Since the late 1960’s, when he become the doyen of the experimental music scene, Howard Skempton has carved a unique place for himself in British musical life.
Skempton’s influences include Eric Satie, Morton Feldman, John Cage and La Monte Young. His own music resists lazy categorisation, but is characterised by pared-back textures, focused economy of expression, clarity of melodic line, and the avoidance of dissonance even when most determinedly resisting the pull of tonality.
These qualities remain an integral hallmark of the latest entry in his significant solo piano catalogue, the 24 Preludes and Fugues recently published by OUP.
Redefining the “Prelude and Fugue”
The 24 Preludes and Fugues were composed for and premiered by pianist William Howard, who introduced them at the Hay Festival in May 2019, followed by a London premiere on 12 February 2020 at Kings Place. Howard has recorded the cycle for Orchid Classics, available here.
Given Skempton’s track record, it is perhaps no surprise to find that the music here, essentially 48 brief pieces, adds up to just 19 pages of generously spaced music. And this economy only adds to the fascination I have for them.
There is a fiercely logical consistency to Skempton’s approach. The Preludes are all written on a single stave, their composition recalling both the baroque two-part invention and the rhythmically offset repetition of modern minimalist technique.
The Fugues, meanwhile, range in length from just 3 bars to 16, most clocking in at five bars. Describing them as Fugues in the traditional sense is inevitably a stretch, but the basic ingredients are found here in their most concise, nascent form.
Working through the cycle, Skempton ascends the chromatic scale in Bachian manner, but alternating major and minor keys. So after the Prelude and Fugue in C major comes that in C sharp minor, then D major, and so on. Midway through the cycle we reach A minor, and continue the process to eventually end with the pieces in B Major.
But I say the word “in” advisedly; while the pieces all begin firmly in the tonality of the designated key, none of them end there. Within mere bars the tonal centre of gravity inexplicably shifts entirely. And in several cases, the key signature has been dropped or changed by the time we reach the Fugue.
In short, then, this is an experimental work true to the composer’s style in every respect. The cycle makes for a fascinating analysis, and my brief comments here really do reach little deeper than the surface facts.
Suffice to say that the pieces are as harmonious, beautiful and engaging musically as they are fascinating academically.
Here, Skempton again vividly demonstrates his supreme ability to turn a tune on just a few notes, creating memorable music from the sparsest of resources.
Knowing that the publication is brought to us by OUP is probably enough to reassure any prospective buyer. Happily, as ever they bring us an edition that is closer to perfection than composers and performers often dare hope.
In keeping with the stark simplicity of the music, OUP’s publication is a rather minimalist affair, the card cover leading straight to the music itself, engraved with clarity on high-quality off-white paper. Fingering is not supplied, and the book includes no other written content.
Howard Skempton’s 24 Preludes and Fugues are a timely reminder of his colossal intellectual stature and communicative capability. Melodic lines, counterpoint and expressive phrasing are as musically compelling as they are logically inevitable.
In terms of their technical level, I would say that while the pieces are all too short for assessment purposes they could easily be approached by an early advanced player (around UK Grade 6), and would provide a solid basis for approaching contrapuntal writing and developing understanding of compositional process.
Detractors might of course lament that such an abundance of musical ideas are denied their fuller development, but this misses the point. Though small, these pieces are perfectly formed gems. Their scope may be slight, but their appeal more substantial. Skempton proves beyond doubt that much can be made of little.
This is an important publication.
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