A Review of 'Sapiens' by Robert Moss, Premiered by the Penrith Symphony Orchestra. 

Being a somewhat consistent classical music concert-goer, I must confess to dreading the de rigueur contemporary Australian works that open so many nights. I support the practice one hundred percent. Every so often there is a gem; Elevator Music by Graeme Koehne was one such, Sapiens is another. 

Sapiens was composed by Robert Moss and premiered by the Penrith Symphony Orchestra at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre on July 30th 2022. The story imagined is one of the greatest in human history: the spread of Homo sapiens across the Earth. From the program notes: ‘[T]he central chord progression to Sapiens evolved from the spontaneous expression of power as an emotion…Robert’s musical lexicon emerges once [the opening] power chords are combined with a repeated bass motif.’ 

Sapiens’ compelling opening chords grabbed me and didn’t let go. This doesn’t happen to me often. In years past Elevator Music did, and this night the programmed Symphony No. 3 by Brahms and Concerto for Violin by Tchaikovsky performed—brilliantly—by Alicia Poon, did also. But to back up a bit… 

I happen to be married to the principal flute player. Over the past two weeks she’s grumbled about the difficulty of the flute part, cursed the composer, and spent a lot of time practicing. As did the orchestra spend considerable time in rehearsal; unusually much, I’m told. The PSO is one of the top two amateur orchestras in NSW, and their work paid off. However, the strings struggled with the strong moving discords, where intonation and rhythm must be perfect to be convincing. Perhaps the orchestra could have benefited by Moss’ presence at one of the rehearsals? This did not-at-all take the shine off the overall performance. 

Being a bass player with orchestral experience myself, my heart sang when I saw—and heard—three double basses behind the four cellos. At the last PSO concert I attended there was only one bass. It was they that carried me through the work, with steady pizzicato lines that I know would have been satisfying to play. 

I must confess a bias; I know Robert Moss and was thrilled when I found out, only about 10 seconds before the conductor’s baton swung, that he was the composer. (My wife had not grumbled about who wrote the flute part). My love of the bass line was illuminated when I actually read the program, after the performance. I expect music to speak for itself, without the use of words. The notes referenced Escalator Over the Hill by Clara Bley as influential, of which I have known since its release in the early 1970s. That work featured one of my favourite all-round musicians and bass player, Jack Bruce. No wonder I was taken by Moss' bass line.

I wish Moss had been there to take a bow. During the well-deserved and extended applause conductor Paul Terracini was discreetly looking around the hall for him. I loved Sapiens. With no disrespect at all to the PSO, I look forward to hearing it performed by a full professional orchestra, usually with eight basses! I don’t doubt it will be. 

Alan Plummer.

Part 4: J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in Dm, BWV 1004 Transcribed for Guitar  

The previous three parts of this small series on J.S. Bach leads to this: a new transcription for the guitar of the Partita No. 2 in Dm BWV 1004 for unaccompanied violin by Bach – the first four dances only. (The fifth movement Chaconne being widely available in good editions already.) Up to now any guitar arrangements of these gems have been hard to find, let alone good ones. Those of Pepe Romero seem the exception, and what follows is sufficiently different to be a worthwhile addition to our repertoire. 

i Gigue. This is the fourth of the dance movements in order, however, for now it serves best to start here. A gigue is the archetypal baroque party piece: a dance—a jig—needing to be light of feeling and brisk of tempo. S. Blanc describes this one as ‘composed of a series of ascending or descending sequences of repetitive motives that can be highlighted by dynamics that follow their shape.’[1]

 

The first four bars of the Gigue.

Carl McTague, mathematician and violinist both, says: 

'The ability of the single linear line to suggest a harmony is clearly rooted in the capacity of the listener to recall at once several of the past notes and to reconstruct them mentally into a functional harmonic framework.'[2] 

This quote at once highlights Bach’s genius, the violin’s limitations, and where the guitar can shine; Bach’s genius in writing so deep a single line, the challenges of the violin in holding sustained chords, and the ability of the guitar to do just that. The current fingering in the Gigue explicitly demonstrates this harmonic framework, here shown for clarity in red. These chords are not only implied in the single line of notes, but formed by the guitarist's left-hand, as tempered by the exigencies of (hopefully!) seamless position changes.

ii Sarabande. A Sarabande is a slow triple time dance with emphasis on the second beat, and here the third of the four dances if played in order. This is a true musical gem, and I do not know why it is not more widely played. Lack of a good transcription perhaps? Look no further!

