The Art of Fugue
Fugue is the Rubik’s cube of compositional genres. It’s the sort of thing that only the ‘brainiest’ of modern composers, one with a bent for antiquarian curiosities, would attempt.
And yet in its golden age in the first half of the 18th century, fugue writing was commonplace, an expected skill for any composer aspiring to a royal appointment, or a post as Kapellmeister in an aristocratic house. In concept, you could think of it as ‘Row, row, row your boat’ meets the Riddle of the Sphinx: an arcane puzzle for the composer to solve, and yet a simple-sounding but richly textured and wondrous aural achievement for its audience to experience. By the time that Bach wrote his encyclopedic compendia of fugal procedure – the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier (1722 & 1744) and his Art of Fugue (1750) – the rules of the game for this test of musical moxie were well established.
Each voice in the polyphonic texture was to enter with a complete statement of the fugue subject, or theme, and then noodle on with a countersubject, a strand of melody meant to accompany subsequent statements of the theme. Once all the voices had thrown their hat into the ring and the exposition was complete, they would all take a kind of coffee break, an episode, to engage in water cooler conversation about their boss, often repeating themselves in a series of harmonic sequences, until one of them remembered what they were being paid for and piped up with the theme subject again. By now, of course, they had wandered into another key. No matter, they would just go on alternating theme statements with episodes of motivic banter, modulating around the table of keys like they were at a ouija board séance.
Then “just to make things more interesting” (as poker sharps are wont to say), the cleverest of the lot might begin stating the theme in any number of altered forms: some in diminution (halved note values), others in augmentation (double note values), still others in inversion (mirrored intervals) and the biggest eggheads of all might actually sing it out in retrograde (backwards). As if that weren’t enough, somewhere near the end, they would all start to interrupt each other in stretto, not letting a theme statement finish before echoing what was just being said. It can all get a bit hard to follow for anyone unfamiliar with the pace of Italian dinner table conversation. Inevitably, someone would get their toe stepped on, producing a long pedal point in the bass that would remind everyone where their harmonic loyalties should lie, and prompting a general consensus that the piece should end on friendly terms.
Such a dazzling display of compositional ingenuity was tailor-made for the Baroque world-view that conceived of this earthly existence as infused with a divine order imaginatively paralleled in the fractal scalar replications of fugal procedure. For musicians of the later 18th century, however, such darkly embroiled musical arguments were the antithesis of what the Enlightenment mind, illuminated by the clear light of Reason, would find pleasing. Fugal procedure in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn thus became a ‘spot’ technique applied sparingly, and for specific purposes, e.g., in the development section of a sonata-form movement, or as the final ‘Amen’ movement of a Mass. Related to this was the use of fugue as the crowning last movement of an extended multi-movement work such as a symphony or a grand sonata. In the more dramatic instrumental essays of Beethoven, especially his late works, a fugal finale became a way of summing up and resolving tensions still left hanging in the air from previous movements – sort of like Hercule Poirot calling everyone into the library to review all the evidence and name the murderer.
Despite its decline in compositional use, fugue continued, however, to be cultivated in the conservatories of Europe, remaining a required subject in the training of young composers. Needless to say, this produced some long faces and not a little mumbling in the porridge of the emerging generation of Romantics. Berlioz whined at having to show competence in fugal writing in order to win his Prix de Rome, and placed a fugue in his La Damnation de Faust as a way of parodying the dusty pedantry of German music. And Wagner, for his part, joined in on the whinging with a fugue in Die Meistersinger that sarcastically painted Beckmesser as a musical prig.
Yet despite its being out of step with the prevailing artistic climate, fugues remained an object of prestige and even veneration by a generation of ‘absolute music’ composers that included Mendelssohn and Brahms, while attracting the attention even of died-in-the-wool Romantics such as Liszt and Schumann (both of whom wrote fugues on the notes B-A-C-H). The prominent exception was Chopin, who while making the left hand a worthy melodic partner to the right, otherwise showed little interest in imitative counterpoint, and none at all in fugue.
