Music Post: Fugues of the Modern Age

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Two things that inspire creative people are freedom and bondage.

The best radio shows, for example, are free-ranging and unpredictable but still hew to a format.

The best architecture displays art while still meeting the physical demands of the project.

In classical music, the fugue has brought out the best in composers for hundreds of years.

I’ve done several shows consisting entirely of fugues. One was all-Bach. Another played fugues from the 1800s, to demonstrate that fugues never really died out – Beethoven wrote plenty of them, and Mendelssohn. This time I confine myself to the 20th century.

A key figure in the resurgence of the fugue was Max Reger (1873-1916), a hard-drinking, binge-eating blowhard who died of a heart attack in his forties. He revered Bach and loved composing gigantic fugues which are, to be candid, an acquired taste. But tempered by a pretty melody, his gifts suddenly became tolerable, even enjoyable, and so it is with his “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart,” Op. 132, composed in 1914. The theme is from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331, from 1783 or thereabouts, and Reger makes his usual huge edifice but it’s all right because it’s beautiful.

Several 20th century composers ambitiously undertook to write their own versions of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” emulating Bach’s preludes and fugues on all the white and black keys.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) wrote “The Well-Tempered Guitars,” for guitar duet. The composer’s music is distinctive, and charming, and each piece has its own mood. Castelnuovo-Tedesco is a neglected composer, enchanting and eccentric.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) finished his “24 Preludes and Fugues,” Op. 87, for piano, in 1951. As a fan of Shostakovich’s music I am sorry to say that this is not his finest work, yet a few individual pieces are very fine indeed.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) is another story. “Ludus Tonalis” is his finest work, a masterpiece to beat Bach, and I don’t say that lightly. “Ludus” has a preludium and a postludium – the latter is the former, played upsidedown and backwards – and the fugues have interludia that modulate from the key of the preceding fugue to the key of the next. In an hour’s time Hindemith covers virtually every tempo, every time signature, and every mood. People are still discovering relationships between pieces equidistant from the two ends of the work. Like Bach, Hindemith could build the most complex architecture and still write music that is enjoyable to the casual listener. Some who explore Hindemith conclude that his desire to write sonatas for all instruments led to a lot of forgettable note-spinning, but that is emphatically not the case with “Ludus Tonalis.”

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a very modern composer who never lost sight of the great traditions of classical music, and his Prelude & Fugue for 18-Part String Orchestra is an excellent example of that.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) wrote only one piano sonata and its finale is one of the finest fugues ever written. Characteristically, Barber finds a subject that is both melodious and modern.

It seems mischievous but not inappropriate to also include fugues by Keith Emerson, Gentle Giant, Dave Brubeck and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

For readers who are unclear about it:

A fugue is a musical format in which a melodic kernel, often called a motif or a subject because it is typically not a complete melody, is used at various pitches, overlapping.

Unlike a round – “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” – in which the subject always enters on the same pitch – a fugue typically has the second entrance up a fifth or down a fourth. The timing of subsequent entries of the subject are at the composer’s discretion.

Extra notes can be added to fill, especially when the composer isn’t ready for the next entrance of the fugue subject yet. This is called an episode. The most stringent fugues sample bits of the subject for fill notes.

A fugue subject can enter stretto, which means the entrances come rapidly, and it can appear in augmentation (stretched out, say, with note values twice as long) or diminution (shorter notes, making the subject go by faster) or retrograde (backwards) or inversion (upside-down) or even retrograde inversion.

Every one of these techniques can be found in Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” To learn how fugues are made, it is easier to listen to “Art of the Fugue” than to read about fugues.

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