 

Sarabande by Bach, Transcribed and played by A. Plummer

We need not be fanatical about rhythm, note lengths, and ornaments. Dorottya Fabian has said: 

[A] “gestural” rather than metronomic performance is more appropriate. Keeping a constant beat while playing with a degree of liberty and freedom projects a performance in which melodic embellishments sound improvised at the spur of the moment; an historical characteristic of baroque performance practice and the prerogative of all accomplished baroque performers.[3]

 

The first four bars of the Sarabande.

The guitarist and editor Frank Koonce said of playing Bach’s music: 'don’t compromise any ‘small embellishment’ or ‘virtuosic flourish’ by rhythmical ‘pedantic exactitude’.[4] In other words, enjoy it! 

iii Allemanda. This is the opening dance of the Partita, and in performance should remain so. Allemanda is a dance of moderate speed in duple time. This arrangement features the campanella – cross-string - technique. This is stylistically correct, it being reminiscent of harpsichord or lute music.

 

The opening bars of the Allemanda.

This particular piece is more melodic than contrapuntal, and it does not need to be fast.[5] To quote McTague again: 

'With nothing more than a lonesome linear voice Bach weaves an amazingly complex and deeply moving musical passage possessing delicate and intricately interconnected structures.' 

iv Corrente. The Corrente is a brisk, lively dance in triple time. This is the second of the dances as presented by Bach. Here, it seems simpler to use straight-line scales with slurs - no more than strictly necessary - for technical reasons. A note on the rhythm: Lewis Caplan has encouraged ignoring the dotted crotchets because he thinks Bach didn’t mean it.[6] Ridiculous nonsense. Don’t do it. Bach has gone to a great deal of trouble to write these out; far easier to simply write crotchet-quaver, that would have been naturally understood as triplets. It is exactly these rhythmic variations that give this dance its character and vitality.

 

The first four bars of Corrente.

The complete scores for all four of these dances will be published within a larger text entitled Expression and Fingering Techniques on the Guitar. However, pre-prints of these scores are available on request. 

Alan Plummer 

[1] Blanc, S. J.S. Bach Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV 1004 Educational Edition with technical indications and comments by George Enescu ed. Serge Blanc. 

[2] C. McTague, ‘The Allemanda of Bach’s Second Violin Partita (BWV 1004) available at https://www.mctague.org/carl/writing/partita/paper.pdf 

[3] Fabian, D., ‘Towards a Performance History of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin: Preliminary Investigations.’ In Essays in Honour of László Somfai: Studies in the Sources and the Interpretation of Music, Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005: 87-108 

[4] In Johann Sebastian Bach, The Solo Lute Works, ed. Frank Koonce, Neil A. Kjos Music Co. 2nd ed., 2002.  pxvi 

[5] This arrangement features the campanella technique 

[6] Lewis Caplan, ‘’A shocking Surprise’: Uncovering Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin no. 2 in D minor BWV 1004.’ The Strad, 5/8.2021, available here https://www.thestrad.com/playing-hub/a-shocking-surprise-uncovering-bachs-partita-for-solo-violin-no2-in-d-minor-bwv1004/13409.article

Playing Bach on the Guitar. Pt 3. 

In Part 1 we considered some mathematical aspects of Bach’s music, in Part 2 emotion in music generally, and now in Part 3 we can start looking at playing the music of J. S. Bach on the guitar. He wrote nothing for the guitar itself, so we can be open to his entire body of work. We will exclude the lute suites because they are well known with good editions available (by Koontz), and I'm not well acquainted with his cello suites. I have, however, grown up around his violin music, though to be honest, not with an actual violinist at hand!

Bach wrote a set of six sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Each of the three sonatas has four movements: slow-fast-slow-fast, the first two of which are a prelude (of some description) and fugue. The three partitas are in the form of allemande, courante, saraband, and gigue: dances, slow-fast-slow-fast again. However, Bach is flexible with the ‘standard’ format of the partita; there are both omissions and additions.

