Preludophilia: Slonimsky's Preludes and Fugues

The days are pretty full, but not full enough to keep me from exploring a prelude-fugue set by Sergei Slonimsky. First the facts:

Sergei Mikhailovich Slonimsky was born in Leningrad 1932, the son of the well-known "Serapion Brotherhood" author Mikhail and nephew of the prolific musical emigré Nikolai. Every genre is represented in his long list of compositions, including operas (one entitled "Mary Stuart") and symphonies (the Tenth Symphony subtitled "Circles of Hell after Dante"). His pieces make use of his experience as an ethnomusicological researcher in Russian folk musics, his improvisational concertizing à la nineteenth-century preludists, and sometimes has a certain similarity to the black irony found in Gogol and Dostoyevsky. The dominant aspect of his style has been called "poly-art", a holistic, universal aesthetic that freely and unexpectedly combines influences from all historical periods, including popular and folk styles. More info at the Saint-Petersburg Contemporary Music Center.

This prelude-fugue set was written in 1994, published in 1996 (Saint-Petersburg: Kompozitor), and recorded in 2000 (Nikita Fitenko, Altarus). The CD is particularly good as it was performed under the composer's supervision and really brings to life the notes on the page. It takes about an hour and a half to play or listen to. The pieces progress in Bach Order, that is chromatically with each major key followed by its parallel minor (C c Db c# D d etc.). Each prelude is marked attacca and various cyclical properties exist between preludes and their accompanying fugues. The majority of fugues have 3 or 4 voices with one 2-voice fugue and two with 5-voices. The fugal expositions tend to introduce the answering voice in the subdominant, and you can read more about it at this doctoral thesis by Yun-jin Seo.

Personally, I have struggled with Slonimsky's style. Is it "uneven" or is it "poly-art"? I have come to realize that a great deal about how to answer this question comes from what you read into the music through the lens of history. For me, just coming off an intense study of Soviet '30s music, Slonimsky's unpredictable use of duple and triple rhythms remind me vividly of the prelude set of Valery Zhelobinsky, an improvisational style about which I struggled to find nice things to say. Suffice it to say that Zhelobinsky knew how to write music people (especially the political censors) would love. Furthermore, the folk elements in Slonimsky's music recall to my mind Kabalevsky, a composer known for his compromised aesthetic leanings (a poser-composer, if you will). This complex issue has a while before it can be examined with fresh objectivity, but it cannot be denied that many artists made whatever artistic concessions necessary to survive in the confusing and dangerous USSR.

These stylistic similarities beg the question, is Slonimsky's music worth playing, or is it just more Socialist realism meant to get past the censors? I, for one, think there is value in this music. The difference between Zhelobinsky, Kabalevsky, and Slonimsky lies in the dates: Zhelobinsky's Preludes, Op. 20 came out in 1934 at the very onset of Stalin's political-aesthetic agenda, and summarily play the popular card with very little artistic substance. Kabalevsky's Preludes, Op. 38 appeared in 1944, during the height of WWII patriotism, making a point to prove its overt Russian pride by constant use of folk melodies in a flashy, popular style. Slonimsky's set is a product of the 90s. This makes a HUGE difference. I am reminded of something I read by Taruskin in Defining Russia Musically (Princeton, 2001). In describing the enigmatic constructions of Schnittke, Taruskin asks that we view conceivably banal elements in his style through the lens of "Krushchev's Thaw" and the fall of Communism. It's the same idea in considering the mystical minimalism of post-Communist Polish music. Therefore the improvisational and folksy elements this piece by Slonimsky should be viewed differently than similar instances in Zhelobinsky and Kabalevsky. Maybe there's some sort of irony involved. Maybe it's a new focus on accessibility similar to the post-WWI healing enacted by Les Six. Maybe... it deserves more study. Here's a few more specific observations.

Catchy: I've had some serious ear-worms with this music. Especially engaging, Fugue 6 in D minor and Fugue 20 in A minor get the toes tapping with snappy rhythms. I also tend to hum the opening melody of Prelude 1 in C Major, a gorgeous but slightly freaky hymn.

Contrapuntal: Fugue 1 in C Major can't leave it alone with constant 2-voice stretto, but pulls out all the stops with simultaneous 4-voice stretto with two voices in inverted augmentation and one in augmentation, and a final 4-voice stretto with one voice in augmentation. It's saturated with theme! Also the theme makes use of a 32nd-note turn that recalls Bach's WTC1 C Major fugue. Also the 5-voice fugues are crazy!

Neo-Something: Prelude 11 in F Major is a Neo-Baroque romp that reminds me of Bach's Italian Concerto III. Prelude 6 in D minor is a genuine passacaglia with four repetitions. Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major is almost completely pentatonic with standard Asian exoticisms (see below). Prelude 18 in A-flat minor (so many flats!) has no measure lines and functions like some free-floating Renaissance recitative. Prelude 19 in A Major could have come right out of Bach's Inventions and many other pieces make use of Baroque-flavored, melodic inversion. The most intense moment of Prelude 7 in E-flat Major bursts into a disjunct section redolent of serialism and melodically coming close do dodecaphonic writing.

Time Signatures: Shostakovich's single 5/8 fugue from the Preludes does not prepare you for Slonimsky's rampant and consistent use of interesting time signatures. By the time you're done, 5/4 (5/8) and 7/8 don't feel nearly as foreign when compared to Fugue 15 in G Major's use of 9/8 (2+3+4) or Fugue 23 in B Major's squirrelly alternation between 3/2 and 4/2 or Fugue 21 constantly switching between major and minor prolation (thank you Hoppin!) in 6/8.

My Favorite: By far the one I enjoy the most in playing is Prelude and Fugue 10 in E minor. They work excellently as a pair and each use melodic themes that are capable of various moods and conjure beautiful thoughts in my imagination.

For the history of the prelude set, Slonimsky's combination of styles fits right into the genre's age-old mandate to present unified diversity. His frequent changes in style, sometimes within a single piece or between a prelude and its fugue, constantly open the imagination up to wonder. The added accessibility of his style with an emphasis on rhythm and harmonic color allow listeners of all types to find something to enjoy. Below I've added a video of Prelude and Fugue 13 in F-sharp Major. I hear Tcherepnin's Chinese Bagatelles in the prelude and a rowdy gigue in the spirit of David Johnson in the fugue.

And there will be joy.

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