Wednesday, November 28, 2007

So You Want to Write a Fugue?

It's the end of the fall semester for teachers and for music history teachers that means one thing:


Today I began my two day journey through Bach's music and his life. Since Bach wrote so many wonderful organ works, the textbook I use has included two, including a prelude and fugue. This is the first full fugue we have covered, so I had to go through the entire process of a fugue. The fugue has always intrigued me because it acts like a form, giving shape and direction to a piece of music, and we discuss it as a form, calling such pieces "fugues," but it really is not a form. The fugue is more of a process: composers write a melody, here called a subject, present it once in each voice, bring it back in parts and pieces throughout the work, and end with a complete statement of the subject one last time in the home key. As a listener, you follow this process, your ears perking up every time snatches of the subject peek out of the dense texture.

You would think such a rigorous process would have quickly fallen out of favor, but the fugue has remained one of the most used organizational structures in music. It pops up in all sorts of places, perhaps one of my favorite from the past few years was in Kevin Gilbert's The Shaming of the True, a Gentle Giant-influenced concept album that featured the "Suit Fugue (Dance of the A&R Men)." It's a brilliant piece of a cappella fugal writing.

Along those lines, I've recently started showing my students Glenn Gould's "So You Want to Write a Fugue" in class to demonstrate how the fugue works. We have a strong vocal program, and for people used to following words, his verbal/musical explanation does wonders in making this abstract concept concrete.

As much as I enjoy this performance, it always reminds me about the deep-seated paradoxes I find surrounding Gould. About half way through the performance, a new subject enters, "Never Be Clever for the Sake of Being Clever." It strikes me that Mr. Gould wasn't or couldn't follow his own advice. Nevertheless, it is a marvelous way to teach this concept.

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