Opening bars of Bach's 1720 manuscript for the Fugue for solo violin BWV1001

 

Many of the individual violin works are well known to the guitarist because they appear in his works for lute - although whether Bach scored these as such, or were contemporaneous arrangements is not clear. The Fugue BWV 1000 for lute appears in Sonata no. 1 BWV 1001 for solo violin, pictured above, and recorded by Julian Bream on the guitar, below. The Prelude from the E major lute suite BWV 1006a appears in the solo violin Partita no. 3 BWV 1006, the orchestral Sinfonia BWV 29, and again in the Cantata BWV 120a.

Julian Bream playing the Fugue BWV 1000, for lute, a.k.a BWV 1001 for violin.

It matters not we play these on guitar. Violinist Sigiswald Kuijken said: 

“…Bach’s language [in these violin suites] is not any different from that of his other works. In other words, it isn’t violin music as much as it was Bach written on the violin.” So I trust we do not offend Bach's memory with the guitar.

Now, what music do I choose for the remainder of this post, and Part 4 up next?

Partita no. 2 in D minor for violin BWV 1004 could well be a part of our popular guitar repertoire but is not. This particular suite 'contains', if that's possible, the great Chaconne. This fifth and extended movement is well known to most classical guitarists, being debuted in Paris 1935 by Segovia, and featuring on concert programs ever since. Likewise many editions of the Chaconne are available, both good and bad. As said, this is not true of the first four dances. For lack of good editions perhaps? That issue is now solved, and these four dances will be the focus of Part 4 to follow.

Alan.

Musical Language of the Heart, Bach part 2. 

The previous post finished with my dismay at hearing 'Bach is pure mathematics.' It is not. This post is on the opposite; the musical language of the heart.

‘Heart’ is not all sweetness and light—dolce and giocoso. It can be noble and great – nobilimente and grandioso; with force and fire – con forza, con fuoco (not force and confusion, as in some of your author’s work); tearful and sad – lacrimoso and solennemente; happy – festoso; and so on. 

Musical intervals affect us. Consider the augmented fourth, also called the tritone and even diabolus in musica: ‘the devil’s interval’. Ominous, unsettling, unresolved. Gustav Holst featured the augmented fourth in Mars from The Planets suite. On hearing Mars, Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath wrote the riff that became the iconic eponymous song Black Sabbath.[1] The ominous terror that Holst conjures with a full orchestra Sabbath achieve with amplification. Stravinsky went one step further with the Petrushka chord—two major triads a tritone apart—nothing less than an act of musical violence.[2] 

Consider the major and minor keys and what they can mean: recall—or listen to—the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood: the sun shines until the minor-key of the chorus darkens the sky. Seal’s Kiss from a Rose is another beautiful example of a song changing back and forth from major to minor. Seal handles the listener’s heart through the transitions and chooses to finish with a bare perfect fifth: neither major nor minor. Yet all is resolved. 

A minor third melody note within a major harmony can be called ‘blue’ note.[3] George Gershwin was instrumental—pun intended—in bringing this device from African-American blues musicians onto the concert stage; the introductory clarinet solo to Rhapsody in Blue is perhaps the most famous example. The Spanish composer F. Moreno-Torroba loved Gershwin’s music and used this device in, among other works, Torija from the 'Castles of Spain' collection.[4] Torroba has firmly established the listener’s ear in D major—with an f-sharp—yet the first beat of bar four leans on an f-natural. Torija is referenced further below. He makes the point for us that a good writer can write a sad tune in a major key: Torija in D major is subtitled ‘elegy’. His Arada in A major from 'Suite Castellana' is another such piece.[5] 

The opposite of a blue note is a major third in a minor key; the ‘Picardy Third’ is such a device. The third degree of the scale was ‘admitted’ into the final chord of a piece music from around 1500, and the Picardy Third is a major third in the final chord of a piece of music in a minor key.[6] It can smile! A pleasant surprise to conclude a piece, as effective today as 500 years ago. 

Recall the dominant seventh and suspended fourth (sus4) chords. The seventh chord demands to go somewhere, while the sus4 needs resolving downwards to the third of the chord. When these conventions are broken, we can have the interminably unresolved music of Richard Wagner and the hilarious faux-Beethoven of Dudley Moore’s never ending cadence.[7] 

The effects of these notes and intervals are not mere theory: when properly handled they are real, observable and tangible in my own performances and those of others. The composers have written the notes with intent: to mean something. What follows are some of the skills we need to speak their language and say something meaningful. 

