Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms

Continuing on the theme of counterpoint, I listened to Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’, the second movement of which is written as a fugue.  It starts with a single oboe line, adding in flute, then second flute, third flute, second oboe, fourth flute, and finally piccolo, bassoon, cor anglais and trombone, before the voices and finally strings.  As the different instruments come in they take turns at playing the fugal theme on the tonic and the dominant.

It’s a very chromatic piece; it starts off being identifiably C minor, but already the third note (B natural) played without the context of any adjacent notes takes you by surprise, and creates quite a tense and atmospheric mood.  I really like the instrumental introduction, the individual lines although chromatic work very cleverly together, and the rests at the beginnings of the phrases are effective in building up the tension.

When the voices come in, the fugal theme is played by the lower strings and the whole mood of the piece starts to become more and more threatening in the build up to the climax.

Finzi: Fughetta

This piece is the final of Finzi’s ‘5 Bagatelles’ written for clarinet and piano.  I listened to it after writing my piece for Assignment 4, but have included it in the research notes for this section since it is relevant to the subject of counterpoint.

It’s a very upbeat, fun piece in 4/4 time and a major key.  I think the style really suits the clarinet, it makes good use of the instrument’s wide range and I like the contrasts between the legato passages and staccato off-beat rhythms.  After a short introduction, the clarinet introduces the main fughetta three bar theme which has a distinctive syncopated rhythm.  The theme is then played immediately by the piano, this time starting on the dominant, while the clarinet plays a quiet chromatic passage in accompaniment.  The clarinet and piano take turns at the theme (or parts of it) throughout the piece; sometimes we hear it in the left hand of the piano as well as the right and towards the end we hear it stated one last time in octaves.  The ending itself is a cheeky conversation between the clarinet and piano with the piano having the last word.

The Study of Counterpoint

This fascinating book is the English translation of Johann Joseph Fux’s ‘Gradus Ad Parnassum’, first published in 1725.  It was written as a dialogue between student and master about the art of music composition, and counterpoint in particular.  It was a very influential work and is known to have been studied by eminent composers such as Bach and Beethoven.

The book lays out a method or a set of rules for writing counterpoint, with lots of examples and exercises for the student to complete.  It was interesting to read the author’s observation in the foreword that:

‘ has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself..’

It just goes to show that musicians have always been rebelling!

Here are a few examples of the rules given for two-point counterpoint:

  • Avoid difficult to sing intervals such as tritones
  • Never use similar motion towards a perfect cadence
  • Never leave the unison / octave consonance by a step-wise motion
  • Dissonances are permissible only during step-wise motion

The first is I think still very relevant, even when writing for instrumental music.  After experimenting a little with the second two I tend to agree that this approach ‘sounds better’, although that could very well be because my ear is used to hearing music where these rules are followed.  The last one really needs to be analysed in the context of when it was written – at the time the perfect fourth was considered dissonant, so it would be interesting to explore this further.

Another piece of advice I found quite useful is that the student is encouraged to think of the line as a whole, not just note by note, for example there may be parallel fifths or octaves that are obscured or hidden by an inconsequential note in between.


Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint

This is a piece in three movements: Fast – Slow – Fast, and like much of Reich’s music is minimalist in style.

In the first movement, all the instruments start by playing the same rhythm (a repeated quaver line), and the instruments come in and out at different times, varying the harmony.  Gradually one of the guitars starts playing a new line which is then used as the basis for imitation by the other instruments, creating a very hypnotic effect.  Over the top of this we start to get repeated quavers coming in again, building up the texture before it fades out into the second movement.

This movement has a ‘feel good’, chilled out kind of flavour to it at the beginning, plenty of major thirds and high pitched instruments.  The repeated quaver line comes in over the top again, played on bass guitars which adds a more ominous feeling into the mix.

I think the third movement is genius – you can listen to it and follow along to the score here.  It has a syncopated, catchy rhythm which the live guitar picks up and plays out of phase (two quavers later).  The imitation is started cleverly with just a fragment of the phrase before being played in full.  Other guitars then also start the out-of-phase playing, developing into a very full and satisfying texture.  I really liked this movement.

