I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 1

Bach Art of the Fugue

J. S. Bach: Art of the Fugue (Illuminated Score)

The most famous fugue – we shall come to a definition of the term in good time – is Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugue from his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, intended for the organ.  Supposing Bach (1685 – 1750) to have written the score and not someone else, as a number of modern scholars have claimed, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor dates probably from the last decade of the composer’s life, when his longstanding interest in fugal procedure intensified, yielding latterly the immense and daunting Art of the Fugue, its final quadruple fugue remaining unfinished at the master’s death.  Uniquely among the innumerable representatives of its genre, Bach’s “D Minor” succeeded in penetrating popular awareness.  It did so in connection with the Walt Disney film Fantasia (1940), for the opening sequence of which the überromantic conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, adapted his arrangement of Bach’s organ-score for an immense modern symphonic ensemble.  Stokowski’s version dates back to the late 1920s.  He had been performing it in his concerts as a “curtain raiser,” which it undeniably is, for a decade when Disney lured him to the immortalizing Fantasia “gig.”  The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor stands out in Fantasia, coming right at the beginning, for being the only sequence in the film whose visual accompaniment avoids the naively picturesque in favor of purely coloristic and geometrical effects.  It is the only sequence that is not Kitsch. The “D Minor” turns up in another Disney film fifteen years later.  Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus plays it for Professor Arronax in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1954).  In one of the 1950s Hammer Studios vampire ventures, Count Dracula lets on his affection for the same piece in an impromptu keyboard recital for his guests.

Nemo at Organ

Nemo at the Keyboard

Very likely, the millions of people who have seen Fantasia, and who remember the music of the film’s opening sequence, will not recall the name of the composition; nor will the score’s generic affiliation (fugue) have meant anything to them particularly.  Nevertheless, those people will have responded, with the help of Disney’s visual coaching, to the inevitable emotional trajectory of Bach’s complex counterpoint in Stokowski’s colorful orchestration.  Musically and rhetorically, fugue exerts the effect of enthralling the listener to participate in the imaginative equivalent of flight, pursuit, and redemption – or flight, pursuit, and transfiguration.  As always when in speaking of music, the exegete resorts to metaphor.  Yet the very name fugue affirms the metaphoric image, for it means to fly or to flee, as from danger, to take on the role of refugee, and to brave hazards in order to reach asylum; the name fugue also refers to the situation that motivates flight – the mayhem of an emergent crisis, the breakdown of prohibitions, and the scramble for resources suddenly scarce.  Again fugal procedure seems to reflect basic human nature.  Human beings, wrote Aristotle, are the most imitative (mimetic) of all animals.  In a crisis, people imitate one another – heading for the same narrow doorway or crowding the same sinking lifeboat.


Rubens: Lion Hunt (1621)

The basic gesture of fugue is imitation: The “voices” (the term appears in quotation-marks because fugue, as it develops historically, is quintessentially an instrumental genre) mimic one another by appropriating the theme in such a way that it comes into counterpoint with itself.  In the seventeenth century, before the term became more or less settled, compositions using fugal procedure often bore the name of caccia, Italian for “chase” or “hunt” – a word with close semantic relations to flight, fleeing, and taking refuge insofar as every quarry must have its hunter.  Just as a steeple chase or horserace has its “final stretch” so too a fugue has its stretto, during which the action of the drama undergoes intensification through the thickening of the texture (the deliberate crowding of the voices) and the division (“dismemberment” would not be an inappropriate usage) of the theme before its final, reconciling unison-restatement, often as a chorale with the note-values augmented.  The foregoing is the general outline, for example, of Bach’s “D-Minor.”  One of the most marvelous explanations of what it means, in music, to fugue was undertaken on Canadian television fifty years ago by the redoubtable pianist-raconteur Glenn Gould – his own composition, for voices and string quartet, How to Write a Fugue.  Listeners should remark the crucial element of conflict in the unfolding of the theme during its development.  Gould’s approach is ironic and humorous, but the presentation is pedagogically efficient.  The Swingle Singers execute a similarly ironic and humorous “take” on Bach’s G-Minor Fugue (BWV 578), an illuminating, jazzed-up companion-piece to Gould’s fugue.

