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Nikolai Muravyov
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Leonard Bernstein's Jazz Masterpiece: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for Clarinet and Ensemble


Leonard Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs: A Jazz-Inspired Masterpiece




Leonard Bernstein was one of the most versatile and influential musicians of the 20th century. He was a composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and media personality who embraced a wide variety of musical styles and genres. Among his many works, one of the most fascinating and original is Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, a "written-out" jazz-in-concert-hall composition for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble. In this article, we will explore what this piece is, why it is important, and how to enjoy it.




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What is Prelude, Fugue and Riffs?




The composition and its structure




Prelude, Fugue and Riffs was composed by Bernstein in 1949 as part of a series of commissioned works for Woody Herman's big band. Herman was a famous jazz clarinetist and bandleader who led one of the most innovative and popular swing orchestras of the era. He had already collaborated with classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky, who wrote Ebony Concerto for him in 1945. Bernstein was inspired by Herman's adventurous spirit and decided to write a piece that would combine classical forms and techniques with jazz elements and idioms.


The title of the piece points to its structure and style. It consists of three movements that are played without a pause. The first movement is a Prelude, which features brass instruments and percussion in a fast and rhythmic section that resembles a big band introduction. The second movement is a Fugue, which features saxophones in a contrapuntal section that follows the rules of a baroque fugue. The third movement is a series of Riffs, which features the solo clarinet with piano accompaniment at first, then with the whole ensemble joining in. A riff is a jazz term for a short and repeated melodic figure that serves as a basis for improvisation or variation.


The history and the premiere




Unfortunately, Prelude, Fugue and Riffs was never performed by Woody Herman's big band, possibly because his orchestra had disbanded at that time. Instead, it received its premiere as part of Bernstein's Omnibus television show, The World of Jazz, on October 16, 1955. According to some sources, the soloist at the premiere was Al Gallodoro; other sources state it was premiered by Benny Goodman, Bernstein's Tanglewood neighbor and friend since the 1940s, to whom the work was dedicated. Goodman was another legendary jazz clarinetist who had also collaborated with classical composers such as Aaron Copland, who wrote Clarinet Concerto for him in 1948.


In 1952, Bernstein revised the score from its original instrumentation for a more conventional pit orchestra, and the work was then incorporated into a ballet sequence in the first draft of the musical comedy Wonderful Town. The revised version of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs did not survive and the majority of the music was cut from the final version of the Wonderful Town score with the exception of a few phrases in the musical's numbers "Conquering the City" and "Conversation Piece". It later was transcribed for clarinet and orchestra by Lukas Foss, a composer and conductor who was Bernstein's colleague and friend.


The recordings and the legacy




Prelude, Fugue and Riffs has been recorded by several clarinetists and conductors, including Bernstein himself. He recorded it twice: first in 1963 with Benny Goodman as the soloist, and then in 1992 with Peter Schmidl as the soloist. Both recordings feature Bernstein conducting his own jazz ensemble. Other notable recordings include those by Michael Collins, Wolfgang Meyer, Richard Stoltzman, and John Bruce Yeh.


Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is one of Bernstein's most original and distinctive works. It showcases his ability to blend classical and jazz styles in a seamless and natural way. It also reflects his love and appreciation for jazz music, which he considered as a vital and authentic expression of American culture. He once said: "Jazz is the ultimate common denominator of the American musical style."


Why is Prelude, Fugue and Riffs important?




The fusion of classical and jazz styles




Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is an important work because it represents one of the most successful examples of fusion between classical and jazz styles. Fusion is a term that describes the combination of different musical genres or elements, usually from different cultural or historical backgrounds. Fusion can be seen as a form of musical experimentation, innovation, or cross-pollination that creates new possibilities and expressions.


Bernstein was not the first composer to attempt fusion between classical and jazz styles. In fact, he was influenced by some of his predecessors who had already explored this territory, such as George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, and others. However, Bernstein was one of the most successful composers in achieving fusion between classical and jazz styles because he had a deep understanding and respect for both traditions. He was able to use classical forms and techniques such as prelude, fugue, counterpoint, harmony, orchestration, etc., without compromising or diluting the jazz elements such as riffs, syncopation, swing, blues, improvisation, etc. He was able to create a work that is both sophisticated and accessible, both challenging and enjoyable.


The influence of Woody Herman and Benny Goodman




Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is also important because it reflects the influence of two of the most prominent jazz clarinetists and bandleaders of the 20th century: Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. Both Herman and Goodman were pioneers in their fields who contributed to the development and popularity of jazz music. They also had an interest in classical music and collaborated with classical composers who wrote works for them.


