Soviet composer Galina Ustvolskaya wrote music that seemed to defy the rules of pain/injury prevention for pianists. Her pieces frequently ask the pianist to play with the edges of the hands, the clenched fist, or the forearms. Additionally, the expressivity of her works is extreme, with dynamics reaching cacophonous levels. Even so, what draws musicians to play her music? How did her music fit into late-Soviet society?
My guests this episode are: •Maria Cizmic, Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida; author of Performing Pain: Music & Trauma in Eastern Europe •Tom Curry, Professor of Tuba & Euphonium at UW-Madison •Iva Ugrcic, Director of LunART Festival (Madison, WI) •Satoko Hayami, Collaborative Pianist
The music in this episode: •Bach/Busoni, Chaconne •Ustvolskaya, Piano Sonata No. 6 •Ustvolskaya, Composition No. 1 (“Dona nobis pacem”) for tuba, piccolo, piano; featuring Tom Curry, Iva Ugrcic, and Vincent Fuh. Curry’s debut solo album is available from Summit Records: https://www.summitrecords.com/release/alight-tom-curry/
Overall, the C Minor Prelude & Fugue in Book 2 is quite straightforward; I found experimenting with various articulations, touches, and dynamics to be a rather easy and fun process. For example, in starting the piece, I tried out a few different versions simply by changing the articulation type in each hand. Here, you can hear staccato articulation in each hand (1), followed by full legato in each hand (2), followed by a lighter legato in the sixteenth notes with two-note slurs in the eighth notes (3). Use the small arrow on the right side of the video image below to cycle through each version. Press the center of the video to play/pause the recording before cycling to the next.
I chose option 3 because I think it best showcases the ability to play different articulations in each hand. During moments of similar intervallic content, I continue with this articulation throughout the piece; in other instances of eighth notes (usually instances of more stepwise motion), I use a more detached/staccato touch.
With the two-note slur for eighth notes, it can be difficult to taper the second note of the slur enough. Even if the second note is softer, it can still sound overbearing (especially since the second note of each beat is often the same pitch throughout the measure).
It’s also interesting to note that after measures 1 and 2, the Busoni Edition begins marking beats 2 and 4 with accents, with the off-beats as staccatos. Although I didn’t consult this edition until after I’d learned the movement, I think he’s on to something, as a fast tempo can give those beats a sense of propulsion into the larger beats of 1 and 3:
The C Minor Fugue is one of my favorites, as I’ve always felt Bach’s slow, minor movements are the most beneficial for building polyphonic ears. In the post about my process for learning fugues, I pointed out the importance of building muscle memory through the mindful stretching of the fingers to reach certain intervals (i.e. it’s not just learning that finger 5 goes to finger 2, for example. It’s about feeling that stretch, both physically and mentally). This is a great fugue for that kind of deliberate practice––it’s shorter, the theme doesn’t involve any extended stretches of “fast notes” (such as the C Major Fugue), and (theory-wise) the movement offers some interesting ways of stacking motives.
My biggest difficulty was in the latter of these three features. More specifically: moments of rhythmic augmentation––that is, stretching the theme into larger rhythmic values. Instead the theme’s standard eighth-note introduction, we can see it written in quarter notes in the left hand at the bottom of the first page. When the theme (which I also label the melody, at times) becomes wider in rhythmic value, it becomes difficult to hear it in the same way as I heard it when it was in eighth notes. Basically, my mind doesn’t seem to want to stretch that far, to hear it across two measures rather than one. Here is the first instance:
While a first-time listener might be able to hear the left hand as the theme, my goal is to first hear these theoretical features of the music, myself, as they’re happening. Second, I must find a way to broadcast those clever moments to the audience through technique. In general, it’s difficult to bring out a theme that is written in a middle voice (in this case, the tenor voice). However, I’ve found the true difficulty lies in the stubbornness and impatience of the ear.