Bach (JS)

J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)

Bach’s fugues and Gould’s faux Bach fugue represent respectively the acme of fugal composition in the mid-Eighteenth Century and the meritorious modern parody of the contrapuntal ethos in the mid-Twentieth Century.  Early fugues were sometimes called by their composers, in addition to caccia, ricercari, from the Italian for “investigation” or “introspection.”  The term fantasia was used interchangeably with ricercar.  Such works, from the late-Sixteenth through the Seventeenth Centuries, tend to be less monumental and dramatic in their conception than the fugues proper of the High Baroque, especially those of Bach.  They reveal, on the other hand, in their quiet way and as their nomenclature would suggest the meditative character of the contrapuntal art, its function as the expression in tone of pure imaginative genius at the highest levels of rigor and abstraction.  Listeners will find a good example of this proto-genre in the Echo Fantasia in the Aeolian Mode by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621). They will find another in the Preludium und Fugue in A-Minor (BuxWV 153) by Dietrich Buxtehude (1627 – 1707).  Buxtehude provides the connection between Sweelinck, one of the chief figures of the “Netherlands Polyphonists,” and Bach, who knew Sweelinck’s work well.   Sweelinck in his Echo Fantasia develops his theme in a series of variation-episodes each of which exceeds its precursor in contrapuntal complexity.  Buxtehude “warms up” with his Prelude, now so called, and follows up with his Fugue, in which the “subject” or theme remains identifiable throughout.

Thirty Years War

Scene from the Religious Wars

Paul Mark Walker in his Theories of Fugue from the Age of Josquin to the Age of Bach (2000) devotes a chapter to “German Theory during the Thirty years War.”  Walker remarks the context in which musicology produced the earliest fully explicit scientific doctrine of fugue: “The Thirty years War (1618 – 1648) plunged Germany into one of the darkest periods in its history.  Although most of the combatants were foreign, the fighting took place almost entirely on German soil, and its effects were felt in nearly every aspect of German life.”  In a period when being hunted and harried by sectarian armies were common experiences, and when the symptoms of social breakdown in town and countryside were familiar to all, it is unsurprising that the convention (so to speak) of fugue should appear to its practitioners as increasingly serious and representative.  Walker quotes the theorist Johannes : “A musical genius must be considered greatest of all if, in accordance with the fixed nature of the modes, he knows how to bring to light suitable fugues and to join them properly and in a coherent way.”  In a time of social disorganization, fugue symbolizes the ideals of coherence and order.


Johann Pachelbel (1653 – 1706)

Listeners will hear the musical equivalent of a search for order amidst disorder in the Toccata and Fugue in D-Major by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616 – 1667) and in the Präludium, Fugue, und Finale in G-Major by J. C. F. Fischer (1656 – 1746), a devotional enshrinement of order achieved.  Fischer’s theme characteristically for the period resembles a chorale, which reminds us that fugue emerges with the great Protest in the German North.  Johann Pachelbel (1653 – 1706), whose Canon in D-Major graces weddings ubiquitously, inhabits the same musical world as Froberger and Fischer, as his Fugue in D Major and his Fugues on the Magnificat Nos. 3, 5, 6, 8, and 9 testify.  One could multiply the names of the German baroque composers almost indefinitely, extending also the numberless instances of late-Seventeenth and early-Eighteenth Century fugue; perhaps at no other time has abstract music of the highest order under the most stringent rules – and yet giving the impression of great freedom – been composed regularly and naturally by so many like-minded artists.  The stately Prelude and Fugue in B-Flat Major by Johann Kuhnau (1660 – 1722), accompanied in the video-clip by a graphic realization of the score, will provide one further example.

Bach Dancing

Baroque Ballroom Dancing

There is no avoiding the fact, however, that of the names associated with fugue none looms higher into the musical stratosphere than that of Bach – the Bach, as musicologists designate him so as to distinguish him from his father and uncles, his brothers, his cousins, and his numerous children.  The Bach family constituted, all by itself, a great guild of composer-musicians and music theorists.  Johann Sebastian brought the fugal style to its astonishing consummation, not only in the many compositions from his hand that bear the title of fugue, but in almost everything that he composed.  In a comparison of Bach and George Frederick Handel, the musicologist Wilfrid Mellers once summed up the difference this way (I paraphrase): Even when Handel fugues, he dances; and even when Bach dances, he fugues.  Fugal thinking permeates Bach’s creativity and gives rise to the colossally abstract yet magnificently vital score that obsessed him in his final years – The Art of the Fugue.  Those who experience an arousal of curiosity may listen to the entire Art (it runs in performance around seventy-five minutes) as arranged for organ and played by Helmut Walcha, as arranged for piano and played by Grigory Sokolov, as arranged for string quartet and played by the Quartetto Italiano, or as arranged by Jordi Savall for his baroque group Hesperion.  But before The Art there came the series of organ works and the two volumes (1722, 1742) of The Well-Tempered Clavier, intended either for harpsichord or piano, complementary sets of twenty-four preludes and fugues in every possible key.

