The First of the Fugue (2)

We are, you will remember, in search of an answer to Susan Tomes’s important question about whether one should explain a fugue to an audience before playing it to them. Yesterday, I did a little bit of preparatory work that attempted to ensure that all of us hereabouts were ‘on the same page’ as far as a basic structural principle of fugue was concerned; by way of a tiny bit of revision I now attach a brief clip that contains only the very start of another fugue by Bach — this time written for organ (and composed round about 1705 — which means that Bach was round about 20):

Me being me, of course, there’s actually more to the inclusion of that clip than merely ‘revision’. You’ll see what I mean in a little while; for the moment, let me ’round out’ the picture of Bach’s keyboard fugues by quickly adding a lovely old video of Stokowski (you remember him: he was a personal friend of Mickey Mouse) conducting his own orchestral arrangement of the whole of that fugue (and, before you ask, there’s more to the inclusion of this, too):

At this point, I want to pull a few threads together. By now, everyone who’s been doing what they’re told has heard four different fugal openings, two of them in two different versions. Obviously I don’t know how many readers found that their minds wandered while hearing these various openings — it’s been the Christmas holiday, after all! — but assuming no-one actually slept through them, I think it’s worth a bet that even the most easily distracted reader has been spotting the ‘structural principle’ I’ve been hinting at: we get a musical theme or idea or tune that starts off one musical line (we call that line a ‘voice’, even when it isn’t) — and is then joined by other lines, I mean voices, one at a time, and with each of them starting with a version of the same idea or theme. Once we’ve heard the entry of as many separate voices as we’re going to — two, three, four or whatever — this section (which gets called the Exposition, reasonably enough) is over, and we’re off into the rest of the fugue.

Having said all that, I’m now going to drop you into the middle of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s most astounding symphony and ask you to decide whether what he’s done here is to unleash a fugal exposition. Has he?

Of course he has. Well done you. And indeed him.

Here’s my first important point. Just look at the number of words and the sheer amount of time it’s taken me to make sure that everyone who’s reading this has at least a basic intellectual, theoretical grasp of the simplest kind of fugal opening — and therefore a chance of understanding what someone might mean when they refer ‘a four-voice fugal exposition’. Keep that thought handy: I’ll need it again later.

Second point — for which I need to introduce my pal Noel, failed by the British education system in more ways than I could easily enumerate. Note that while Noel — a naturally musical person with no musical education at all — will have needed to trudge though all this preparatory material before he could handle a verbal description of one single aspect of a fugue’s construction, the truth is that he was always perfectly capable of hearing what happened in any given fugal exposition. Keep that thought handy, too.

Third point. Everyone who followed the course of the ‘Little’ Fugue in Stokowski’s very big orchestration — and I mean ‘followed’ in the same sense that applies when we unreflectively but attentively ‘follow’ a film or a stand-up act — will also have heard every single one of the reappearances of the idea they heard four times in the Exposition. No-one would have any difficulty at all counting the occasions when that idea comes back: Stokowski has coloured all the entries very distinctly using the various families of orchestral instruments. (The only difficulty anyone is likely to have would be about what they do with that one entry that seems broken in two: there’s a technical word for that, and I’m not going to bother you with it. Just count it as one entry.) Third thought to remember.

That’s enough for one posting: as people know, I like my arguments to proceed in these small but solid chunks. What’s more, I can tell that there’ll be quite a few conventionally knowledgeable readers out there who are currently rubbing their hands together with superior glee at their thought that (i) they can guess what I’m going to say next, and (ii) it’s going to be wrong. By pausing here, I’m letting them enjoy that feeling for just a bit longer.


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