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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  • it makes little difference, the piece is pretty much at the same tempi, you need variety of themes, colors, contrasts, etc...

    Liz Atems said:

    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).


    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…
  • Sure, and there is a lot of thematic material in it, mostly derived from the subject and countersubject. I thought there were enough changes of tonality and mode, and of texture, dynamics, and mood to overcome an impression of monotony. Obviously some people will disagree.

    So if it sounds boring to you, then fair enough, de gustibus etc. Thanks for your feedback.

    Best wishes,


    Saul Gefen said:

    it makes little difference, the piece is pretty much at the same tempi, you need variety of themes, colors, contrasts, etc...

    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…
  • Dear Liz,

    I can say that I took quite some time to listen to this huge work together with the score. It has a wonderful theme and contains tremendous beauties thoughout the piece which really let me recall Beethoven's 131,1. But still I also can understand Saul and I ask myself: does it really has to be that long?

    As for me I adore the whole section until the end of variation 2 (somewhere in the first third of file 2, page 14) and the whole file 3, especially the ending. But I must admit I also could live without the long section L - W, page 14 - 33, in file 2. Is this really necessary? BUT: A great work that surely deserves to find it's way to the audience!!

    And it really requires your full attention to follow the score while listening. If I get lost somewhere it is very difficult to find your way back... ;-)


  • Hi Gerd,

    Thank you so much for your feedback!

    To answer your question... apparently it does have to be this long, as everything in it was part of what I wanted to say in this piece, including L to W. The piece as a whole is much about the dark time we are living through... yet time flows on, the rhythms of life do not stop, and we experience many passing emotions in the course of a day, and perhaps achieve some wonderful insight that gives us great joy. All that is part of life even in this terrible time. That is kind of what I wanted to express in that long development section.

    Of course, I don't expect that every part of the piece will appeal to everyone equally... and some, like Saul, will even be completely turned off by it. That's okay too! De gustibus...

    I'm puzzled by your statement that variation 2 ends somewhere in file 2... actually file 1 ends at the end of variation 2, and file 2 is episode 3 through episode 5. Page 14 is episode 3, and then the beginning of variation 3 at L.

    I want to speed up episode 3 to crotchet = 78, but that tickles a bug in either Sibelius or NP: crotchets followed by rests are played at half duration (unless marked tenuto)! So notes in different voices that should dovetail have gaps between them! This happens at any tempo faster than 74.

    I'm curious whether you've ever noticed something like that using Finale / NP? I suspect it's a Sibelius bug but can't be certain. Perhaps I should email Arne Wallander.

    Thanks again for taking the time to listen and comment, Gerd, I really appreciate it.

    Stay well,


  • I think reception depends a lot on to what the listener is accustomed and their general preferences. To me, a long work like this is no trouble, given it unrolls with some very interesting twists in the counterpoint and scoring. It doesn't pall on the ear - not mine, anyway.

    But at the risk of the Beethovian fans raising their hands in horror, I've always been a fan of Bruckner (one of the constant favourites in my musical existence!) and a 25 minute movement isn't strange. The first and third movements of his 9th Symphony run over 25 minutes. I can also cope with Beethoven's late quartets. And a few minimalist works of roughly this duration: Nyman's "Think slow act fast," Glass' "Music for Dance IV" with him on the organ - on different occasions obviously.

    So it's perhaps easier for me.

    I'd love to write a Bruckner SYmphony. The warning is - don't bring it here!


  • Hi Dane,

    I'm another Bruckner fan, love his #8, #9, and #6 (in that order I think), though I could never write in his style and he isn't in my pantheon of composers who have influenced me to any major degree.

