Preludophilia: Slonimsky's Preludes and Fugues

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 his use of both dodecaphonic techniques and jazz styles. One word that has been used to describe his compositions is the term "poly-art", a holistic 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.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky in what appears to be a cozy little study. His face suggests that the photographer was laden with finger sandwiches.

Slonimsky wrote a set of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key 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.

There are definite aesthetic challenges to "poly-art" music, especially in those instances where our expectations of "serious" music (especially something in the tradition of J.S. Bach's WTC) come up against overt simplicity, vagueness, or even awkwardness. At times I am reminded of the improvisational antics (read: sloppiness) of 24 Preludes by Zhelobinsky or the (sometimes forced) folksiness of 24 Preludes by Kabalevsky. But this is not an attempt at socialist realism from the 1930s, nor is it a patriotic overture to Russianness during WWII. It seems far removed from those sorts of cultural-stylistic arguments. I feel myself relaxing even as I write that last sentence. It's all going to be ok.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by Vasco Morelli (buy it here). It's all about space.

This is an excellent print called "Piano Men" by Vasco Morelli (buy it here). It's all about space.

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 manic 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! As if that weren't enough, the theme also makes use of a 32nd-note turn that recalls Bach's WTC1 C Major fugue. Also the 5-voice fugues are crazy-sauce (to use a technical term)!

Neo-Something: Prelude 11 in F Major could be called a Neo-Baroque romp that reminds me of Bach's Italian Concerto III. Prelude 6 in D minor is a genuine passacaglia in almost functional harmony with four embellishments. Prelude 13 in F-sharp Major is almost completely pentatonic with definite appeals to "exotic" gestures (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 upsets an otherwise charming aria with activated bass motion with a harsh shift into 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 in B-flat Major 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. Nice use of augmentation in the fugue, which is nevertheless not forced, and almost happens imperceptibly.

For the history of the prelude-fugue 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 (and critical faculties. The added accessibility of his style with an emphasis on rhythm and harmonic color allow listeners of all types to find something to enjoy. Prelude and Fugue 13 in F-sharp Major performed by Anton Tanonov below. Enjoy!