Triple Fugue

Bach: Triple Fugue

The fugal works of Bach illustrate the full gamut of species in the genre.  The fugues “hyperlinked” two paragraphs back, written by the generation of composers who were elder contemporaries of Bach, are all “simple” fugues – they are composed, that is, on a single theme that comes into counterpoint only with itself and with a few passing accompaniments.  But fuguing on single theme hardly exhausts the combinatory possibilities of the convention: A fugue might be constructed on two, three, or four themes, presented either simultaneously in the exposition or in successive expositions, and then combined in the development.  Listeners will hear clearly the procedure of double fugue in Bach’s Prelude and Double Fugue in G-Sharp Minor (No. 18 from WTC II) and in Nos. 9 and 10 from Art of the Fugue, in an arrangement for string orchestra.  Pianist Richard Grayson, in homage to Bach, has improvised a Double Fugue on the James Bond and Pink Panther Themes, in the same humorous vein as Glenn Gould’s How to Write a Fugue.  Grayson’s improvisation, like Gould’s pastiche, is highly instructive: It teaches itself as it goes.  For a lesson in triple fugue, the listener could hardly do better than to turn to Bach’s “Saint Anne Fugue” in E-Flat Major, the second part of one of its composer’s many Prelude-and-Fugue scores; in this case, the three themes, because they are memorable by themselves and quite distinct from one another, enable the listener to “follow the argument” with admirable clarity.  Fugue No. 8 from The Art of the Fugue is also a triple fugue.

B-A-C-H Theme

The B.A.C.H. Theme

Quadruple fugue being the greatest challenge its exemplars are fewer in number than in the cases of simple, double, or triple fugue.  The logic of The Art of the Fugue strongly suggests that Bach intended the final “Contrapunctus” (No. 14) to be a quadruple fugue, but Bach died leaving the composition unfinished.  The derelict state of the conception has tempted many a later composer to try his hand at “completing” it.  Notable attempts have been made in recent years, as for example in the reconstruction by Zoltán Göncz for organ and the reconstruction by Vyacheslav Gryaznov for piano.  That fugue is a colossally abstract enterprise cannot be gainsaid.  At the same time, the abstraction of fugue can become a vehicle for intensely personal expression, which is the case in The Art.  Bach has signified the spiritual-autobiographical character of the score by structuring one of its recurring themes on musical note-equivalences with the letters of his surname – the famous B.A.C.H. theme later appropriated commemoratively by other composers.  (In Göncz’s reconstruction, we hear this theme at eight minutes into the clip.)


“Papa” Haydn (1732 – 1809)

It belongs to the history of music after Bach’s death that his successors in the Austro-German tradition – particularly Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) – came to important junctures in the maturation of their styles through their rediscovery of Bach and the fugal art.  Haydn began composing at the moment when the taste of the traditional music-patrons, the nobility and aristocracy of Europe, turned away from the complexity and seriousness of the High Baroque towards a new “Gallant” style that avoided counterpoint for the homophonic procedures of sonata-structure.  Haydn’s early work corresponds to the new simplicity, but by the point in his creativity marked by his middle symphonies, he had discovered that sonata-structure could be wedded with fugue to heighten the drama of tonality.  A good example is the Finale of his Symphony No. 40 in F-Major (1763).  Mozart’s encounter with Bach gave rise in 1782 to the twenty-eight-year-old composer’s set of six Preludes-and-Fugues for String Trio, of which the first and the second give the flavor.  In the trios, the fugal practice is distinctly playful.  In Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C-Minor (1788), we confront a noticeably more darkly colored essay on the convention, whose solemnity the minor key in the title already indicates.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