    I deleted an earlier version of this post because it read as mixed up to me. I'm not really sure how to say this. I'm flattered that you admire the counterpoint in my piece, but full disclosure, whatever there is in it that's worth something, doesn't come from a place of long practise or skill. I did study counterpoint briefly with Bolcom at Michigan, but then as you know I didn't do any serious composing for 40 years after graduating, until a year ago this month in fact. I worked out the counterpoint here mostly guided by my ear and what felt right. My sense of what "felt right" probably comes mostly from Holmboe, whose counterpoint harks back to Renaissance vocal polyphony (he studied with the master of that style, Knud Jeppesen). The writing was sometimes very hard, but in other places very easy and obvious, and I think I was mostly just lucky enough to have hit on material that lends itself to polyphonic treatment. I certainly don't think I was in any way clever, at least I wasn't trying to be clever.

    I'm going to need lots of work on the craft of counterpoint to be able to write decent polyphonic music consistently. Thinking I might spend some time this summer writing short fugues for practise. Maybe even take the fugue subject from this piece and speed it up and make a self-contained actual fugue out of it. If I can. That's far from certain.

    Anyway, thanks for your input!


  • Ha, yes, I was going to list a few passages as you asked and lateness in replying came from trying to choose from among the many that span this work.

    I should have used the term "free counterpoint" or polyphony because it's riddled with polyphony. From the opening fugue onwards. I could have quoted from the beat before letter C. In both first and second violins the lines are different and both use imitation - bars 56-60 are mimicked in bar 61 on to modulate to F minor - but they qualify as polyphony because the tunes stand independently. I could have given a lot more examples.

    I'm not one to follow the exact rules of counterpoint so I wasn't looking for anything like that but listening doesn't reveal any infringings! 


  • Thanks Dane... A bit redfaced that you saw my earlier post, but ok. I don't think of the interplay in bars 56-60 as true polyphony though I guess it is, more of a "double theme" of the kind you find in... okay, yes, Bruckner. The echoing in the minor is also maybe Brucknerian or Mahlerian, even though it's the relative minor not direct. The cadence leading up to letter C is really just voice leading and is supposed to sound rich and solemn, kind of hymn-like.

    As to breaking the rules, I agree that only one or two cases jump out at the ear without help of the score. Most conspicuous is the parallel unison between the 2nd vlns and celli in m. 99-100, technically as frowned upon as parallel octaves (as I understand it). But I wouldn't change it, I'm very fond of the 3 lines giving way to 2, then merging briefly, then going their own way again. But I recall finding a few examples of parallel fifths when I was looking for them. That's something I do try to avoid, but since they aren't conspicuous I decided not to do anything about them.

  • This is fascinating and skillfully constructed piece Liz and it will appeal to some but I doubt that it will ever be popular even by classical standards. But you knew that you were setting high standards for yourself and your listeners with this.

    The length is not a problem really, I'm sure most of us watch television programs of doubtful value that last longer than this. But you have eschewed using many devices that appeal to listeners and have focused on simple instrumentation, basic rhythms (mostly 1/8th and 1/4 notes) small variations in texture and tempo and very focused and extensive use of harmony, phrasing, counterpoint and dynamics. You have a swarm of accidentals, a number of key signature changes, and constant detailed dynamic and phrase markings. There is no homophony and very few extended notes but rather constant and unvarying polyphony.

    In spite of the demanding standards you have set here this piece is accessible and enjoyable to me at least, congratulations!

  • Hi Ingo,

    I think you understand the sound world of this piece very well: everything you mention was part of the ground rules I set for myself. No note values shorter than 8th notes, plus never more than 4 voices, mostly legato phrasing, no homophony except at cadences, and unstable tonality, the harmony in constant flux. The challenge was to create musical interest within that very restricted set of parameters. I cannot tell myself whether I have succeeded for anyone else, and I knew going in that some people would find any music written within those parameters unacceptable. That's okay, because I really wrote the piece for myself, because it was what I wanted to hear during this awful time in the world. That a few people find value and beauty in it is very gratifying, and really more than I expected.

    Thank you for listening and for your keen and perceptive feedback!

    Be well,


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