13.01.2023 Zenekar – Hungarian Music Journal
Symbols embedded in music
Interview with violinist Márta Ábrahám
Those who speak Bach’s musical language at a higher level can also develop a closer relationship with the works of other composers, says Márta Ábrahám, who analyzes Bach’s violin Fugues and the Chaconne with a completely new approach. This analysis facilitates not only the interpretation of how one plays, but also teaching and learning Bach’s works.
EVK: What was the moment that led to the analysis of violin fugues?
MÁ: In 2013, the alarm bell sounded, I could say that it was the voice of a kind of musical conscience: I didn’t feel that my knowledge of Bach’s violin fugues was enough, and I contacted my colleague, composer Barnabás Dukay, in connection with a concert invitation. I heard about him from my students, who attended his fugue analysis class. I was very interested, on the one hand, in the knowledge itself, and on the other hand, in making use of my new knowledge, and in preparing for the concerts, I was able to delve into a particular fugue, to be aware of the individual parts, the structure of the piece, and the hierarchical order. I thought that certain musical parts are more important than others, but I lacked this accurate knowledge. That is why I contacted Barnabás Dukay, our working relationship has continued ever since, and we are constantly working on Bach analyses. We are over the analysis of the three violin fugues and the Chaconne in D minor, we have also taken over the cello fugue. We usually spend a year with one fugue. We work with a very enthusiastic team, now there are more of us. We analyze the given fugue based on more eyes seeing more, precisely and in detail, delving into the connections. My experience is that fugue analysis is a time-consuming and lengthy process, sometimes it can take months or even years before “the picture comes together” and we manage to notice certain hidden connections. If we were to rush or move more hastily, we would not have time to examine the musical fabric in fine resolution and to discover the symbols and coded meanings embedded in the music in many cases with a puzzling solution.
EVK: To what extent did you manage to attract the interest of the profession?
MÁ: I see that there is a lot of interest, especially because the literature available is unfortunately quite lacking, but at the same time, these Bach fugues are our daily bread. The dance movements are already played in Conservatorium, and the fugues and Chaconne are regularly included as compulsory material during the music academy years, at graduation concerts, international competitions, and orchestra auditions. You can’t avoid Bach – thank God. The feedback has been positive and I hope that my new Handbook will facilitate the interpretation, learning and performing of the Chaconne, I hope it reaches many people.
EVK: The color-coded sheet music image is spectacular, hence the name Colorful Bach.
MÁ: The color code gave itself during the analysis. It was important to visually differentiate the voices to see the independent life of the voices. As we wrote the parts one below the other, or sometimes separately in three or four parts, and within them, we marked the themes in red, we saw the connections, translations, motivic variants, and diminished or modified shapes of musical patterns that our ears did not indicate. In sheet music, which is traditionally written in one line, it is completely impossible to notice the deviations or changes in the musical material. Visuality is very important, not only for analysis but also during learning and memorization for my students. Along the way, I realized that it would be worthwhile to teach in this way. During the analysis, amazing hidden messages and codes emerged, there is practically a specific program behind all three violin fugues, which are thematically connected: the birth, suffering, and death of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the Chaconne also has its own story. At first, we just joked after the analysis that we would write a book about it one day. Later, after seeing the results, this turned into a concrete intention, and in 2017 Excerpts from Eternity was published, in 2020 the C major fugue, in 2021 the G minor fugue, and within a few months the A minor fugue will be releases, and now we are in January, when my first independent book, the Chaconne Handbook, is published.
EVK: The Chaconne is particularly interesting, as it captures an important stage in Bach’s life, commemorating the death of his wife.
MÁ: Violinists and musicologists have been interested in this connection for a long time, since a beautiful copy of the manuscript of the work by Bach, has survived, it is kept in the Berlin State Library, but it is also available digitally on the website bach-digital.de, where it can be searched in the form of high-resolution images. On the cover of this manuscript is the title in Italian: “Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato, anno 1720”. Bach probably worked on it for several years, but it must have been completed in 1720, and Maria Barbara Bach died in July 1720. The specific connection between the work and the death and the evidence for this has not yet come to light. Pain, love, the deepest human emotions, eternal attachment, passing away, separation, and letting go are included in it. Anyone who has played it, or knows the work more deeply, knows and agrees with this. However, we did not start from this direction, as these are only guesses, which are subjective and intangible. We were concerned with the structure of the piece and the arrangement of the variations. During an incredibly exciting analytical work, it was possible to find out the connections of the Chaconne, and at the end of the two-year “investigation”, the presence of the time code came to light. This means that the calendar structure of the year 1720 is superimposed on the 64-variation structure, and the date of the funeral is the focus of the piece. Passing is also symbolized by the fact that the length of the three large form parts (33, 19, and 12 variations) shows a decreasing proportion of the golden ratio.
EVK: Is the volume being published primarily for violinists?