[1] Butler never kept the connection secret. 

[2] Stravinsky’s Petrushka was a very bad puppet in his opera by the same name. The chord can also be found in earlier music. 

[3] Steel-string players and singers routinely use micro-tones between the minor and major 3rd degrees of the scale. Other degrees of the scale can be made ‘blue’ also. 

[4] Clark, W. A., Krause, W. C., Federico Moreno Torroba, A Musical Life in Three Acts, Oxford University Press, 2013, p373 

[5] Arada is about an ox that spends all day every day lumbering up and down working a field in Spain. However beautiful the music, the ox is not happy. This is hard work! 

[6] Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed., W. Apel, p667. 

[7] “Dudley Moore Beethoven Sonata Parody” YouTube, uploaded by Jondinerstein, 4th Jan, 2007 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GazlqD4mLvw

Bach, Spirit, and Time. Part 1. 

Bach was a genius; Mozart the consummate professional and Beethoven somewhere in between. In the time—pun intended—of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)  people did not view time as we do today. When he walked 322 kilometres from the heart of Germany to nearly the Baltic coast to meet Dietrich Buxtehude, the appointment was for, hypothetically, Tuesday; not 9am Tuesday. We know when the Age of Accurate Timekeeping began, because the person who invented the clock used it to tell the time! More correctly, it was Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) and his invention was the mechanical clock, not the calendar year, which was, by the way, 1656. 

The invention of the pendulum clock made the modern world possible. Along with a plethora of experiments requiring quantified time that were now possible, navigation at sea was also greatly facilitated. Before the clock games like basketball and cricket could not be contemplated, they being dependent on quantified time. Nor could the metronome be contemplated, at least until mechanical clocks were commonplace – the late 18th century. We should note in passing that the clock has two faces; the breaking up of time could be seen as a fracturing of human existence. 

Despite the clock being invented well before Bach’s death, he worked to the sundial’s pace, not a pendulum clock. But he definitely quantified time within the bounds of his music. 

 One of the ‘tricks of the trade’ composers, Bach included, have long used is a theme and variations. A musical theme can be divided up into finer gradations, be inverted upside down and back to front, it’s pulse—clock—can be sped up or slowed, it can be raised or lowered in pitch without affecting the speed, and played with different harmony. Bach’s great Chaconne from the Dm Partita BWV 1004 for solo violin is a 15 minute monument to the baroque yet is founded on a four note line of notes through four bars duration. Bach is as relentless in their use throughout the masterpiece as he is inventive in application. 

Then there is the Crab Cannon, a musical palindrome in his Musical Offering BWV 1079. The cannon works, and is played simultaneously, both forwards and backwards. Bach was a genius. As for mathematics generally, one of his children reflected that he had no great love of ‘dry mathematics’. Still, he had enough interest to let himself be head-hunted into the Mizler Society, a group interested in the science of music and mathematics. But there is no record of his wide participation in the Society (H. T. David, Bach, vol 1 no.2 1970). 

‘Bach is pure mathematics’ is a comment I’ve heard more than once in my life. I think there is more tangible evidence for the opposite: Bach is pure emotion – the spiritual, non-material element of music. At the very least, the truth is halfway in between. 

To finish Part 1, here are two of my most memorable musical experiences: First, hearing young Australian virtuoso Andrew Blanch playing the Fugue BWV 1000 in concert. (The link is to a recording of Julian Bream.) I’ve played this fugue; the technical demands are profound, on both hands and mind. I know them. Blanch played it in such a way as the technical and intellectual obstacles vanished; all that was left was the music. By which I mean, emotion. Another is from my own work, playing the aforementioned Chaconne. The work finishes with a final restatement of the four bar theme; the same four bars repeated as finale as introduction. To see the emotional impact on an audience returning after such a musical journey is deeply moving for me, the musician. 

To be continued. 

Alan Plummer.

Music evokes, stimulates, implies, suggests – playing upon the mind, the heart and the soul. Music has the capacity to change lives forever.” - Richard Gill

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