The First of the Fugue…

Back in the days when I was still able to stomach — occasionally and briefly —  the national disgrace that is the modern, stupidified ‘Radio  3’, I used to hear the name ‘Susan Tomes’ coming out of my old Grundig tuner. I don’t remember anything about her, as it happens (except that she was always described as ‘the pianist Susan Tomes’); but when I saw her posting on Twitter the other day, I recognised her name, and thought I’d ‘follow’ her account to see what she was messaging about. And I’m glad I did — because yesterday afternoon she brought up a really interesting issue:


Actually, that tiny message raises more than one really interesting issue — but for the time being let me focus solely on the bit to do with fugue.

toxichazard(Non-trained readers whose immune systems are already gearing up in response to two appearances of the word ‘fugue’ are encouraged to stick with me for a few postings. Hang in there, folks: I promise that by the end of all this you’ll know more about fugue than an A-level student. Though that isn’t saying a lot. And meanwhile, if you’ve never seen the word before, and aren’t sure how to pronounce it, you may like to know that ‘fugue’ rhymes with … ah … well, nothing, actually. Bugger. But it’s one syllable — ‘fewg’ — so don’t do what I did, back in the 1970s, when I spent the first year of my musical self-education imagining it was pronounced ‘few-gew’ (in the manner of ‘ague’, you see…)

Okay. The first thing I have to do is draw attention to the fact that Ms Tomes’s question is, in reality, a bit senseless — because its ‘or’ doesn’t actually preface a logical alternative: there is such a thing as information which, while it is ‘helpful’ to people, will nevertheless also seem ‘insulting’ when you tell it to them. Still, let’s do what we can with the question as it stands: ‘When introducing a piece to a concert audience, would it be insulting to explain what a fugue is, or would some people find it helpful?’

Now, I want to keep this ‘real’, so I’m not going to say a  damn word about fugues until I’ve done all I can to make sure everyone who reads this posting has heard at least one fugue in at least two versions. So allow me to present a recording of what is probably my all-time favourite fugue — which is found within the 1722 (yes, it’s nearly 300 years old!) ‘Book 1’ of J. S. Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ collection. Here it is — played on an instrument of at least the same general type that Bach presumably had in mind when he composed it:

Since I know for a fact that the readership of this blog covers a wide spectrum of musical interest and experience — to the point that two of my treasured registered subscribers have just now confirmed to me by email that they’ve never previously come across an 18th century keyboard fugue (well done, ‘Public Service Broadcasting’!) — I’m going to proceed slowly and purely musically. So for everyone who listened to that fugue and felt, every now and again, that they seemed to be noticing something that could almost be a structural principle, let me present a quick example — from a different piece entirely — that demonstrates just that ‘structural principle’ and nothing else:

In case you’re wondering, that’s from a Canadian (CBC) broadcast of 1963 or thereabouts; the composer was ‘the pianist Glenn Gould’; and, no, I’m not going to use any words at all to confirm or contradict anyone’s thoughts or perceptions about that ‘structural principle’: we’re going to do this musically, or we’re not going to do it at all. And what I propose to do next is refer you and your increasingly confident ears to another performance of my favourite fugue — this time one that uses the kind of modern grand piano that Bach, in his wildest musical dreams, could not have imagined or envisaged, but which is the statistically ‘normal’ way of playing his keyboard works in the modern age:

As regular readers of this blog will know, I like to cover these topics one chunk at a time — not least because we’re all busy people — so I’ll be stopping shortly. Before I go, though, I want to share one more clip that also presents the very start of a fugue — just in case anyone feels like noticing the presence of what is the same structural principle. Incidentally, this fugue dates from 1942 — which is exactly 200 years after Bach produced ‘Book 2’ of his ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ collection: just one little reminder that empires may come and go, but the principles underlying the construction of a fugue seem to go on forever. (And in case you’re wondering: yes, you’ll be hearing more about this piece in the next day or two.) Here we go:

That’s enough for now — as I’m sure more than few readers (reeling from the impact of all this fugal writing!) will agree. Remember, though, that my ultimate purpose in doing all this is to end up with the truest possible answer to Ms Tomes’s question. Unfortunately, I’ve looked ahead, and I can see that it’s going to be a deeply unpopular answer — which means that the only way I’m going to get people to accept it is if they understand why it’s right. Meet me back here in 24 hours’ time for the next exciting instalment…


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