MÁ: Two years ago, I decided to transform the very detailed and theoretical analysis entitled Excerpts from Eternity into a shorter and specifically user-friendly, practical, everyday volume for violinists. I have collected the most essential information in the form of a 43-page Handbook, with the help of which those who play and learn the piece can understand it more easily so that in addition to learning the notes, they are aware of the inner form of the piece and the network system of the variations intertwining like vine. This knowledge is necessary for the performance to be sophisticated and musically authentic. My goal was to provide a tool for the younger generation of violinists, teachers, and all musicians who are interested in the formal, motivic, and mathematical connections of Bach’s incredibly rich musical language.
EVK: In a few months, A minor fugue will also be released. Will you continue this series with other works?
MÁ: This project cannot be continued. The next publication will be the cello fugue because we finished analyzing it last year, and the smaller dance movements of the solo sonatas and partitas also hide a lot of treasures, which are very attractive to us. We also started a large-scale work, which is a comparative analysis of the violin concertos with the surviving manuscripts. No manuscripts of the violin concertos have survived, but the transcriptions of the harpsichord concertos, which Bach himself made, have survived. We found many differences between the so-called Urtext sheet music – which is based on the transcriptions of harpsichord concertos made by later copyists – and the original transcriptions of the harpsichord concerto. Bach’s inexhaustible treasure trove, this research fills me with a lot of energy and knowledge, but now that so many of my books have been published, I might save this line a bit and concentrate more on concerts and my performances.
EVK: You are playing Ligeti’s violin concerto these days, you are in the final stages of preparation. To what extent can you use your research on Bach’s works in the music of a completely different era?
MÁ: Through my knowledge I am able to discover structural systems, patterns in music. Ligeti is also a sensitive and intelligent composer, he thinks in terms of structures and proportions, and his music has multiple layers, and these are not immediately apparent from the score. As I learn the work, playing the violin becomes easier and easier, and with my technical superiority, I can pay more attention to the music and the musical connections. For example, I discovered fragments of folk songs, stanzas, and the different structures of the Bulgarian rhythm, and the analytical approach helps a lot to put order among the ocean of notes, and not just play one after the other. The five movements are followed by a cadenza. At first, I decided that I would not play as written, but would improvise. I wouldn’t be able to improvise if I hadn’t managed to create a kind of motivic inventory of the musical materials. The composer’s express request is for this part to be agitato, so fast music must be played, but I have to record the motifs in my head, and this is only possible per structure. From there, I will have to use spontaneity to find the right one for the moment, of course, I will not write down my cadence in advance. I cut the study time in half by taking an analytical approach to learning the violin concerto. The preparation process is nothing more than the transition from a quantitative to a qualitative approach to memorizing the notes, while the goal is to identify what the music is all about. I can only be an authentic interpreter of the performance if I manage to understand the concept of the piece.
EVK: To what extent is the analytical approach present in education?
MÁ: There is great openness in this area. Like many, I tried the early music trend and learned a lot of useful things from it, which is important for a Bach interpretation. For example, it is good to know how the baroque violin and bow work and what the performance style features are, but this alone does not solve the internal form and structure issues of the works. Of course, we have to delve into the score, we have to look for connections between the notes, and this way of seeing broadens the horizon for the students. I think, and my experiences abroad show that this is the future. Anyone who approaches Bach’s music patiently and humbly, and sees certain connections, can rightly say that he is an intellectually trained musician who knows what to look for in the music of a Ligeti work or even just an orchestral piece by Mozart. Bach is unique and unrepeatable, none of the composers who lived before him or who came after him managed to catch up with the perfection of Bach’s logic and order of fugue and variation composition. This is also why his violin works receive such wide attention in the violin education of our time, which has never been even close to the work of any other composer. Anyone who speaks Bach’s musical language at a higher level can develop a closer relationship with the works of other composers and can better understand the works.
Eszter Veronika Kiss
Zenekar – Hungarian Music Journal
The STRAD (08/2021) Book review by Robin Stowell “the printed musical texts undoubtedly offer a clear visual representation of the structural framework and inner detail of each fugue, admirably demonstrating their coherence and facilitating prospective performers’ appreciation and comprehension of Bach’s compositional processes. The final volume of the trilogy”…Read more https://www.thestrad.com/reviews/book-review-the-complete-special-edition-of-bachs-fugues-for-solo-violin-vol1/13201.article
Daily News – 02/2021 Revolutionary new Bach-edition released by Hungarian professors “The new publication edited by violinist Márta Ábrahám and composer Barnabás Dukay is a real world premiere. The authors are…” Read more https://dailynewshungary.com/revolutionary-new-bach-edition-released-by-hungarian-professors/
Christoph Wolff – 04/2018 Harvard University Department of Music , Adams University Professor, Emeritus “Excerpts from Eternity is an enormously detailed analytical study which I found fascinating to read. Since the book is so detailed it takes a long time to get through it all. However, I think that musicians who have the patience and the proper background will benefit greatly. I myself found the poster synopsis of Ciaccona particularly informative. I have never looked at the piece in such a way. To have the entire scheme of 4-measure variations in front of you is a true eye and ear opening experience. The book illuminates beautifully both the great complexity of Bach’s compositional work and the unparalleled elegance of his musical language.”
