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What's in a Name....


"A fugue is a piece of music in which the voices come in one after another and the audience go out one after another."



I always did have a habit of chasing after the impractical. In this first installment of "what's in a name," a series dedicated to hunting down and killing with words of explanation some of those musical buzzwords that stand between great artists and the average not-so-sure-I-want-to-be-a-concertgoers, we're going to tackle one of the most forbidding types of music around, the Fugue.

I'll start by pronouncing it for you. Music is sound, after all. Notice how, in spite of the apparent symmetry of the word on the page, and the fact that we arrive at the g when the written word is merely half over, "fugue" is only one syllable. "fugu" on the other hand, which is two, is a potentially poisonous Japanese fish, and not a very musical one at that.

A fugue is possibly the most difficult kind of piece to write, and, unfortunately, not always much easier to listen to. This is because there are so many things happening at the same time. That, in fact, is the point. For centuries, composers have been trying to show their mastery at setting several independent parts to sound together, harmoniously and effectively. In some respects, it is like a musical sodoku challenge gone amok. Or three-dimensional chess. Or the Sunday crossword puzzle in the New York Times. Just about anybody can write a tune and put a few chords with it, but it is a real intellectual challenge to write a piece in which, what is happening from moment to moment has to line up well so that is makes a pleasant harmony, and yet, at the same time every single part has to make an interesting melody of its own. In other words, it has to work vertically (all the stuff happening at the same time conveniently lines up vertically on a page of music) as well as horizontally (a line of written music flows forward in the same direction as the English language).

At first, the idea of having several voices singing their own individual parts probably happened naturally. This might be hard to explain to a modern musician who thinks in terms of chords--that is, blocks of sound, in which three or four notes make up what we think of as a single harmony. But the history of western music suggests that at first, everybody sang the same tune together. When composers started adding other parts to the mix, they were still thinking of melodies that moved through time from beginning to end. Anything that happened to line up was simply a product of the collision of melody lines, not a preordained harmony. At that time, there were no organs or pianos where you can plunk down a fistful of notes at once and call it a chord. There were no 100-piece orchestras. For a while, most of the music that was written down was for the voice, and, unless you are a Tuvan throat singer, you have a hard time singing several notes at once. Because of this natural bias against hearing several things happening at once as part of something larger, (like a chord) composers just didn't think that way. When composers started writing music for instruments, they still treated them like individual voices (which is why, in the column at the left, and in any technical discussion of fugue, the different "melody" lines are referred to as "voices" even though they are not sung. They behave the same way, and that is what counts). Sometimes the instruments merely played along with the voice parts, and the organ music from the time sounds like it could easily be sung by a choir because the way it is written is identical to the way in which the choir music of the time was written. Usually, in fact, the music was written on several different staves, the same way it was written for choir. Each part was on its own staff. A manual on how to compose music for the time actually suggests writing the entire tenor part from beginning to end and then doing the same with each additional part. It does not seem very concerned with how the parts will sound together at any point in time (yikes).

What I've just described is the historical birth of counterpoint (the art of putting note against note). Almost everything that was written down during the Renaissance (1400-1600 AD) is contrapuntal (the secular songs, too, in some cases). During the Baroque era (1600-1750), things started to change. People were already complaining that music had gotten too complicated, and some of those people were musicians themselves. They started writing in a new way, with tunes that were filled out by other parts that were there only for support. This was a real innovation, and lots of ink was dedicated to the idea.

It is, then, a bit ironic, that the universally acknowledged master of counterpoint lived during the Baroque period. His name, of course, was J. S. Bach.

Bach was a master of all things contrapuntal. He rarely wrote music that wasn't, and he is particularly known for the most difficult type of piece in the contrapuntal family--the fugue.

I need to pause here because I have often heard people refer to anything that sounds complicated, with two or more things going on at once, as a fugue. This is not the case. A fugue is a very specific (and advanced) type of aural adventure. It is really the king of complexity, and has a series of special rules, or procedures, that must be followed in order for it to actually qualify as a fugue, rather than simply a piece with a lot of stuff going on at once. Generally, people's ears are not practiced in sorting out many different strands of melody, so they tend to lump it all in the same category: can't sort it all out, must be a fugue. But after reading this article, you'll have a better idea.

