Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What the Fugue?

In what is basically my “Introduction to Music” Class, in which I’m terrorizing five students majoring in non-music, we’re talking about Renaissance and Baroque music right now. This post is for them or for anyone else who’s heard the term “fugue” and wondered just what a fugue is.

First of all – yes, it’s pronounced “fyoog” and it comes from a Latin word meaning “flight.” For a lot of listeners, this could imply the “fight or flight response” when faced with something scary. For musicians in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it could also be “flight of fancy” as any organist or keyboard player worth his salt would love to improvise fugues – making them up on the spot. As a composer, I can tell you they’re not easy to compose even when you take your time, but every music student who ever took a music theory class (and certainly a “counterpoint” class) had to contend with writing fugues.

The problem is, it’s a very academic-sounding procedure and can sound very dry when it’s used without much imagination.

We start with the idea of a theme presented by itself. Technically, it’s now a “subject.”

Then the subject is heard in a second “voice” or line (either above or below the first one) and we hear a duet with the subject in the new voice and “something else” continuing in the original voice. Then it would probably continue in a third voice.

(Incidentally, to clear up any confusion, a "voice" refers to a line of music whether vocal or instrumental and not the number of voices or instruments playing it: five people can be singing a line of Gregorian Chant but it is still monophonic, or a single line.)


There are four-voice fugues and some five-voice fugues but the more voices (or instrumental lines) you add, the more complicated the process becomes. Especially if you’re writing for a single keyboard instrument like a piano.

If you’re writing for an organ, three voices divide nicely between two hands and then you can throw a fourth line into the pedals, played by the feet. It’s certainly easier to play if you’re dealing with several instruments like a string quartet or an orchestra, but that doesn’t always make it easier to write.

When the subject is only suggested – for instance, the opening motive is all you hear, but it moves around from voice to voice without actually stating the whole theme – this is an example of “imitation.” One line is “imitating” another but not stating or quoting it exactly. It’s a good way to get mileage out of a line of music.

And for greater variety, when this subject “migrates” from one voice to another, it usually appears starting at a different pitch. Technically, this would be a modulation to (usually) the dominant key but the important thing at this introductory level, it’s just a different pitch-area than you first heard it (which would be the “tonic”). The idea is that you start in the familiar “tonic” and move to a secondary area like the “dominant” and then return to the “tonic.” This is another form of creating tension and resolving it – you expect it to digress and return.

Here is a humorous approach to "How to Write a Fugue." Considering a fugue is considered a high-point of academic achievement in music, the presenter here has fun with his academic approach.

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The long stretch where his three different selves are talking about how the procedure works points out the need for differentiation in these musical lines which cannot be understood when different people are speaking at the same time. It would be better - Monday Morning Critic that I am - if he had taken a few more breaths, let one voice drop out for a bit so you could hear something in another "voice," and above all used the same phrase now and then so you could recognize his subject in one voice or another. But hey...

Still, it's a good example of how the process of the fugue works. And does it really sound like a pop song when you're done with it?

Now, in this short fugue – from a set of 48 preludes and fugues by Bach, this is No. 2 from Book 1 – you can follow how he uses the “subject” (or theme) and surrounds it in other voices with additional, independent lines.

(Again, even though it's played by one keyboard instrument, there are still separate strands of music, possibly even playable in one hand: in this case, there are three "voices" or strands in the music, despite the number of instruments involved.)

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Follow the subject, here: it enters in what’s actually the middle “voice” at the beginning (0:00) then follows immediately in the upper “voice” at 0:06 – some free stuff before the subject appears in the lower voice at 0:17. He “suggests” the subject at 0:22 when we hear the opening bit, the main motive of the subject, which is bantered back and forth. Then at 0:39, the full subject returns in the middle voice (again) but rather than go the full round of other voices, it wanders off in some more “free stuff” based on the opening motive… then at 0:54/55 it shows up in the top voice but again doesn’t continue in the other voices as it did the first time.

Instead, he gets more mileage out of tossing the opening motive back and forth, starting at 0:58… but then the subject shows up in the bass (the lowest voice) at 1:11 coming right out of the “free stuff”… It comes to brief halt (an unfinished cadence) on a really crunchy little chord at 1:18 (speaking of “dissonance” which needs to resolve). If you can, STOP the clip right there: could it end there? No – he needs to extend the cadence so it resolves that harmonic tension at 1:21 by bringing the subject back in one more time before ending it.

Anyway, that’s one way of writing a fugue – taking one theme and moving it around in different voices and adding other voices to it to fill out this polyphonic texture. Technically, we’ve got “several voices” (poly-phony) – specifically three, even though it’s one piano – which move independently of each other both in terms of melodic line, linear shape and individual rhythms (counterpoint) and which also follows a procedure we call “a fugue.”

Not all polyphony uses counterpoint (or is “contrapuntal”) and not all counterpoint is a fugue. But all fugues would most likely be examples of counterpoint and create the impression of multiple voices or polyphony. It is possible for a violin to play a fugue, but it takes skill both in writing it and playing it: even though it’s a single instrument, it can still give you the perception of multiple “voices” or lines.

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A “canon” is a simple form of creating texture out of a single line, but it has to be written in such a way it works both as a melody (horizontally) and as harmony (the vertical sonorities and the way chords move from one to the next).

“Row, Row, Row your boat” is an example of a canon (technically, it’s called a “round”). At a specific point, you can have the next person come in and now two voices work as one melody harmonizing itself. Many of these work with several voices.