Woody Herman was born in 1913 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He started playing clarinet at an early age and joined his first band at 15. He became a successful singer and saxophonist before forming his own orchestra in 1936. His orchestra was known as "The Band That Plays The Blues" or "The Herd" and featured some of the best jazz musicians of the time. Herman's orchestra played various styles of jazz such as swing, bebop, cool jazz, progressive jazz, etc., and was known for its innovative arrangements, tight ensemble playing, powerful soloists, and energetic performances. Herman also commissioned works from classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky (Ebony Concerto), Paul Hindemith (Symphonic Metamorphosis), Ralph Vaughan Williams (Six Studies in English Folk Song), etc.


Aaron Copland (Clarinet Concerto), etc. He also performed works by classical composers such as Mozart, Brahms, Weber, etc.


Bernstein admired both Herman and Goodman and was influenced by their musical styles and personalities. He wrote Prelude, Fugue and Riffs with their skills and tastes in mind. He also dedicated the work to Goodman and recorded it with him. He once said: "Benny Goodman is a phenomenon. He can do anything he wants on the clarinet."


The reflection of Bernstein's musical personality




Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is also important because it reflects Bernstein's musical personality and identity. Bernstein was a composer who had a diverse and eclectic musical background and experience. He was exposed to various musical genres and cultures since his childhood, such as Jewish music, folk music, Broadway music, classical music, jazz music, etc. He was also a conductor who had a broad and deep musical repertoire and knowledge. He conducted works from different periods and styles, from baroque to contemporary, from European to American.


Bernstein was a composer who wanted to express his musical personality and identity through his works. He wanted to create a musical language that was both personal and universal, both original and familiar, both complex and simple. He wanted to communicate with his audiences and share his musical vision and passion with them. He once said: "To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time."


Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is a work that showcases Bernstein's musical personality and identity. It is a work that demonstrates his mastery of classical and jazz styles and his ability to fuse them in a creative and coherent way. It is a work that expresses his musical vision and passion for jazz music and its cultural significance. It is a work that communicates with his audiences and invites them to join him in his musical journey.


How to enjoy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs?




The musical analysis and the highlights




To enjoy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, it is helpful to have some basic understanding of its musical analysis and its highlights. The work is divided into three movements that are played without a pause: Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs.


The Prelude is a fast and rhythmic section that features brass instruments (trumpets and trombones) and percussion (tom-toms, snare drum, bass drum, xylophone, vibraphone, wood block, timpani). It begins with a loud chord that introduces the main theme of the movement: a syncopated riff that consists of four notes (C-Eb-F-G). This riff is repeated several times by different instruments in different registers and variations. The movement also includes some contrasting episodes that feature different motifs and textures, such as a chromatic motif played by trombones in unison, a lyrical motif played by trumpets in harmony, a percussive motif played by xylophone and vibraphone in canon, etc. The movement ends with a climactic restatement of the main theme by the whole ensemble.


The Fugue is a contrapuntal section that features saxophones (alto saxophones, tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone) accompanied by piano and double bass. It begins with an exposition that presents the subject of the fugue: a melodic line that consists of eight notes (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C). This subject is played by each saxophone in turn in different registers and transpositions. The movement also includes some episodes that feature different motifs and textures, such as a chromatic motif played by piano in octaves, a rhythmic motif played by double bass in pizzicato, a bluesy motif played by saxophones in harmony, etc. The movement ends with a recapitulation that restates the subject of the fugue by all saxophones together.


The Riffs is a series of variations on the main theme of the Prelude that features the solo clarinet with piano accompaniment at first, then with the whole ensemble joining in. It begins with an introduction that presents the main theme of the Prelude played by piano alone. Then, the solo clarinet enters and plays a series of variations on the main theme, using different techniques and styles, such as trills, glissandos, arpeggios, scales, etc. The solo clarinet also interacts with the piano and the ensemble, creating a dialogue and a contrast between them. The movement also includes some episodes that feature different motifs and textures, such as a slow and lyrical episode played by clarinet and piano in unison, a fast and virtuosic episode played by clarinet and ensemble in counterpoint, a swingy and jazzy episode played by clarinet and ensemble in harmony, etc. The movement ends with a coda that restates the main theme of the Prelude by the whole ensemble with the solo clarinet playing a final flourish.