Hagai Shaham (04/2018) violinist, professor of Tel Aviv University “Amazing book, research and presentation! This is a reference book, reading material for life. I will definitely return to it, discovering further layers of this masterpiece. Bravi!!!”
Dr. Salamon Kamp (11/2017) president of Hungarian Bach Society “The book ‘Excerpts from Eternity’ by Barnabás Dukay and Márta Ábrahám is a fascinating reading from beginning to the end and it leads the reader toward the central order of unification.” ·ZENE-KAR-
PAPAGENO (06/2017) review by Gabriella Bokor “In their writing they point out not only musical but also art-historical points of interest and discoveries.”
Fülöp Ránki (05/2017) pianist “The book ‘Excerpts from Eternity’ by Barnabás Dukay and Márta Ábrahám is a fascinating reading from beginning to the end and it leads the reader toward the central order of unification.”
PAPAGENO (05/2017) Gabriella Bokor “A new approach to Bach’s solo violin works has been revealed.”
GRAMOFON (07/20017) article by Katalin Fittler “Márta Ábrahám – Barnabás Dukay: Excerpts from Eternity In the spring of 2015, on the occasion of the 330th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, the pair of authors gave an interactive lecture at the Music Academy about Bach’s epoch-making masterwork, the final movement of the Partita in D minor, the Ciaccona. The book (including a CD supplement), which was published with support from László Sólyom, brings the words said there to a wider public. The subtitle, which appears already on the title page, clarifies not only the object of the investigation, but also the approach that is at the same time a guide to the musical world of composer Barnabás Dukay: The Purification of Time and Character, the Fulfilment of Love, Cooperation with the Celestial Will in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Ciaccona for Violin. The Foreword brings an important viewpoint to the reader’s attention: ‘While our contribution at points approaches its subject in a scholarly way, it is not a musicological treatise. It is primarily an artwork resulting from the joint theoretical and practical investigations of a composer and a violinist.’ The same ambiguity, the complementary duet of the theorist and the performer also resurfaces in the fact that the readers of the volume were Miklós Dolinszky and Fülöp Ránki. It is moving to read the young pianist’s enthusiastic words on the back cover of the book – it is worth reading these when starting to familiarize us with its contents.
It is worth knowing in advance that Dukay as composer feels attached to the creative attitude of Leoninus, and fully acknowledges Ockeghem’s art. Besides its ways of expression, it seeks to belong also in its worldview to a one-time approach in which music was one of the ‘septem artes liberales’, and individual compositions did by no means give vent to authorial self-expression. Relying on this thought-through worldview Dukay as performer (in the case of this book: as author) does not profess didactic forms of communication; due to his persuasion his statements often sound like enunciations. The musician–reader approaching from ‘elsewhere’ can more than once have objections (also simply by referring to the acoustic control) – for instance, in his symbolic interpretation of the intervals, where he does not differentiate between the major and minor forms of the same interval while defining the symbolic content of the range of meanings. Slow, attentive and thoughtful reading is a prerequisite for getting attuned to the train of thought of the authors.
The Introduction provides basic information for the non-musician readers – since the book was hardly written for interested professionals alone. Although later on it turns out that, no matter in how many ways the ever more detailed analysis is illustrated, it is worth following the text with a score – preferably an Urtext edition – in hand. The majority of the analyses are of the structural type, concentrating on the form, the temporal articulation of the lesser and greater musical units. Special attention is paid to the golden section, which can be observed in different dimensions. At this point it should be noted that, just as in the case of numerology and other mystical connections, the question to what extent these are applied consciously in Bach’s art is evaded. No detailed analysis can uncover the essence that makes posterity evaluate Bach’s music as being of matchless significance. As a rule works that can exquisitely be analyzed by no means always prove to be masterpieces in practice, no matter what intention–consideration their author had in mind. Geniality (which we may view as God’s gift) is immeasurable! Let the impressive ‘ability to account for every note’ motivate both practising and theorizing musicians not to content themselves with playing the notes, giving the written music a sounding life, but search for the deeper, more hidden messages encoded in the notes. It is worth doing so even when the composition in question has not been historically canonized as a masterwork.
The sound recording of the Partita by Márta Ábrahám provides excellent raw material also for those not reading music, making them realize that it is worthwhile and possible to read the streams of notes ‘in multiple dimensions’. And for the violinists it provides inspiration to seek to express through one’s playing how one reads the composer’s message. In other words, to convey what one understood of the work.