So, what makes a fugue a fugue? Interestingly enough, the next best thing to a dead giveaway that you are listening to a fugue will be the way it starts--with only one single note at a time! The other parts will join it, one at a time (as our cynical correspondent notes in the quotation heading this article). When they do, they will be imitating the first voice, at least for a while. This is because every fugue has what is known as a "subject." The first notes you hear will in fact, be that subject. For example:

[listen] to the subject from Bach's Fugue in G, Well-Tempered Clavier book two

In a few seconds, this voice will be joined by a second voice, imitating it, at what we call a fifth higher (five notes up if you count the first note as 1). Now, it is one of the secrets of fugue writing that you have to know the best way to bring in that second voice--exactly as the first, or by "fudging" it a little. There are rules for that, too. Then, after a brief bit of "connective tissue" we arrive back in the original key, and a third voice enters, again with the subject. If there are four, or five, voices (Bach once wrote one with six!) the same thing happens with their entrances, alternating between the original notes and five notes up from the first. This whole section is called the subject area. During the arrival of the additional voices, the old ones keep on "singing" but they do not have to keep to any particular tunes, because the newly arrived ones are not going to keep imitating them. It is only the subject that is important--although there are some fugues which also contain something called a countersubject,  just as there are double fugues and lots of other interesting things. I'm assuming you don't really want to know all that much about a fugue at the moment; if you do, there are entire textbooks written about them because it is indeed a large subject (sorry).

When all the voice entrancing has been accomplished, they all begin to dance around according to the inspiration of the composer. This more optional section is usually referred to as an episode, as in "I'm having an episode, and if you don't go away I may have another one."

The chances of this happening are quite good, because, if the composer is smooth enough, he has just moved you into a new key during the episode, in which you can often hear short bits of music which seem to be repeating themselves a bit higher or a bit lower (technical term: sequence). When he is ready, he will launch into another subject area, in which you will hear the subject make several more appearances. This may be followed by another episode, and another subject area, if and until the composer feels like you've had enough.

Which is one of the difficulties with fugues. The fugue is different from some other forbidding sounding pieces like Sonata, or Symphony, or Rondo. In those, if you are one of those people who spend a good portion of the piece looking at their watch wondering when it is going to be over, reading what I have to say about how they are put together will at the very least give you an idea of how long you can expect until they are over. They are like plots in literature or movies. After the bad guy dies, it is a pretty safe bet there is only about five minutes left until they roll the credits. In a fugue, there is no particular plot that the composer must follow. He can continue bringing the subject into all the voices one by one, and then letting it disappear altogether for a while in endless alterations between a subject area and an episode, subject area and episode, until he is convinced that you acknowledge him the lord fugue-master of the universe. Although, as it happens, the fugue below is rather short. It contains only one subject area, and the rest (beginning at about :22) is all free episode. As it happens, the episode is built on the first portion of the fugue subject, so it will not sound very different.

Fugue in G

If you are one of those people who absolutely must have a phrase you can drop into conversation at a cocktail party (what else is classical music good for, you know?), here is one: "fugue is a procedure, not a form." This is another way of saying we're not exactly sure when it will end, although the typical fugue is not in excess of five minutes, so I wouldn't worry about it too much.

Since listening to a fugue is a lot like trying to speed-read a novel, in terms of sheer amount of stuff happening, your ears could easily glaze over. Or you could spend your time listening to that fugue subject keep bursting in on you like fireworks, now in the high voice, now in the low, now in the middle. A composer can have a lot of fun trying to hide it from you, by slowing it down (augmentation) or speeding it up (diminution), playing it upside down (AND slower!) or having the different voices interrupt each other, bringing in the subject in the next voice before it is finished in the first (stretto). Don't let him! (hide it from you, that is)

Fugue may sound awfully intellectual, and academic, which for many people means it must be boring, and monotonous. As if all these fugues are going to basically sound the same: one big dull procession. But one of the reasons Bach is so often admired as a writer of these things is that he was able to put a great deal of variety into them. And if aesthetic beauty and a logical stream of notes doesn't excite you, you may find a great deal of emotional range in them as well. Some may strike you as passionate, others dramatic, some humorous, or grandiose: despite the apparently rather restrictive set of rules, with a creative fugue composer, you never know exactly what you are going to get.

Which is, perhaps, one reason people keep on writing them, even, occasionally, into the 21st century. Below are some examples of fugue, in some cases written well after Bach. Sometimes you can hear the stiff pedantry in them, but just as often, the sheer exuberance of showers of simultaneous melody, and a composer exulting in what he can do with his mind--and his heart.


Bach: (in order of difficultly for the listener)

Fugue in G, Bwv 577, "Jig"

 Fugue in g minor, "little"  Bwv 578

Fuguein D, Bwv 532

Fugue in g minor, "great" Bwv 542

Fugue in Eb, Bwv 552, "St. Anne"



Praeludium in F  BuxWV 145

(this has a great little fugue that starts at 2:25)





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