The recommended versions and the performances




To enjoy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, it is also helpful to listen to some of the recommended versions and performances of the work. There are many recordings and videos available online that feature different clarinetists and conductors who interpret the work in different ways. Some of the most recommended versions and performances are:



  • The recording by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein with Bernstein's jazz ensemble. This is the first recording of the work and features the composer himself conducting and the dedicatee himself playing. It is a historic and authentic version that captures the original spirit and intention of the work.



  • The recording by Peter Schmidl and Leonard Bernstein with Bernstein's jazz ensemble. This is the last recording of the work and features the composer himself conducting and one of his favorite clarinetists playing. It is a refined and polished version that reflects the composer's final thoughts and revisions of the work.



  • The recording by Michael Collins and Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This is one of the most recent recordings of the work and features two of the most renowned British musicians playing. It is a brilliant and dynamic version that showcases the virtuosity and expressivity of the soloist and the orchestra.



  • The video by Calogero Palermo and Klaus Mäkelä with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. This is one of the most recent performances of the work and features two of the most talented young musicians playing. It is a lively and engaging version that demonstrates the communication and interaction between the soloist, the conductor, and the orchestra.



The related works and the comparisons




To enjoy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, it is also helpful to explore some of the related works and comparisons of the work. There are many works that share some similarities or differences with Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, either in terms of genre, style, form, instrumentation, etc. Some of the most related works and comparisons are:



and Riffs, either in terms of genre, style, form, instrumentation, etc. Some of the most related works and comparisons are:



  • The Ebony Concerto by Igor Stravinsky. This is another work that was commissioned by Woody Herman for his big band in 1945. It is also a fusion between classical and jazz styles, featuring a solo clarinet and a jazz ensemble. However, it is more abstract and dissonant than Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and uses a more complex and irregular rhythmic structure.



  • The Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. This is one of the most famous works that combines classical and jazz styles, featuring a solo piano and an orchestra. It was composed in 1924, the same year as Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and was also premiered by Paul Whiteman's orchestra. However, it is more lyrical and romantic than Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and uses a more conventional and continuous melodic structure.



  • The Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland. This is another work that was commissioned by Benny Goodman for his clarinet in 1948. It is also a fusion between classical and jazz styles, featuring a solo clarinet and a string orchestra with harp and piano. However, it is more pastoral and nostalgic than Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and uses a more simple and diatonic harmonic structure.



  • The Concerto for Clarinet by Artie Shaw. This is another work that was written by a jazz clarinetist and bandleader for his own instrument in 1940. It is also a fusion between classical and jazz styles, featuring a solo clarinet and a big band. However, it is more improvisational and expressive than Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, and uses a more varied and colorful orchestration.



Conclusion




Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is a remarkable work that showcases Bernstein's genius as a composer who could fuse classical and jazz styles in a creative and coherent way. It is a work that reflects his musical personality and identity as an American musician who loved and appreciated jazz music as a vital and authentic expression of American culture. It is a work that invites us to enjoy its musical analysis and highlights, its recommended versions and performances, and its related works and comparisons. It is a work that deserves to be listened to, studied, performed, and celebrated as one of the most original and distinctive works of the 20th century.


FAQs




Here are some frequently asked questions about Prelude, Fugue and Riffs:



  • Q: What is the meaning of the title Prelude, Fugue and Riffs?



  • A: The title refers to the three movements of the work that are played without a pause. A prelude is a short introductory piece that usually precedes a fugue or another larger piece. A fugue is a contrapuntal piece that consists of one or more subjects that are repeated by different voices in different keys. A riff is a short repeated melodic figure that serves as a basis for improvisation or variation in jazz music.



  • Q: Who commissioned Prelude, Fugue and Riffs?



  • A: The work was commissioned by Paul Whiteman, a famous jazz clarinetist and bandleader who led one of the most innovative and popular swing orchestras of the era. He commissioned several works from classical composers who wrote for his big band.



  • Q: Who premiered Prelude, Fugue and Riffs?



  • A: The work was premiered by Benny Goodman, another legendary jazz clarinetist who was Bernstein's friend and neighbor. He premiered the work on an NBC radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner on November 6, 1950.



  • Q: What are some of the influences of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs?



  • A: The work was influenced by several composers and musicians who had explored the fusion between classical and jazz styles, such as George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Woody Herman, and Benny Goodman.



  • Q: What are some of the related works of Prelude, Fugue and Riffs?



  • A: Some of the related works are Ebony Concerto by Igor Stravinsky, Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland, and Concerto for Clarinet by Artie Shaw.



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