In the 20th century fugue survived, surprisingly, as a viable vehicle for the expression of musical ideas, perhaps because of the trend of neo-classical nostalgia that emerged after World War I. Bartók, for example, opened his Music for Percussion and Strings with a fugue, while Samuel Barber ended his Piano Sonata Op. 26 with one. But the outstanding figure in 20th-century fugal writing would have to be Dmitri Shostakovich, whose 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the keys, Op. 87 (1950-51), stands as a modern monument of Bach-worship.
Our concert today takes us through a few of the works of the 19th and 20th centuries in which fugue is a major protagonist. Of these, Mendelssohn is by far the most conservative, looking back with genuine affection to the music of Bach, while Shostakovich brilliantly adapts fugal procedure to his distinctly modern idiom. And as for Beethoven, well, only a mind such as his could begin a string quartet with a fugue without fear of creating an anticlimax in what followed.
Capriccio and Fugue from Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81 (Nos. 3 & 4)
Mendelssohn was a not your typical ‘Romantic-era’ composer. The polished grace of his melodies and clear formal outlines of his musical structures show him to have had one foot in the Classical era of Mozart and Haydn, while his penchant for counterpoint and fugal writing shows that even that foot had at least a big toe in the Baroque era of Bach and Handel, as well.
As a child, while his youthful contemporaries were gainfully employed kicking over garbage cans and pulling the pigtails of young girls, Felix, at the age of 11, was writing fugues. And if his tastes in music were perhaps acquired under the influence of his arch-conservative music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, his championing of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach remained nevertheless a lifelong endeavour. Indeed, the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin in 1829, which Mendelssohn conducted at the age of 20, is credited with initiating the revival of 19th-century interest in Bach’s music.
Mendelssohn was a prodigious composer, in terms of output, but only a fraction of his compositions were published in his lifetime. The Four Pieces for String Quartet comprise both youthful and late works, published posthumously as the composer’s Op. 81 (all of the composer’s opus numbers after 72 are posthumous publications).
The third movement Capriccio, written in 1843, is a product of Mendelssohn’s maturity and features a pair of boldly contrasting sections. The opening Andante con moto presents a long-arching lyrical melody over barcarolle-like rocking undulations in the accompaniment. The fugue that follows is nothing if not spiffy. Its subject is parceled out in two rapid spurts of 16th notes followed by a slower rising scale figure. These two musical ideas, heard successively at first, are just made to be heard one on top of the other and – spoiler alert – that’s exactly what happens in the brisk contrapuntal tennis match that unfolds. Mendelssohn indulges here his predilection for perpetuum mobile textures, with the scurrying voices brought back to earth only by the grounding provided by long bass pedals near the end.
The fourth movement, Fuga, is a much earlier work, composed in 1827 when Mendelssohn was still establishing himself as the most learned teenage composer in Berlin – admittedly, not a crowded field. Much more introverted in tone than the Capriccio, it unfolds placidly and demurely with a distinctly un- boyish gravitas unperturbed even by the dramatic upward leap of a minor 7th in the fugue subject. It is not long, though, before a second exposition supervenes to let us know that we have, in fact, a double fugue on our hands here. The new second theme, in faster note values, glides serenely up and down the scale, soon combining with the first in a spirit of inter-thematic chummy-ness that promises all will be well.
Despite its scholarly construction, the extreme warmth of tone colour in this fugue, especially at the end, places it closer in spirit to the warm ‘hot-milk-and- cookies’ domesticity of Biedermeyer Berlin than to the severe rigour of Bach’s Lutheran Leipzig of the previous century.
String Quartet No. 9 in E ♭ major, Op. 117
I had always wondered why my Russian hosts in Moscow insisted on having the television on, loud, whenever we spoke together. It was my dissertation supervisor, who had done research in what was then East Germany, who finally explained it to me: no citizen of a totalitarian state feels comfortable speaking with a Westerner without background noise to mask the conversation – in case it was being recorded.
You didn’t need to tell that to Dmitri Shostakovich, a survivor of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and 40s. The doublethink of George Orwell’s 1984 was a reality for Soviet citizens, who learned, each in his own way, to frame their public utterances in their own dialect of doublespeak, musicians included.
