Music Post: Music in flight – the fugue


You know what a round is: “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream; Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” What makes a round interesting is the way the melody can be overlaid with different starting points and everything fits. For purposes of this discussion, it is important to note that each entrance of the melody starts on the same note, the key note, the tonic, “do” on a “do re mi” scale.

A fugue – the word is Italian for “flight” – is also based on a musical idea that can lay over itself, but when there is a second entry, is starts on a different note, perhaps a fifth higher – “sol” on a “do re mi fa sol” scale.

The fugue is one of the most durable formats in music, an intellectual challenge for composers, and a small miracle because an entire piece can spin off from the notes you choose for the original subject and the decisions you make about when and on what pitch the subject will recur.

Johann Sebastian Bach, who did not invent but arguably did perfect the fugue, wrote more than a dozen fugues on the same subject in his “Art of the Fugue,” a teaching composition musicians read rather than performed until 20th century musicians began to realize how cool it sounded.

The original keyboard manuscript has been adapted for string quartet, brass quintet, saxophones, synthesizer, even arranged for full orchestra.

The dozen notes of the basic fugue subject are simple, but Bach uses it to teach every conceivable way of fiddling with a fugue. He plays it frontwards and backwards, and upside down, and both backwards and upside down – in retrograde inversions if you want to get technical. He does one fugue stretto, which means with different entries of the subject chiming in very rapidly. He uses augmentation – stretching out the subject over longer notes. He employs diminution – using shorter notes so the subject plays twice as fast.

The most interesting variation, for me, is the second fugue, because Bach makes only one tiny change from the first fugue: altering the rhythm of the last four notes. This tiny change produces a completely different fugue, with a different mood, even, from the first.

The Art of the Fugue is actually misnamed in English. The original German word is “Kunst,” which means craft, not art, and that is an important distinction because the Bach family, while greatly talented, believed strongly that the most important thing that made good music was working on the craft of composition and performance.

I’ve previously done an entire show on different versions of the fugues in the Art of the Fugue, but this weekend I’m simply presenting two hours of fine fugues. The first hour is all Bach, including some that are seldom heard because they don’t come from the “The Well-Tempered Clavier” or “The Art of the Fugue.”

The second hour samples fugues by Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Holst, Hindemith, Hovhaness and Shostakovich, and others, including one from the world of jazz and two from rock. And in this cases I’m talking not of jazzed-up or rocked-up fugues by classical composers, but fresh fugues composed by the performers.

Bach came from the very end of the Baroque Era. A mere dozen years after he died, Haydn was 30 and composing music that looked forward to Beethoven rather than back to Bach. We often think of Bach as the end of the era, the pinnacle of his time, after which it was necessary to move on to new styles, and writers on music who should know better sometimes write of the fugue as passe by the time of Mozart. But the fugue never died. Mozart transcribed Bach fugues for string trio. Beethoven composed his own fugues, not once or twice but repeatedly, especially in his piano sonatas but also in works for other resources. Fugato (“like a fugue”) passages like the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony can be found through the Classical and Romantic periods of classical music. And this program will demonstrate how popular true fugues have been in modern times. Wait to hear the one Samuel Barber wrote!

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