Reminiscences and Reflections


(N/S R 1032)

Reminiscences and Reflections:
12 Preludes and Fugues

Jonathan Bass, piano

Reminiscences and Reflections, op. 46, is a series of twelve Preludes and Fugues; one on each pitch ;written intermittently over a five-year period from 1993 to 1998. Initially it operated as a kind of sketch-book for other pieces I was composing on commission. Often the fugues were written first and the preludes was designed to reflect the harmonic content of the fugue.

The references in the title were to some of my own pieces for which I had written piano models. For example, the Prelude and Fugue in F, is largely the model for the second movement of my Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra called The Sentimental Muse. The Prelude in C#, “Habanera,” and its accompanying fugue are elaborations on the first movement of my Song and Dance , a divertimento for chamber orchestra. Similarly, the G (“Song and Dance”), Ab (“Sing-a-long”), and A (“Last Dance”) Preludes and Fugues are the piano models for the second, third, and fourth movements of Song and Dance. The Fugue in A also provided the conclusion of Four Pieces in Familiar Style, for two violins. The Fugue in Bb is adapted from the first movement of my trio for saxophone, ‘cello, and piano, Mahler in Blue Light, “Backward Glances,” the Prelude and Fugue in F#, not only refers to my 1986 work for cello and piano, River of Ponds, but also refers to the previous Prelude and Fugue (in F).

The remaining half of the composition was written independent of my other music. The Prelude in C, “Glissando Study,” and the Prelude in Bbfor the left hand are designed as etudes. Their fugues were written to complement the etudes. Many of the Preludes and Fugues, such as the ones in D, Eb, E, and B, contain cross references to one another. For instance, the Prelude in Eb, “Habanera No. 2,” is based on the same thematic material as the Prelude in C#. The Prelude in B, “Recitative No. 2,” is a reflection of the Prelude on E. All the pieces, including the fugues, whether sketches for other works, adapted after the fact, or newly composed, were the result of my own piano improvisations.

Despite the casual and improvisatory genesis of these works, they are united by two short motives. One is a gruppetto (a turn) followed by a leap; the other is an angular five-note figure that is often presented in a jazzy, syncopated manner. The Preludes and Fugues are tonal in the conventional sense that progressions are used to gravitate to a central triad. Each pair of pieces, however, is based on harmony drawn from a different six-note collection of pitches, that is a hexachord used freely. One of the technical goals of these pieces was systematically to use all possible transpositions of these hexachords. In other words, I like to use tonal and serial techniques simultaneously.

Like the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Reminiscences and Reflections could be played piecemeal. The bi-partite construction of a prelude and fugue was obviously suggested by Bach’s famous “48.” The character of my work, however, is closer to Robert Schumann’s works with canons and the Chopin Preludes (also modeled after the Well-Tempered Clavier). I admired Schumann’s comment about Felix Mendelssohn’s Preludes and Fugues, op. 35: “The best fugue will always be the one that the public takes for a Strauss waltz; in other words, where the artistic roots are covered as are those of a flower, so that we only perceive the blossom.” Listeners today might perceive these preludes and fugues as dance music or popular songs without words; the technical aspects of fugal writing are there for the connoisseur to discover.

The world and New York premieres were given in March (in Jordan Hall) and April (in Merkin Hall) of 1999 by Sara Davis Buechner.


CD Reviews: (complete)

Bell is a noted composer based at the Boston Conservatory and New England Conservatory, who has had his works performed around the world and himself performed regularly as a pianist. His Preludes and Fugues were written over a five-year period and served as a sort of sketchbook for other pieces he was writing on commission. The fugues were normally composed first and the preludes written to reflect the harmonic content of the fugue. Many of the pieces contain cross references to one another. Bell likes to use tonal and serial techniques simultaneously, and in these works gravitate to a central tonal triad, but each pair is based on harmony taken from different six-note pitch sets. His goal was to employ all possible transpositions of these hexachords. Several of the pieces show jazzy syncopations. The Prelude sections all have subtitles, such as: Glissando Study, Chase, Last Dance, etc. And of course it is to be understood that Bachís great 48 of the WTC were part of the inspiration for this collection. Fascinating and exhuberant music well worth getting to know.

—John Sunier, Audiophile Audition (June 2004)

It may be a set of prelude and fugues, but there’s nothing academic about our own Larry Bell’s new CD. Good humor and an innocent American lyricism prevail. Beyond arranging the pairs chromatically, Bell wisely decides not to chase Bach (his fugues are more Beethovenian). With the help of pianist Jonathan Bass, Bell, through song and dance, gives us a very different kind of well-tempered clavier. The Prelude and Fugue in E is a highlight. Rating: 8.

