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Spectrum--My Lady Jane's Booke
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Spectrum--My Lady Jane's Booke
Harold Schiffman

Jane Perry-Camp

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An Introduction To Harold Schiffman's Spectrum, My Ladye Jane's Booke: Eighteen Fugues And Postludes For Piano (1992)

The overview that follows will serve merely to introduce Spectrum, My Ladye Jane's Booke: Eighteen Fugues and Postludes for Piano (1992). This glimpse of the large work, whose entire performance takes over an hour, will necessarily offer little in the way of a probe into its complexities and into its deeper meanings. With this disclaimer in mind, I offer these brief remarks.

The twentieth century has witnessed the continuation of a tradition of composing fugues in sets, a tradition consciously received from the unsurpassable models of J. S. Bach. While addressing a contemporary taste, sets of fugues on the one hand continue to be regarded as platforms for the composer-as-virtuoso to unveil -even to brandish- his wares. On the other hand, sets of fugues continue to offer the composer his perhaps most profound voice. Obvious examples from our century come to mind: sets by Paul Hindemith (1942) and Dmitry Shostakovich (1950-51), which not only display a knowledge of "school fugue" but also demonstrate fugue's continued capability to convey an aesthetic appeal that can transcend the schoolroom.

To these mid-century examples, a more recent one can be added: Harold Schiffman's Spectrum. Completed on November 22, 1992 in Graham County, North Carolina, Schiffman's work is aptly named Spectrum for it exhibits a broad range of fugal "attitudes" while adhering to the tenets and spirit of procedures springing from the eighteenth century. In view of its vision in concept and of its reach in content, Spectrum presents a significant addition to the corpus of solo piano literature.

Schiffman's schooling in fugue was, to say the least, thorough: ranging from mentors like Jan Schinhan (organist, and pupil of Guido Adler in Vienna), to William Stricklen (himself a student of Andre Gedalge at the Paris Conservatory), to Roger Sessions (with whom Schiffman worked for a total of five years), and finally to Ernst von Dohnanyi (renowned for his extraordinary ability to improvise, not to mention to write, fugue). More than mere schooling, Schiffman's love and affinity for the procedure of fugue guided his writing; more specifically, his love for, knowledge of, and affinity to Bach's two-volume Das wohltemperirte Clavier (Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, or WTC I and II) seeps through any artificial wall drawn between the eighteenth century and the twentieth; Schiffman's reverence for the acknowledged master is, of course, literally intoned in Fugue V, whose subject spells, in German, the name B-A-C-H (B flat-A-C-B Natural) a traditional tune emanating from the pen of J. S. Bach himself. The most immediate inspiration for Schiffman's decision to fulfill my commission (dated August 4, 1990) for a solo work for piano, however, came from Shostakovich, whom Schiffman has long admired, and whose Opus 87 Preludes and Fugues offered Shostakovich the opportunity to compose an introspective work, in contrast to the larger "public" forms of symphony or concerto more often expected of him.3 Schiffman too sought such introspection.4

Spectrum's fugues and postludes are tonal, each centering on and resolving into a clear and convincing tonic. Some (e.g., Postlude II or Fugue VII) become embroiled in contrapuntal chromaticism only to emerge within a key; others are woven with no more chromaticism than a Brahms intermezzo (e.g., Postlude VI, whose life began as an improvised Romanza, written down on March 29, 19905 and in a certain way the source from which the entire set stemmed) or with even less chromaticism than five-year-old Mozart's K. 1a (e.g., Postlude V where there are no accidentals at all—a compositional feat in itself for a 49-bar pithy but fully stated piece!). Each pitch of the twelve chromatic tones serves as a center for at least one pair of pieces, normally but not necessarily with a major tonic answered, in the ensuing postlude, by a minor tonic or vice versa. Nine of the fugues have four voices, eight have three, and one (Fugue IX, marked "Furioso"), thanks to Bach's e minor fugue from WTC I, has only two voices.

The inextricably organic arrangement of Spectrum's fugues and postludes is illustrated through a summary of their origin. They follow neither the plan of Bach's WTC, nor of Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis (whose twelve fugues, joined by Interludes and placed between a Praeludium and Postludium, appear in the order of Hindemith's theoretic Series 1, "in diminishing degree of relationship to the given tone"). Nor does Spectrum follow the plan of Shostakovich's op. 87, whose twenty-four Preludes and Fugues rise through the circle of fifths pairing the major mode with its relative minor: C major, a minor, G major, e minor, etc.

The scheme of the eighteen pairs of pieces in Schiffman's Spectrum materialized during the process of composing the entire set, literally when the composer became cognizant of the direction his subconscious was taking him. The dawn of recognition arrived when, thinking of writing only fugues, Schiffman wrote what is now the second fugue (in B), followed by the third fugue (in C#) whereupon he discovered that the C# fugue started with the final pitch of the B fugue; by logical extension, then the pitch starting the B fugue might indeed be the final pitch of a yet unwritten fugue to precede it: C. Thus, the eventual first fugue (in C) was written, based on a "wedge" subject whose pitches initially reveal the order of fugues of the entire set: C, B, D-flat, B-flat, A, D, E-flat, A-flat, G-flat followed by the opening three pitches of the (overlapping) answer: F, E, and G to produce the complete chromatic cycle of all twelve tonics.

