Monday, May 25, 2020

The one about the other guy having a 250th birthday year

As with so many blog posts in the past, I'm here again due to the wonderful world of Facebook discussion threads. In this case, a pianist friend and her conductor/oboist husband were wondering about examples of music in 5/4 time that pre-date the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. As it happened, I had been dabbling in this trivia a few weeks before - specifically on "May the Fourth Be With You Day" when another Facebook friend posted this (which actually refers to a Paul Desmond tune made famous by Brubeck);

I fairly quickly responded with a couple of improvised responses to that from Holst and Tchaikovsky:

So, my knowledge of famous 5/4 music also basically went back to Tchaikovsky, but I did sent along a link to this very useful Wikipedia page on quintuple meter which I had run across while investigating May 4. My friends wrote a bit later to make note of an unusual fugue in 5/8 they'd found there written by Anton Reicha. Did I have a clear sense of who Anton Reicha was at this point? (This was five days ago.) Not really. I think I remembered him as someone who'd written wind quintets (true!), though I wouldn't have wanted to be held to that. Contemporary of Beethoven? I feel like maybe I would have guessed that as well, but wouldn't have been surprised if I'd been off a hundred years either way.

My friends also sent along the only YouTube link they could find of the Reicha fugue, and though it seems to be a generic synth rendition (with a mystifying picture of a bunnies for the video), I started listening. At first, in part I'm sure because of the synth sound, it seemed forced and weird, but as I kept listening, I started to get into the swing of it. I listened to it at least two more times on a walk, found a couple of early 19th century editions on IMSLP, and suddenly was in the midst of obsession.

So to back things up, since I shouldn't assume anyone knows much about poor Mr. Reicha, he was indeed an exact contemporary of a VERY famous composer also born in 1770. In fact, Reicha and Beethoven were fellow students and orchestra members in Bonn and later friends in Vienna. Reicha was also a pioneer of the wind quintet and an important teacher of composers such as Liszt, Berlioz, Gounod, and Franck. (Not too shabby). He also wrote a good bit about theory and had some very adventurous ideas about going beyond usual procedures, for example in the writing of fugues. The 5/8 fugue that brought me to this point was published in a set of 36 fugues which push all sorts of futurist boundaries. For whatever reason, though some of his ideas may have been influential (Beethoven became fugue-obsessed in his late years and Liszt was a pioneer in pushing tonality in ways that are suggested in this little fugue), Reicha did not make a big name as a composer, and aside from the wind quintets, he exists pretty much on the music history periphery. (Sadly, his February 250th birthday has already passed, but he still deserves some 2020 attention.)

Although the "ahead of his/her time" metric is not always a sign of greatness, it is remarkable that this 5/8 fugue dates from 1803 (or earlier). I don't know of anything from the period that sounds like it. Curious that the "old-fashioned" genre of fugue should be used for such experimentation.

I'll perhaps write more about it in days ahead, but its quirks include:
  • Being written in the unusual quintuple meter, which Reicha actually indicates as 3/8 + 2/8. 
  • Beginning in A Major but not really being in any particular key. For whatever reason, it ends in F Major. 
  • Having a long, meandering subject which, bizarrely, involves a single triplet and some afterthought sixteenth notes. The triplet is odd in part because the composer makes a point in the preface of being sure the performer doesn't interpret 8ths grouped in three as triplets. And then tosses in a triplet that's not easy to feel in time. But it's also just odd. 
  • Having successive entries of the fugue subject come in at pretty much whatever interval he felt like. The second voice enters a tritone above the first, for example. I guess this is the kind of thing he and Beethoven argued about. (There are eleven entries of the subject, all in major, and they begin on the following pitches: A, E-flat, G, A-flat, F-sharp, A-flat, B, E-flat, C, A-flat, F. Note that the most common is A-flat, and that A never returns!) 
  • Having long passages which modulate freely.
So, yes, it's a quirky fugue, but I have also found it irresistible. Although some of the writing for piano doesn't take best advantage of piano sonority, the notes lie very nicely in the hands, and even though I've now played through it many times, it still feels surprising and even magical. Unlike the inexorable logic one finds in a great Bach fugue, Reicha sometimes seems to be composing on the spot. That nonchalant final cadence in F Major could almost be inspired by someone saying, "Anton, time for dinner!" I still find the meandering tag of the subject (with the triplet and sixteenth notes) to be a little unnatural to the musical discourse, but he just kinda rides with it.

And that's what I'll do here as well, rather than try to analyze every chromatic alteration. Unfortunately, the two early 19th century scores available on IMSLP are both rather poorly engraved, and so I couldn't resist the siren song compelling me to re-engrave the whole thing. I decided to let Reicha keep most of his curious spellings (he likes having one voice in sharps while another is in flats), but there were a lot of spacing issues and also some poor choices about how the voices are arranged across the two staves. He's just one example of a passage that I think is much clearer in my version:

So, although I'm still at the work-in-progress stage, both with the engraving and the performance (on my poor piano which really needs a tuning and re-voicing), I'm releasing this into the wild because I think this is such charming and unusual music. There are at least three commercial recordings of this fugue (here and here and here)*, though they don't seem to be available on Youtube. (Actually I just discovered that the third is available on YouTube Music. It's very fast!) I have listened to all three, and they are fine. But this one says more closely what I think - based on my five days of Reicha expertise!

* Those three linked recordings go from slow to medium (my tempo) to fast. For some reason, on the first album linked, this fugue is listed as #9. I believe all of these pianists play the triplet in the theme a little more slowly then I do, which means I'm probably rushing; but I prefer that sort of headlong falling-forward feeling leading into the 16th notes.

Addendum: A few more observations about my edition and performance. All of the commercially released recordings have the A on the downbeat of m.24 re-articulated, although it is tied from the previous measures in all of the 19th century sources I looked at. This 20th century Barenreiter edition (kind of sketchily uploaded to IMSLP) does not have the tie, and the editor probably had good reason, but I like effect of that tie as it helps this transitional phrase elide more elegantly with what came before.

This brings up a broader point which is that I LOVE that Reicha does not include many articulations or dynamics - in fact, I wish he'd included fewer. I think there's a lot to be said, in music like this, for letting the performer make those decisions. My own set of fugues from the Summer of '18 has no such markings, and though this might be mere laziness on my part, I love the sense of adventure that comes with a good fugue. I play Bach fugues in church many times a month, and I make all sorts of idiosyncratic decisions related to tempo and articulation with them. Many different solutions can be satisfying depending on the context.

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