—David Salvage, April 2005

Remarkable Music *****

I’ve known this music for several years now, hearing bits of it in recitals and finaly picking up the CD shortly after its release. I keep returning to it and being amazed by it. It’s accessible enough to win listeners over at a first hearing, but subtle enough to sustain frequent returns (I finally moved it over onto the “essential” play list on my iPod because I didn’t want to be without it). The conception behind the piece recalls Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but — as the composer explains — much of the execution is indebted to Schumann. The total effect, though, is completely unique. Those who know some of Bell’s other composition (and there’s an awfully lot worth getting know, beginning with the wonderful “Mahler in Blue Light”) will find familiar moments in unfamiliar contexts. Those who don’t know Bell’s work will come away wanting to know more of it. This is glorious music performed by a frighteningly gifted pianist (I’ve seen him in concert — he’s a force to be reckoned with).

James Schmidt – customer review, August 6, 2005


Larry Bell’s Reminiscences and Reflections Op.46, subtitled Twelve Preludes and Fugues, were composed intermittently between 1993 and 1998. The title is partly justified by the fact that the half of the set reminisces on material heard in some of the composer’s other works. For example, the Prelude and Fugue in F (No. 6) was the model for the second movement of the Bassoon Concerto The Sentimental Muse Op.45 completed in 1967 ( N/S R1031 review). The Prelude Habanera and Fugue in C sharp (No.2) are elaborations on the first movement of Song and Dance Op.44 (also on N/S R 1031), whereas the Preludes and Fugues in G (No.8), in A flat (No.9) and in A (No.10) are the ‘piano models’ of the second, third and fourth movements of Song and Dance. The Fugue in A also provided the conclusion of Four Pieces in Familiar Style Op.41 for two violins (N/S R 1033 review). The Fugue in B flat (No.11) is adapted from the first movement of Mahler in Blue Light Op.43 – Barking Dog BDR 2181 also reviewed here some time ago. Finally, the Prelude and Fugue in F sharp not only refers to River of Ponds Op.25 for cello and piano ( N/S R 1018 review) but also to the preceding Prelude and Fugue in F (No.6). The remaining Preludes and Fugues were written independently of any other music by the composer.

It would be idle to go through each Prelude and Fugue in detail. Suffice to say that the whole cycle is a very attractive and nicely contrasted set of miniatures, all superbly crafted and cast in a colourful, accessible idiom. The music can be fully appreciated without any prior knowledge of the various connections with the other pieces mentioned. Bell’s Reminiscences and Reflections Op.46 is a welcome addition to the already long series of Preludes and Fugues. It should be avidly picked up by any pianist willing to add a less familiar, but rewarding and enjoyable set to his/her repertoire.

Jonathan Bass plays superbly throughout and proves an eminent and convincing advocate of Bell’s consistently fine and attractive music.

Hubert Culot- November 7, 2005


The trend in the newest “new music” towards tonal composition has elicited nearly as much alarm and dismay in academic circles as it has accolades from the public at large. One composer very much at the center of this issue is Larry Bell, who isi an academic, holding down posts at The Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. However — at least in his own work — Bell is not joining the ranks of composition instructors who decry that “I just can’t seem to get my students interested in new music” — meaning, of course, the mid-to-late twentieth century tendency toward formalized music systems. Bell is on the opposite track; his music is intuitive, inspired and occasionally improvised sounding but never predictable and encompasses all that is harmonic, from white note consonance to the blackest dissonance, but usually aiming for somewhere in the middle. Bell is also a pianist, and his piano technique does inform what he writes. On North/South Consonance’s Larry Bell: Reminiscences and Reflections — 12 Preludes and Fugues, Bell leaves the interpreting up to another fine pair of hands, that of pianist Jonathan Bass.Where most formalized musical systems limit the composer’s choices to permutations from a pitch class set or row, Bell opens the window and lets it all in. There are no barriers to where this music can go nor filters to strain out references to musical ideas that inspires Bell, take for example the sidelong gesture to Vince Guaraldi in the Prelude No. 7 in F sharp, “Backward Glances.” Nevertheless, etude-like virtuosity and rigorous counterpoint is the order of the day in these preludes and fugues, and that translates to a certain toughness of idiom. While there are many strikingly beautiful passages in these works that fall easily upon the ear, overall it’s an exhausting cycle to take on all at once and is not given to easy memorability; reasonably small strides in ingesting this work are recommended, and several listens may well be required to bring all of its virtues to the fore. It is clear, though, that Reminiscences and Reflections is built to stand the test of time, even as it is formally freewheeling and at times, discursive. For that matter, so is Charles Ives’ First Piano Sonata. Whether or not it may lead to a revolt in the academies, Larry Bell’s Reminiscences and Reflections should appeal to a remarkably wide swath of the audience ranging from enterprising casual listeners to experienced, intrepid souls looking for a way out of the serial ghetto.

Review by Uncle Dave December, 2009