Shostakovich veered quite close to the flame, though, with his controversial Thirteenth Symphony (1962) that featured settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem Babi Yar denouncing widespread anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. It should not be surprising, then, that he would turn to the more intimate, less public genre of the string quartet for his next major work, the String Quartet No. 9 in E ♭ major (1964). Framed in five continuous movements in a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast pattern, the dual states of mind of Soviet citizenry are on full display in a series of musical contrasts written into the work.
The lyrical first theme that opens the quartet roams anxiously back and forth, constantly changing direction, like a prisoner pacing in his cell, seemingly unable to escape the dull drone in the cello below. No such problems plague the confident strutting second theme announced staccato by the cello. This breezy and whistle-able tune leaps about where it wants, when it wants, living the good life. Quite a pair, these two, as they fall into conversation to start this quartet on its journey.
The second movement evokes an air of fervent prayer, its hymn-like texture providing continuous support for a top-voice melody that eventually muses its way into a stray musical thought that turns into the theme for the third movement.
Here is where the real fun begins. The filled-in minor third of the strutting tune from the first movement is transformed in the third movement into a madcap polka, complete with oom-pah off-beats and the ‘Lone Ranger theme’ (alias the fanfare from Rossini’s William Tell Overture) thrown in for good measure. (One can only imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of the Soviet censors.) All that’s missing is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat poking his head out from the wings to yell “Hey!” with a high clap of the hands at the end of every phrase.
The fourth movement is the most extreme in terms of textural contrast, mixing creamy Debussy-esque chord streams with lonely solo musings and abrupt multi- string pizzicati, as if the flow of musical thought were coming apart at the seams.
All is saved, however, in a last movement of impressive vigour and real exuberance, the longest movement of the quartet. Typical of Shostakovich, this finale reviews the themes and dramatic gestures from previous movements, culminating in a mighty fugue and a long crescendo to a final emphatic “So there!” statement of the main theme from all instruments in unison.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Quartet in C♯ minor, Op. 131
Beethoven’s late period is remarkable for his experiments in large-scale form, notably the inclusion of fugues within a musical structure – the sonata – that is largely at odds with the operating principles and esthetic aims of fugal procedure. What distinguishes fugue from your average run-of-the-mill sonata movement such as a sonata allegro, a scherzo or a rondo, is its extreme density of musical thought. If a scherzo might be compared to a fluffy pillow, and a rondo to a helium balloon, a fugue would be more like a bowling ball: not something you chuck into the lap of the unwary listener without a heads-up of fair warning.
And yet that is just what Beethoven did in the very first movement of his Quartet in C♯ minor Op. 131, which opens with an eyebrow-knitting fugue of imposing gravity replete with all the tricks of the high-Baroque fugal trade such as augmentation, diminution and stretto.
Beethoven had used fugue in a string quartet before, as the last movement of his third Rasumovsky quartet Op. 59, No. 3. And fugues had also more recently served as final movements of his monumental piano sonatas Opp. 106 and 110 as well as his string quartet Op. 130. But the exhilarating pace of the Rasumovsky fugue in no way disappointed those in his audience expecting a rousing, toe-tapping finale, while listeners of Opp. 106, 100 and 130 had had ample warning of the composer’s high- minded cast of thought in the movements leading up to these crowning fugues.
What ever could the brooding Brainiac from Bonn have been thinking by not ending, but starting his C♯ minor quartet with a fugue, and a thick and gravely-paced one at that?
The answer lies in the larger-scale plan he had for the quartet, conceived of in its entirety. The key areas explored in the opening fugue – D major, A major, E major, B minor and major, G♯ minor, and of course C♯ minor – are, not coincidentally, the very keys of the movements that follow, creating a kind of harmonic table-of-contents for how the larger framework of the work will unfold.
Added to this are tantalizing bits of the fugue subject, as well as its general up-and-down shape, that photo- bomb the melodic selfies of the other movements, ultimately culminating in full-scale quotations in the last movement.