It became clear, too, to Schiffman that the effect of one fugue's leading to the next (via the opening tone's repetition of the preceding tonic) would be destroyed by inserting either the traditional prelude or a less traditional interlude between the fugues; the resolution to the dilemma was to use postludes to reinforce each tonic before moving on to the next fugue.6 Thus, Postludes I, II, and III were then composed, after which Fugues and Postludes IV through XII were created. It stands to reason that the decision to omit key signatures from the fugues and to present key signatures for the postludes bolsters the ultimate stabilization of each pair's tonal center in each Postlude.

At that point, within such a strong tonal governance, it seemed unbalanced to end the entire cycle a tritone away from its initiation; the diabolus in musica (here C to G-flat) is, after all, the most unstable of intervals. Hence, the remaining tones of Fugue I's answer were awarded fugues and postludes of their own, duplicating the pitch centers E-flat, D, G, A-flat, D-flat and finally C, to yield Fugues and Postludes XIII through XVIII. Thus, all the fugues and postludes in Spectrum, per pairs of pieces, follows the order of tones of Fugue I's subject and answer; thus, the principle of each pair's link to the preceding pair is respected as each new fugue's subject exploits the tonal finality of its preceding postlude as its very own upbeat.7

The final special case appears in the concluding Fugue XVIII. Here the Fugue's relation to Fugue I is paramount. Simultaneously, within Fugue XVIII itself, the fugue in effect commences with its answer (which at the same time is the literal retrograde of Fugue I's subject), only to have the true subject appear in the bass voice, in measure 2 (which at the same time is the literal retrograde of Fugue I's answer). That being the case based on a musical analysis (an analysis, not incidentally, which the composer finds arguable), the true subject employs only a minor permutation of the principle tying all the other fugues and postludes together (a permutation, incidentally, discovered only after having arrived at the analysis of the interchanged order of Fugue XVIII's subject and answer, rather than serving as the argument for the exchanged order of subject and answer). The subject here, like that of Fugue IV, exchanges the positions of C, the tone on which the set's crowning fugue is centered, with the tonal center of Fugue and Postlude XVII's C# (enharmonically spelled here as D-flat), the pair which usher the last set into place.

The final member of Spectrum, Postlude XVIII, resolves the entire collection, in the words of the composer, in a "celebration" or "exaltation" of C.

1. These comments are abridged from introductory remarks to a panel session on Spectrum at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies held in Charleston, South Carolina, March 11, 1994.

2. This essay is derived from a presentation to the Southern Chapter of the American Musicological Society meeting at The Florida State University, Tallahassee, on March 5, 1994.

3. Robert Matthew-Walker, liner notes for Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87, performed by Tatiana Nikolayeva. Hyperion Records Ltd., CDA66441/3, 1990.

4. Schiffman wrote short program notes for the November 10, 1992, performance of Fugues and Postludes X and VI, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in which he commented: "This large collection of pieces was commissioned by my wife, Jane Perry-Camp, in 1990. According to the terms of the commission, it was to have been completed by the end of 1991; however, work on it was interrupted in order to write the Concerto for Horn, Bassoon, and String Orchestra. A set of fugues naturally brings to mind the names of J. S. Bach and Paul Hindemith, among others, but the idea for this composition was suggested by a remark I read somewhere about the very personal and introspective nature of Shostakovitch's 24 Preludes and Fugues. Of course, while I am somewhat indebted as well to William Byrd (for the title), the music itself is nothing like Byrd or Shostakovitch."

5. Again from the composer: "Fugue VI is in three voices; it involves stretti almost throughout. Its postlude is a short piece I had improvised before I started the whole set. Jane liked it, so I wrote it down for her." Ibid.

6. The composer summarizes this process in his program notes for the 1992 Chapel Hill performance of Fugues and Postludes X and VI:"The notion of postludes stems from my discovery as I went along that the ending of each fugue in the succession led into the one which followed. Each postlude confirms this process, whereas a prelude in the new key would have disrupted it."

7. As can be seen in the summary of incipits from all the Fugues and Postludes, there are only three special cases where this "guideline" is broadly, rather than strictly, observed. Not considered "special cases," of course, are ornamented resolutions of the "lead-in" tone (see Fugues II, III, VIII, and XIII). On the other hand, exceptional is the exchange of position in Fugue IV's subject between the tonal center of that fugue (B-flat) and the tonal center of the preceding Postlude III (C# or D-flat). Likewise exceptional is the subject of Fugue XII (in F#), inspired by the subject of Bach's St. Anne Fugue, whose F*# is linked to E, the tonality in which the preceding Postlude XI is cast, by the third of the E major harmony (i.e., G#) rather than by its expected root (i.e., E).

—Jane Perry-Camp

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