Chopin: Fugue in A minor

I was inspired after discovering Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues to try and find some more fugues written by other composers, particularly some that I could get the sheet music for easily.  In my search I came across this one by Chopin, which was a surprise to me as I am quite familiar with much of Chopin’s music but was completely unaware he had ever written a fugue.

You can listen to a recording and follow along with the score here.  Ashkenazy plays it a little too fast for my liking, it feels like it should be slower and more intense to me.  It has quite a dark mood, and is chromatic in places.

The subject is first stated in the left hand, in A minor.  As is traditional in fugues, this is a solo line when first introduced.  Then the right hand plays the subject on the dominant (E minor). The left hand now plays an accompaniment, which imitates the rhythm of the main subject and supplies key notes in the harmony.  This same accompaniment to the subject is used throughout the piece (modified where necessary).

A short bridging section comes next which modulates briefly to C major, and then the subject is back again in A minor.

The subject is played 10 times in total (to my count!), in A minor, E minor and D minor.   Some of these are not full repetitions of the entire subject, but just the first two or three bars.  Stretto is used towards the end (bar 52), when the right hand starts the subject on the dominant just two bars into the left hand’s entry.  Sometimes the subject is started before the end of a phrase in the accompanying voice (e.g. bar 38) which is a technique I particularly like.

At the end of the piece the subject is played in full by the left hand in A minor one last time, with a trill being held over the top.  Then we can hear fragments of the subject appearing, and an inversion of part of the theme in the right hand in bar 67 before the piece finishes on an octave interval.

Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues

In my research on counterpoint, I came across Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues for solo piano, one per major and minor key of the chromatic scale as in Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavier’.  Unfortunately I don’t have the sheet music for this work and as it is still in copyright I can’t get it from  However I really enjoyed listening to them (performed by pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva), and it was particularly interesting to hear fugues composed by a twentieth century composer.

Compared to Bach’s work which was written for the much smaller keyboard instruments of his day, Shostakovich’s uses the full range of the piano, and you can for example hear some of the fugue lines deep in the bass notes.  It is harmonically and rhythmically much more modern, but the fugue form itself is fundamentally the same.

No 2 (A minor) sounds like a typical Baroque melody to begin with and then acquires a slightly manic quality as he plays around with the harmonies.

No 4 (E minor) starts with a much slower, more wandering melody; it’s easy to forget you’re listening to a fugue although the main subject is always there in one of the lines, pulling the whole piece together.  This is a particularly complex fugue, and the notes I found about it indicate that it uses all of the imitative devices, including stretto (where the imitation starts before the subject has finished) and retrograde (where the line is played in reverse).

Many of the fugues are played with significantly less pedal than the preludes, more appropriate to the contrapuntal texture.  No 7 (A major) is one of the exceptions, it’s written in such a way that it can be pedalled throughout as it is based on the notes of a triad.  It sounds less obviously like a fugue but allows the listener to enjoy the rich harmonies.

Bach: Fugues

Continuing on from my previous post on the Goldberg variation canons, I first analysed the score for variation 10 which is written as a fughetta (a shortened and usually simple form of the fugue).  There are eight repetitions of the subject in this fugue, modulating cleverly through various different keys.

I then had a go at analysing Bach’s more complex fugue number 26 in G minor from ‘The Well-tempered Clavier’.  I have annotated the score here to show each of the subject entries (marked as T) – I counted 16 in total but it’s very possible I missed a few!  Some of them are spaced out by more than a bar, e.g. at the very beginning, and others follow closely behind each other e.g. in bars 17 and 28.  Sometimes the subject is modified slightly to fit the modulation better,  but I couldn’t find any examples of augmentation or diminution.

Inversion is also not used directly in the repetition of the entire subject as far as I can see, but there are plenty of examples of it being used elsewhere in the accompanying lines.  For example the pattern in bar two of the subject is repeated immediately in bar three by the bass line in an inverted form.  This kind of imitation (both straight and inverted) is used throughout the piece, in virtually every bar.  Another example is in bar 7, where the top line plays a phrase similar to the opening.

There are also some instances of ‘false starts’ where the listener is tricked into thinking it is another repetition of the subject, but in fact it is only the first few notes which are the same (e.g. in bar 29).  This is quite effective as a lead-in to some new material.