The First of the Fugue (4)


Okay, then. While you’ve all been nursing your Hogmanay hangovers, I’ve been using the first daylight of 2015 to manoeuvre a few more of my pieces into position: anyone who thinks this argument is proceeding with glacial slowness is advised that when the endgame comes, things will actually move rather quickly…

bachlittlefugueI’ve already spoken to a couple of friends about this topic today — and, to tell you the truth, they seemed rather under-par and strangely unwilling to talk about fugues, even after the obligatory bacon butties, ibuprofen, and ‘hair of the dog’. I’m sure they won’t be my only regular readers who are currently the worse for wear — so I’m not exactly certain of the best (read: most humane) way to proceed at this point.

Tell you what: since it’s been a couple of days since I mentioned Bach’s ‘Little’ Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 (c. 1705) — and since I never actually linked to an organ version that played all the way through — let me start by attaching a clever computer realisation that not only goes to the end, but also comes complete with a graphical representation of the notes being played: if hearing the sampled pipe organ sound and looking at that pulsing, many-hued, see-sawing display makes you feel that your gastric equanimity is in peril, maybe it’s worth going for a bit of a lie down and coming back in about 12 hours’ time…


Feeling better now? I hope so, because at this point your ears have a job to do.

Here’s what I’m talking about. No-one who hears Bach’s ‘Little’ Fugue — either coloured by an orchestra in an arrangement like Stokowski’s, or played on the relatively ‘monochrome’ Baroque organ for which it was composed — would ever fail to hear all the various re-entries of the theme they heard at the start: even when they’re past the strictly orthodox (4-voice!) Exposition and into the notionally ‘freer’ later sections of the piece, every listener blessed with normal, undamaged hearing would still hear every appearance of that theme.

How could they not? It’s never transformed into a different shape by being turned upside-down, or lengthened, or shortened; and it’s never obscured by being presented simultaneously with varied or unaltered versions of itself. In short, everyone hears it happening when it happens, whenever it happens. And I’m not just imagining this: over the years, I’ve tested this issue experimentally with normal music lovers in evening classes, using this very fugue (which, thanks to Richard Baker, I’ve known since I was about 16). And even though I’ve had a pretty wide range of folks in my classes, not one single person has ever failed to come up with the correct tally of entries — which, in case you’ve had a go and are a bit insecure about your hearing (or your arithmetic), is nine.

Actually, I’m not suggesting that anyone goes back and counts the entries in that fugue — because what I want you to do right now is count the entries in this fugue — the one which I’ve already included in two other piano versions; and which, as it happens, I’ve also used for a little bit of empirical testing in those same evening classes. Just to provide some information while you’re reaching for pencil and paper: the lowest total I’ve ever had reported was nine — that was from playing the fugue with no preparation other than the chance to hear the (3-voice!) Exposition on its own before we started (I exclude everyone who knows the piece already). After that first attempt, I’d point out — purely verbally, with no attempt to play or whistle anything — that Bach was using upside-down and rhythmically varied forms of the theme, and sometimes even writing them in simultaneous combination with each other; and then I’d give everyone another go. And a fairly representative total after that second stage was 17, though I’ve definitely had a few 13s. The highest total any class member has ever reported is 19. Now over to you:

I wonder how you did. Actually, I don’t wonder how some of you did — because I know who some of you are, and a scarier collection of knowledgeable musical intellects I cannot easily think of. Though, in fact, I am rather curious: however good I know Violinist X’s ears to be; and however well I imagine Composer Y knows this piece already, I’m still wondering what totals they came up with. Even more so the kind of music lover who listens with fanatical concentration; loves attending concerts and recitals; and knows too much about music ever to want to come to an evening class of mine… What was their total? Did they get past 20? Maybe to 25? I’ll never know, of course. What I do know is that the true total is 35 1/2

We’re getting there. See you tomorrow.


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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