have another look but I doubt you'll find ways to improve it. Getting it performed, if you can, would be the next step. 

    All the best,


  • Hi Dane!

    I think you have a point about the coda. I do feel that it needs to start at crotchet = 60, i.e. to return to the tempo at the beginning of Var V, but delaying the rall might be better than dragging on as long as it does now. Maybe a consistent tempo up to the pause at KK, then a slightly slower tempo and begin the rall (really an allargando) where the 1st violins' high pedal C starts. I'll have to play with that a little and see whether it works for me.

    Thanks again for your feedback and the time you've taken to listen to the whole thing what, twice, three times? Takes patience and dedication, and I really appreciate it!

    Stay safe,


    Fugal Variations (revised version)
    I finally have a draft to share of a REVISED VERSION of the piece I wrote over the summer and have been tinkering with, on and off, ever since. The t…
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