This is a program that explores time and counterpoint.
Bach’s 15 Two-Part Inventions are pieces that he wrote in 1723 as a guide for keyboard players. It shows how to play counterpoint, beginning with two voices, one in each hand. The first note played is middle C and from that note on, Bach introduces us to techniques such as one voice imitating the other, or inverting what the other voice just played (essentially playing it upside down), or harmonizing in parallel motion. He shows what types of musical ideas best suit different treatments, how a melody can be broken into fragments and built up again. And in his preface he wrote that one of the most important lessons was for the keyboard player to learn how to play in a cantabile style, which means to make the machine of the keyboard sound like a human voice. How does the keyboard player do this? Amongst many ways, by feeling a physical distance between the notes, the way one feels when one reaches for a note to sing. By feeling the rhythm as being flexible, never fully rooted on the downbeat, but dancing agogically, giving a rhythmic shape as well as a melodic one, the player can achieve a cantabile sound.
Nico Muhly based You Can’t Get There From Here on fragments from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, which is a collection of music by early English composers written two generations before Bach. Muhly’s music is very much about motives that are repeated and evolve, changing harmonic shape and rhythmic emphasis. Sometimes the music breaks away from meter entirely, allowing the performer free rein to play with the fragments. Counterpoint is explored in a section Muhly labels a “three-part exercise” midway through the work.
In Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, George Crumb takes keyboard counterpoint to another level and creates a small ensemble in the piano, requiring the pianist to manipulate multiple lines, each with a different keyboard technique. His use of the “extended” piano opens our ears to sounds that we may not have realized lay dormant in the instrument. There is a repeated rhythmic motive that is played by a mallet striking the crossbars. There are glissandi (like a harp) across the strings, and melodies plucked by the finger tip and the finger nail. There is even a part for the pianist to shout while playing on the keys, creating harmonics within the piano and playing glissandi on the strings. Additionally, Crumb frequently writes sequences of motivic ideas, much in the same way that Bach did in his Inventions.
Beethoven’s last piano sonata returns to Bach in its contrapuntal writing and the chorale-like arietta of the second movement. But the irregularity that is implicit in Bach’s music is in plain view in Beethoven’s. It is music that is moving beyond the constraints of tonality and rhythm. The tempo shifts constantly, eluding easy mathematical certainty, and the pulse of the variations mysteriously expands and contracts. It seems as though the music loses its center, trying to hang on to its Bachian formality but not able to confine itself to the rules of meter and counterpoint.
The sonata ends with strangely beautiful layers of sound created by a continuous trill surrounded by a melody and ostinato. Tonight I hear this as a counterpoint to the entire program – the multiple lines shown to us by Bach, the repetitive ostinato within a three-voice texture reminiscent of Muhly, the eerie trilling and layering reminiscent of Crumb. It spins off into the distance and then manages to find a way home, back to C.