Here’s an example of a popular 13th Century (medieval) round called “Sumer is icumen in” (Old English for “Summer Is a-Comin’ In”: it’s sung over a repeating bass drone which is itself two voice parts.

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It’s sung through once as a single line, then by two voices and then, finally, by four voices.

Since it’s all very basic, it sounds like a denser and denser texture using only one or two chords, especially when sung by all men or all women who sound pretty much the same.

And now for something not quite completely different:


The examples of Canon and Fugue which Jan Swafford uses in his book also includes a couple of far more complex canons, some of them notated in such a way they’re a “puzzle” to figure out – or sometimes a clue is offered and the performers are supposed to figure it out. The second voice of the canon comes in at the same pitch and begins at the odd little sign in the second measure.


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These are often “intellectual feats” and can be amazing that they work at all – they’re not meant to be sung around a camp fire after a few beers, anyway.

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Another “variant” of this texture is called “imitative” (or “imitative counterpoint”) where the individual lines are similar to the others, at least to begin, but are not authentically as complex as a canon or fugue. This just means the lines sound almost alike and then, at some point, go off on their own. This is “imitation,” not completely independent but not the same, either.

(In fact, it strikes people as odd that a complex procedure like a fugue would be the ultimate example of counterpoint and yet, since the lines are so closely related, they’re no longer technically “independent.” But yet, that’s one of the hall-marks of counterpoint, isn’t it? Yeah, well… everything that has terminology is unfortunately never all that consistent, anyway…)

Here’s an example of something that sounds like it could start off becoming a fugue, but doesn’t. Each voice enters playing the same phrase – or at least what turns out to be the start of the phrase.

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This is the end of a concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach – one of six called “The Brandenburg Concertos” because they were written for a German nobleman, the Margrave of Brandenburg – and starts off with some “imitative” counterpoint – focusing on the horizontal. Notice, though, at 0:20, it lightens up a little bit and becomes more vertical before referring to the opening motive but without becoming as complex as it was initially. Then, at 0:35-1:07, this opening section repeats. Then, it starts playing around with this theme – then, by 1:14, it’s primarily one line with a simple accompaniment for a while… Then at 1:20, back to the opening imitation; at 1:40, the vertical bit… and so on. So even though it starts off kind of “fugue-like” it’s not really going to become a fugue – and in fact has bits of other kinds of texture (even if only momentarily) to offer a little variety. But all the while that scurrying motive that starts the piece is almost ever present.

One of the most famous pieces by George Frederic Handel is his oratorio Messiah which is a large-score choral work with singers, vocal soloists and an orchestra. Oratorios usually tell stories – religious stories, specifically, taking their texts directly or indirectly from the Bible.

The most famous excerpt from the Messiah is the “Hallelujah Chorus.” To give you a demonstration, a tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek rendering by a chorus of monks who have taken a vow of silence… By following their performance, I think you’ll be able to ‘see’ how Handel uses texture to create variety as well as unity in this short example: You can ignore the introduction and begin at 0:48.

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Now, the cuecards are one thing and their placement will help you visualize where these lines “go” – upper voice, lower voice, whatever – but also notice the texture. At the opening, it’s like a march and very basic – getting the point across “simply” somewhat like a hymn that would be sung by the congregation. But it becomes a little more “complex” later on – particularly at 1:39 or so where a theme is heard (and seen) in the upper voices (with the Hallelujah “motive” in the background). This line (theme) then moves to other voices but not in a strict “fugue” way (or “fugal” as the adjective should be). At 2:08, a new line of text, a new theme – simple and direct and also a bit of a contrast to volume, not as march-like or celebratory, at least at first. Then, at 2:28, something happens: we hear the lower voices start by themselves and then the next higher voice joins in starting on a different pitch level and so on up to the highest voice – this is actually a “fugal passage” – which continues until 2:53, “the King of Kings” which suddenly is just sustained notes and the Hallelujah fanfare-like motive underneath. This continues for a while and then alternates with a fugue-like passage before becoming straight-forward simple chords, easily perceived and building up to a climax that is still, essentially, very simple.

So Handel uses various textures – including fugal and fugue-like textures – to gain variety even within a piece that is basically joyous and celebratory from beginning to end. The “Hallelujah Chorus” is NOT a fugue, but it does make use of the procedures of a fugue, even if only briefly. It’s just another option a composer in the Baroque Era had.

So, we have different terms and different levels of “saturation” with these terms:

In addition to
Monophony (one voice – like Gregorian Chant)
Polyphony (several voices, vocal or instrumental)
Homophony (perhaps several voices but moving in similar rhythms and patterns, usually with a melodic foreground accompanied in the other voices in the background)

we also have

Counterpoint (“contrapuntal”) (with several voices often moving independently in melodic and rhythmic patterns)
Imitation (voices moving more or less independently but similar to others, perhaps starting off the same but moving off on their own)
Fugue (a specific procedure in which voices enter on different pitch levels and follow with extended passages of free or flexible counterpoint but returning to the subject (or theme) as it moves through the various voices in turn).
and Canon (one voice following another strictly – “exact imitation,” a higher form of imitation)

All fugues are imitative but not all imitative passages are fugues. And fugues aren't the same as canons because the idea is to create some contrast in a fugue with flexible or free material and a canon is supposed to be constantly exact, note for note.

Well, that’s it in a very large introductory nutshell…

- Dick Strawser

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