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From the Naxos Blog: 48 + 72 Preludes and Fugues

October 11, 2019

Think Preludes and Fugues, and J. S. Bach’s two volumes of the 2-movement sets will for many be the first to spring to mind: with 24 in each volume, his magnificent achievement is known simply as ‘The 48’. Written in 1722 and 1742, Bach’s collection has since inspired many great keyboard players to give searching performances of them, and many composers to follow the blueprint of writing a prelude followed by a fugue in each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys available in that tonal system.

Today, then, we’ll dip into the sets of 24 Preludes and Fugues written by both Bach (1685-1750) and three other composers, so we can compare and contrast: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Anthony Burgess (1917-1993).

Johann Sebastian Bach
Prior to Bach’s time it had not been feasible to compose in all the keys that were theoretically available; the system of the tuning relationship between individual notes had limitations, making music written in some keys less than pleasant, certainly to our modern ears. The new system of tuning used by Bach — equal temperament — was more accommodating, and Bach’s ‘48’ was titled ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.

Each pairing of a prelude and fugue in Bach’s ‘48’ encapsulates its own mood. The prelude displays a freedom of expression that contrasts with the technical strictness of the fugue, in which a mere fragment of a melody and its counter-melody is used in numerous ways (forwards, upside down, stretched out, diminished, chopped up, overlapping with itself, and so on) to generate accumulating intensity.

Sir András Schiff
Readers already familiar with ‘The 48’, acknowledged to be one of the most significant keyboard works ever written, will be excited by one of our releases scheduled for January, 2020. It’s an audiovisual recording of Sir András Schiff performing Book 1 at the 2017 BBC Proms. The Independent was bowled over by the occasion: “He delivered the endlessly walking line of the final prelude with majestic assurance, and if the gravely enigmatic final fugue denoted death, this was death of an entirely serene kind. It really was stupendous.”

By way of introduction, here’s a performance on a modern harpsichord of that Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor.

Prelude No. 24 (8.557625-26)

Fugue No. 24 (8.557625-26)

We jump to the 20th century and to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s The Well Tempered Guitars, 24 Preludes and Fugues for two guitars, written in 1962. If you’re unfamiliar with the Italian composer, then here’s a bit of background.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Born in Florence, his mentors were Pizzetti and Casella, members of the influential and progressive Società Italiana di Musica, a group of composers, including Malipiero and Respighi, with whom Castelnuovo-Tedesco became closely associated. In 1939, as a result of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish edicts, Castlenuovo-Tedesco was obliged to seek refuge abroad, but after settling in California he became a prolific writer of film music between 1940 and 1956. In the same period he composed more than seventy concert works. As a member of the faculty of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, he numbered among his pupils Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, André Previn, and the composer John Williams.

Alexandre Lagoya and Ida Presti
Source: Wikimedia commons
A tradition of guitar duo performance and composition stretches back to the early nineteenth century. In the twentieth century a number of distinguished duos established an international reputation, the most eminent being the famous duo of Ida Presti and Alexandre Lagoya to whom Castelnuovo-Tedesco dedicated his The Well Tempered Guitars. It proved to be a landmark in the guitar’s history and the most ambitious undertaking for two guitars ever conceived.

The variety of moods, colours, techniques and styles within the set is immense, certainly in one sense paying homage to the great precedent of J. S. Bach, but at the same time exploiting the depths of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s gifts for melodic inventiveness, wit, vivacity, introspection and lyricism. We can listen to the Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in E major.

Prelude No. 4 (8.570778)

Fugue No. 4 (8.570778)

Dmitry Shostakovich
And so to Dmitry Shostakovich’s Russia and the 1948 Zhdanov decree, under which Soviet artists, writers and intelligentsia in general had to conform to the party line in their creative works, or risk persecution. The policy remained in effect until the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. For Shostakovich it meant that during this period film music became his only dependable source of income; his other works written at this time were composed ‘for the desk drawer’.

Tatyana Nikolayeva
And yet, inspired by the artistry of the young pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva, he set to work on his 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 in October 1950, completing the cycle some four months later. He submitted the work to the Composers’ Union in Moscow shortly after. The response was unfavourable; subsequent invited audiences to performances were also unresponsive. It was thanks to the enthusiastic promotion of the work by Nikolayeva that she was able to give the public premiere of the complete cycle in December 1951. Sad to note, she was struck by a cerebral haemmorhage during a performance of the preludes and fugues during a public concert in San Francisco on 13 November 1993, and died nine days later.

Shostakovich’s admiration for Bach was clear: “ …that genius, the phenomenal Master.” And his grandiose Op. 87 cycle became known in Russian musical circles as the ‘Third Volume of the Well Tempered Klavier.’ Here’s the Prelude and Fugue No. 17 in A flat major in a performance by Konstantin Scherbakov. The liner notes for his recording describe the prelude as “fresh and winsome” and the fugue as “jaunty”. See if you agree.

Prelude No. 17 (8.554745-46)

Fugue No. 17 (8.554745-46)

Anthony Burgess
Mention the name of the author Anthony Burgess, and first reactions might be to recall his most famous novel A Clockwork Orange or one of his hallmark quotes, such as: Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone. What is less well known, however, is that the English writer was also a composer so, before we get to the work he wrote to mark the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth, here’s a bit of background to that opposite but complementary side of his coin.

Burgess claimed to have acquired his musical talent from his parents. His mother, Elizabeth Burgess, was a singer and dancer on the music-hall stage (her professional name was ‘the Beautiful Belle Burgess’), while his father, Joseph, played the piano in music halls and silent cinemas.

The era of his childhood is vividly evoked in The Pianoplayers, his comic novel about a musical family much like his own, who live in Manchester and Blackpool in the North of England between the wars. Burgess wanted to play music from an early age, and Joseph, on his way out to the pub one day, pointed out middle C on the family piano. This was the only music lesson he received from his father, and, he said later, “the only one that I ever needed”.

Burgess composed The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard: 24 Preludes and Fugues in a 3-week period during November and December 1985 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth. In it, he oscillates between the classicism of Bach and the modernity of Shostakovich. It is never quite certain which of these influences will emerge as the dominant one. With reference to the title, we should note that earlier in the year he had taken possession of a new electronic synthesizer, a Casiotone 701 model with a full-sized keyboard and 14 preset sounds, including ‘Piano’, ‘Organ’, ‘Frog’ and ‘Funny’.

To sign off today, we’ll play the final prelude and fugue in Burgess’ set. Like Bach’s, played earlier, it’s in the key of B minor. The theme of the prelude is taken from the final movement of Burgess’ Piano Concerto; the fugue in 4 voices ends, curiously, with a flippant valedictory flourish.

Prelude No. 24 (GP773)

Fugue No. 24 (GP773)

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