Not that the essential outline of the traditional sonata movement structure has been abandoned entirely in favour of an impressionistic slide-show. The load- bearing pillars of the quartet’s structure – movements 1, 4 and 7 – are still the more-or-less traditional movements of the sonatas he had written hither-to- fore. He merely laid them out in reverse order: a fugue for a 1st movement (instead of a last movement), a theme and variations 4th movement (in the central ‘slow-movement’ position) and a sonata allegro to end rather than begin the work. Filling out the traditional line-up is a 5th-movement scherzo (complete with trio), which neatly counter-balances the dance movement that follows the opening fugue. And acting as a kind of ‘clutch’ to ease the gear-changing between these variously paced musical offerings are the short transitions of movements 3 and 6.
A noticeable feature of this work is what the late Joseph Kerman calls the “flatness” of the writing: how each movement (except the sonata-form finale) establishes a single emotional tone and sticks to it throughout, creating an emotionally homogenous ‘tile’ that contributes to the overall mosaic pattern of the whole. And what would that ‘whole’ be?
A clue might be found in Beethoven’s insistence on giving a number to each of the seven movements as if they were individual set pieces in a ‘number’ opera. The entire work, then, could be thought of as one complete ‘act’ of an opera. The way that the seven movements are played in a continuous stream without interruption, as well as the recitative and cavatina-like qualities of the transitional movements (3 and 6), certainly lends credence to this view.
“Surely the saddest thing ever said in notes” is how Richard Wagner described the opening Adagio fugue of this quartet. While certainly sombre in tone, the mood is anything but resigned. Its pervading chromaticism evinces a sense of luminous hope, or at least a hopeful yearning, evocative of an inner strength of will typical of this composer.
Beethoven brings us back down to earth in a second movement Allegro molto vivace that swings and sways with the body rhythms of the dance. Mono-rhythmic and virtually mono-thematic, this movement perfectly exemplifies a ‘flat tile’ in the colourful mosaic of this quartet.
The transitional 11-bar 3rd movement cleanses the palette with a few brisk chords (typical of the introduction to an operatic recitative) followed by a moustache-twirling flourish in the first violin to whet our appetite for the 4th movement theme and variations, the most traditional movement in the quartet. Its theme, despite a lilting emphasis on the 2nd beat, is the very soul of propriety, with regular phrase lengths and nary a single modulation, not even to the dominant. Six equally graceful variations follow, ranging from the ornamental to the imitative, culminating in the ‘hymn variation’, so called because of its hymn-like homophonic texture. A coda thrilling with trills leads to a tepid cadence to set up the burst of energy to come.
The fifth movement Presto is as simple and childlike a scherzo as Beethoven ever wrote, full of playful hesitations, games of hide-and-seek between piano and forte dynamics and comic pizzicato asides. If your foot doesn’t start spontaneously tapping during the eminently whistle-able Trio, give it a wiggle: it’s probably fallen asleep.
Another short palette-cleanser follows in the 6th movement, attempting to clear all the laughing gas from the air. It takes the form of a tearful cavatina, i.e., a song consisting of a single phrase without any repetition. Its minor-mode lyricism bridges the gap between the hilarity and buoyant good spirits of the major-mode scherzo and the firm resolve of the minor- mode finale.
Here, finally, we get a movement with internal contrast – and plenty of it. The sonata-form seventh movement that ends the quartet is remarkable for its sheer wildness. It takes off from the starting blocks at a gallop in a steady hunting rhythm only stopping for breath to linger over its loving second theme, a gracious descending scale in E major. Beethoven pulls out all the stops in this finale, prompting Wagner to call it “the dance of the whole world itself: wild joy, the wail of pain, love’s transport, utmost bliss, grief, frenzy, riot, suffering; the lighting flickers, thunders growl: and above it the stupendous fiddler […] who leads it haughtily from whirlwind into whirlpool, to the brink of the abyss.”
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014
I love these program notes – they are such fun to read and stick in my head better than the more conventional style. Who is this guy? Why doesn’t he get a bio in the program??
Hi Dianne, Thanks for posting! Donald Gislason is the VRS Resident Musicologist, and has been writing our program notes for the past year. So glad you like them! Donald is a long-time Vancouver resident with a Ph. D. in Musicology from UBC, and he’ll be thrilled to hear your comments which I’ll gladly pass on to him.
Regarding his bio, watch for an upcoming VRS Backstage profile on Donald coming soon in our concert programs.
Thanks for writing!