Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Princess and the Fugue

...It was not yet day when Scheherazade finished telling the story of "The President and the Twitter Account." There was time enough therefore to begin another, but the Sultan interrupted: "My bride, I read on Wikipedia that you have 'studied philosophy, sciences, and the arts,' and since your stories are getting a little less believable every night, I thought we could mix things up a bit. How about improvising a fugue for my enjoyment?"

Scheherazade hesitated. She knew she could devise a fugue without much trouble, but she feared that when it ended, the Sultan would be satisfied, the night would end, and her life would end as well. However, the Sultan was insistent, and so Scheherazade took a seat at the palace piano, thought of a twisting motif that might work, and began to play:

From the first few notes, the Sultan was entranced by the enticing theme and the Buxtehudian manner in which the voices were entwined. The princess seemed to lose her way along the way with some suspect voice-leading and overly indulgent chromaticism, but the arrival of a dominant pedal signaled that a strong final cadence would soon arrive for the fugue - and for his bride.

Thus was the Sultan astonished when Scheherazade's reverie came to an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. A tentative final diminished chord had left him feeling unsettled once again - like one of those episodes of Batman (basically every episode) which leaves you wanting more. He asked the princess to continue what surely was the beginning of a larger musical narrative, but just then a ray of sun broke through, the rooster crowed, the alarm sounded, the automatic coffeemaker began percolating, and the Sultan knew he'd have to wait until the next evening to find out how that suspended B-flat would resolve...

Blogging has been a bit slow here the past few years, but I've never seriously thought of stopping - even though I'm not under threat of death from any sultans if I run out of ideas. I actually have quite a few half-written drafts from 2017 and many more from years before, but blogging silence tends to breed blogging silence.

On the other hand, active blogging feeds itself! So it is that within a day or two of posting my previous entry about discovering a Rimsky-Korsakov fugue that doesn't sound like Rimsky-Korsakov, I found myself idly wondering what I'd expect the Mighty Russian's counterpoint to sound like. On Friday, I was sitting in a rehearsal that didn't demand too much of my time, and when Scheherazade's famous violin theme popped into my head, I immediately thought of its similarities to the triplet-feel of the F Major Fugue.

Before the night was over, I'd finished up a little mini-fugue on Rimsky-Korsakov's second most famous theme. (I suppose the task remains to write a fugue on this.) I'm pretty happy with how it came out, although it could use more development, and the middle voice gets stuck harmonizing with the top voice too much perhaps.

The opening of the fugue is modeled on how Rimsky-Korsakov's fugue presents its subject (middle voice followed by top followed by bass), but from there I let things go where they wanted. I like the way the Sultan's Theme (which opens Rimsky-Korsakov's suite) appears in m. 13, m.17, and m.19. Also, the top voice in m. 21-22 is closely based on the wonderful orchestral passage that first occurs at 4:59 in the original. As for the theme itself, a fugue is a kind of exploration, and it makes sense that Scheherazade's creative inspiration would begin with her own searching motif.

The false ending is an admittedly odd touch; I didn't want to take the time (for now anyway) to expand the fugue, but a conventional ending felt too sudden. And, anyway, finishing with an ending would be death for the poor girl. Otherwise, I'm not sure what to say about this unexpected diversion. I don't have much use for this fugue in church, and for now it's too short to fit into a recital, but it was an engaging exercise. I also enjoyed imagining it as a kind of alternative storytelling Scheherazade might do to put off death for another night. (Quick story recap here, if you don't know the tale.)

What I love most about this experience is the way one musical idea generates another. My search for a Russian-sounding organ postlude in F Major led me to a not-Russian-sounding fugue for piano by Rimsky-Korsakov, which in turn led me to write my own "Rimsky-Korsakov Fugue," which led to the idea of incorporating that into a partial retelling of the original story.

Actually, I originally imagined this fugue for organ, which gives it a more imposing feel:

However, the intimacy of the piano feels more authentic for improvisational musical storytelling. You'll notice that neither version of the score includes any tempo or dynamic markings. I like the idea that a piece can function completely differently according to interpretation. And I'm lazy.

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