The First of the Fugue (3)

Well, it turns out that it’s New Year’s Eve. Which means that there will be serious limits to what I can reasonably expect of my readers in the next 24 hours — not to mention serious limits to what I can reasonably expect of myself, starting around 20 minutes from now. So what I propose to do is quickly share with everyone something that provides a bit of a sidelight on the developing topic of what a fugue does and what people should or shouldn’t say before playing one.

What I’m going to do is jump back to the fugal Exposition from 1942 that I presented in the first of this little series. Here it is again:

What I didn’t say at the time was that this piece — William Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, as the ident says — is actually drawn from the music for the 1942 film The First of the Few; what I want to do now is present the music of the entire fugue in its original context.

There are several interesting aspects to the use of this music within the film — not least the fact that the fugue accompanies the construction of the prototype Spitfire. In my opinion, the use of fugal textures here provides a magnificently appropriate musical equivalent to what is seen: not only does it musically evoke the ‘one part added to another part, added to another part…’ aspect of an aircraft’s assembly, but it also represents the way such a process involves various different but related activities all busily happening at the same time… What’s more, the way the working of a fugue concentrates upon its theme makes it a natural accompaniment for scenes depicting the single-minded pursuit of a complex task. All in all, this is one of British music’s miniature marvels — and a little reminder, to anyone who’s either forgotten or never been allowed to realise, of just what a terrific composer Walton was.

Of course, none of this was able to prevent Walton’s music being treated by the film-makers as ‘disposable garbage’ (Richard Rodney Bennett’s words, spoken to me on the phone a good few Chirstmasses ago). By which I refer to the fact that we don’t actually get to hear the entry of his fugue’s first voice. (It’s a three-voice exposition: did you notice?) Clearly the preceding scene was scripted and shot without even the tiniest amount of thought being given to the question of what the music might eventually need to do — and so, rather than risk diverting the limelight from the producer-director-star as he delivered his ‘dramatic’ closing line, the start of the music was simply reduced to zero decibels, and faded up a bit later, once the Acting was over.

Showing the fugue in its filmic context actually takes two clips — because, as you’ll see, the music is divided between two separate segments of the film. In case anyone would prefer to go into this with a little explanation, Leslie Howard plays R. J. Mitchell, the principal designer of the Spitfire, who is here shown desperately trying to finish his work before he dies of a disease that the film cannot bring itself to name (in reality it was rectal cancer) and about which even his wife has managed to remain ignorant (even though Mitchell, who died in 1937, had a colostomy as early as 1933). From the point of view of my developing argument, it might also be worth remembering that the vast majority of film-going audiences will not only have heard this fugue without a verbal explanation, but will also have encountered it without any indication it was going to be there at all.

Here’s the first slice of Walton’s little masterpiece:

Now here’s the second slice:

If you noticed that, in the later stages of that second sequence, the fugal material was combined with another melodic shape, you might like to hear where that shape came from. So here’s Walton’s concert-hall arrangement in full. And very splendid it is, too. Happy New Year.


MOcoverforblogIf you enjoyed this posting, remember that I am a regular contributor and columnist for the UK magazine Musical Opinion. The magazine’s website can be found here; to see its Twitter feed, click here; to see its Facebook page, click here. To subscribe to Musical Opinion, click here.

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