The study of Bach deepened the seriousness of Beethoven’s already serious music and gave rise to fugal compositions that actually rival those of Bach in their audacity and genius.  Beethoven’s overture, Consecration of the House (1822) has the form of a large-scale orchestral prelude and fugue; one can imagine it transcribed for organ, just many of Bach’s fugal scores for keyboard have been transcribed for orchestra.  In three late works by Beethoven the fructifying influence of Bach makes itself especially strongly felt.  These three are Missa Solemnis (completed 1823) the Ninth Symphony (1824); and the Great Fugue (Grosse Fuge), Op.133, originally the Finale of the String Quartet No. 13 (1825), later published separately.  In Missa Solemnis, Beethoven has recourse to large-scale fugal procedure in the Credo and the Gloria, for which he took as his model the fugal movements in Bach’s Mass in B-Minor (1724).   In Some Masterpieces of European Religious Music (2002), Wilfrid Mellers (whom I earlier paraphrased apropos Bach) writes of the Gloria that it can be analyzed as a four-part symphony with a fugal finale; Mellers describes the Gloria as “contrarious in rhythm,” “dislocated in tonality,” and “cataclysmic.”  In another book, The Sonata Principle (1962), Mellers describes Beethoven’s instrumental fugues, including the Grosse Fuge, as “almost unplayable” because in each Beethoven strives musically and metaphysically after “an experience that is unattainable.”  Schiller’s An die Freude (originally, An die Freiheit), familiar from the vocal parts of the Ninth Symphony, is perhaps a verbal symbol of the same unreachable spiritual transfiguration.  I link to a video-clip of the Great Fugue that animates the score and so helps the listener to follow the argument.


Franz List (1811 – 1886)

The post-Beethovenian master of the fugue in the middle of the Nineteenth Century was Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886).  In Revolution and Religion in the Music of Liszt (1987), Paul Merrick devotes a chapter to the meaning of fugue in Liszt’s work.  According to Merrick (I paraphrase), fugue signified for Liszt the highest devotional exertion of the soul in musical praise of God.  Fugues occur in Liszt’s two symphonies – the Faust Symphony (1857) and the Dante Symphony (1857) – and in several of his thirteen “Symphonic Poems.”  The fugue in Prometheus (1850) is particularly noteworthy.  Fugues also occur in Liszt’s masses and psalms, but the outstanding fugue in Liszt’s oeuvre is undoubtedly the one in his Präludium und Fuge über B.A.C.H. (1856; revised 1870, where the designation “Fantasy” replaces “Präludium”), originally for organ but transcribed also for piano.  By employing the B.A.C.H. theme from The Art of the Fugue, Liszt declared his profound debt to the Leipzig Master.  Liszt’s fugue is a highly chromatic fugue, which moves toward a kind of controlled atonality.  Not for no reason has the Präludium-und-Fuge on B.A.C.H. been cited as an anticipation of Twentieth-Century developments in music.

As I hope to write a follow-up to this essay in the form of a companion-piece exploring the destiny of fugue in the second half of the Nineteenth and again in the Twentieth Century, I will close by remarking the inclination of Twentieth Century composers to arrange Bach’s keyboard works, especially his organ fugues, for the modern symphony orchestra.  We have already considered Stokowski’s famous arrangement of the Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.  There is also an arrangement of the “D-Minor” by Eugene Ormandy, Stokowski’s successor at the Philadelphia orchestra.  Ormandy recorded transcriptions by other hands, such as Sir Edward Elgar’s arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in C-Minor.  Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor has attracted three arrangers – Stokowski, who recorded it many times, Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936), and René Leibowitz (1913 – 1972), whose version for two orchestras placed on either side of the stage really puts the contrapuntal marvel of the piece in full relief.  Two revolutionary modernists, Arnold Schoenberg (2874 – 1951) and his pupil Anton Webern (1883 – 1945) made transcriptions of Bach’s fugal art.  Schoenberg transcribed the “St. Anne Fugue” in 1928; in Schoenberg’s version, the work seems completely modern, or rather it transcends any contingent place or time, speaking to us, as it were, from the Platonic Realm.  Webern transcribed the concluding Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s Musical Offering (1747) in 1934 and 35, which likewise emphasizes the timelessness of the original.  Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934), best known for his suite The Planets, crafted a wind-orchestra version of Bach’s sprightly Fugue à la Gigue in D-Minor.

Many arrangements exist of The Art of the Fugue.  We have already linked to Savall’s, for a small orchestra of period instruments.  An outstanding Art in orchestral garb comes from the hand of conductor Hermann Scherchen – heard in the second of his two transcriptions, this one for mixed small ensemble, from 1961 or 62.  An English conductor, the late Neville Marriner, prepared a version of The Art in the 1970s for his Academy of St.-Martin-in-the Fields.  The Art has been arranged for brass ensemble, for guitar duo, for saxophone quartet, and even for percussion ensemble.  It seems appropriate to name the name of Ward Swingle (1927 – 2015) once again: His “jazz-voice” transcriptions, mainly from The Well-Tempered Clavier, tell us that there was a high end to popular culture in the early 1960s.  Readers who have come this far will be rewarded by Swingle’s arrangement of Bach’s Fugue in C-Major.

5 thoughts on “I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 1

  1. Pingback: I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 1 | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 1 | Reaction Times

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