I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 2

Fugue Image 02

Abstract Image of the Fugal Phenomenon

In the first part of this essay, we traced the origin of the musical form known as fugue to the period of the religious wars in Europe, advancing the anthropological explanation of fugue as being representative in a purely abstract way of the patterns of social breakdown characteristic of the time and place.  Fugue in its classical form, as perfected by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1759), has prototypes in the Late-Renaissance caccia and ricercar, but it comes into prominence, as a musical form of forms, only in the decades of the sectarian conflicts that followed in the wake of the Reformation.  Fugue, we recall, is a musical procedure in which successive voices imitate an initial voice, the theme assuming the role of an object of contention among the voices, subjected by them to development through breaking it down into its constituent motifs, and at last resolving the strife by its resumptive unison restatement, typically as a chorale.  The great exemplar is the second half of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, the whole of which was made famous, in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement, by its inclusion in Walt Disney’s animated feature Fantasia, just before World War II.  Incidentally, in a work such as Bach’s “D-Minor,” there is no real reason to separate the initial toccata or prelude – or whatever it might be called – from the fugue proper.  The introductory matter serves to expose the basic material out of which the fugue (as it were) will compose itself.

Previously we traced the itinerary of fugue from the Seventeenth to the Late Nineteenth Century, ending with Franz Liszt’s homage to Bach, his Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H. (1855; revised 1870).  Liszt’s score, in versions for piano or organ, would seem to be something of a non plus ultra in the development of the fugal art, but this is not, in fact, so.  We also speculated on the anthropological meaning of fugue, suggesting that it corresponded to a ritual pattern of crisis, pursuit, and salvation; and we remarked that fugue had its beginnings in the era of the religious wars in Northern Europe, when indeed many people found themselves overwhelmed by crisis, fleeing under pursuit, and seeking although not always finding asylum or refuge.  Fugue has a rich history in the period from Liszt’s death (1886) through the middle of the Twentieth Century, another historical period marked by the breakdown of societies and war.  In this second part of our two-part essay, we will explore fugue’s new lease on life from the Victorian Era to 1950.

Fugue Image 01

Schematic of Fugal Procedure

It would be rigorously logical to move from Liszt to his most prominent successors in the Austro-German tradition, Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911), Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949), and Max Reger (1873 – 1916), and beyond them to a host of Central European composers who became prominent between World Wars I and II.  On the other hand, the Belgian-born composer César Franck (1822 – 1890) can lay claim to the title of Liszt’s immediate successor, as well as any Austrian or German.  Two Parisian composers can furthermore lay claim to being in a direct line of tuition from Bach – Charles-Marie Widor (1844 – 1937) and Louis Vierne (1870 – 1937).  Franck, Widor, and Vierne all trained as organists; all three enjoyed careers as concertizing virtuosi, and all three held tenure as titulaires or church organists in Paris.  Widor succeeded Franck as professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory.  Franck, Widor, and Vierne all composed in a musical language deriving partly from Liszt and partly from Richard Wagner, while reviving aspects of baroque musical practice.  We shall come then in due course to Mahler, Strauss, Reger, and beyond, but we shall begin with Franck, passing from him to Widor and Vierne, and from them to Vincent d’Indy (1851 – 1931), Marcel Dupré (1886 – 1971), and Charles Koechlin (1867 – 1950).

Franck 01

Cesar Franck (1822 – 1890)

Fugue consolidates itself as a musical convention in Protestant Northern Europe in a hundred-year period straddling the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  Liszt, who became heir to Bach musically, was religiously a self-conscious Catholic, who late in life took lay orders.  Franck, Widor, and Vierne were also Catholic.  Franck surprisingly wrote only a handful of significant works for organ, but these succeeded in being at once so innovative and so rooted in antique procedure that they sufficed even in their small number to alter the direction of organ-composition and to establish a new French school; each one of them makes some use, in greater or lesser degree, of the fugal principle, as does the piano composition that marks the high-point of his labors for that instrument.  Franck wrote the Prélude, Fugue, et Variation, one of the Six Pieces for Organ (Op. 16 – 21), in 1868.  Placed between the “prelude” (in two parts – the prelude as such and the chorale) and the “variation” (in the singular – Franck might have entitled it ricercar or fantasy), the fugue is highly chromatic, being based on the chorale, which itself is tonally ambiguous, sometimes gravitating to B-Minor and sometimes to F-Sharp Minor.  The three (or perhaps four) movements pass into one another seamlessly, so that, for example, it is difficult to tell where the fugue ends and the “variation” begins.  The “variation” is moreover quasi-fugal in its technique.  Franck followed up the Prélude, Chorale, et Variation with the structurally closely related Prélude, Chorale, et Fugue for piano in 1884.  In the 1884 work, the model is much more obviously Bach than in the precursor-work of 1868.  The “chorale” is worked out by Franck along the lines of a chaconne (melodic variations over a repeated slow chordal progression).  The “fugue,” in dramatically summing up the musical argument and in providing the catharsis, functions as it does in Bach’s fugues with linked movements, such as his Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor, to suggest an apotheosis of the theme.

Widor 02

Charles-Marie Widor (1844 – 1937)

Widor, who could trace his musical ancestry through a line of keyboard pedagogues all the way back to Bach, believed in mastery of fugue as the foundation both of performance and composition; he famously drilled his composition classes, which he inherited from Franck, in the rigors of imitative counterpoint.  While Widor’s oeuvre contains only a few free-standing fugues, his biographers attest his ability to improvise ambitious fugues at the keyboard.  The little Fugue á Trois Parties sur le Nom de Haydn for piano gives the impression of Widor’s having improvised and transcribed it simultaneously; the same might be said of the fugal second movement of the Organ Symphony Op. 13, No. 4 (1872).  Widor used fugue and fugal textures in many of his large-scale compositions, including those for orchestra, either alone or concertante, and orchestra-with-chorus.  The most impressive example comes with the fourth-movement finale of the Symphonie Antique, Op. 83 (1911) for soloists, chorus, organ, and orchestra.  Widor draws the thematic content of the Symphonie as a whole from two Gregorian chants, Te Deum and Lauda Sion, while modeling his musical structure on the fourth-movement pattern Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, which also culminates in a gigantic fugue.  (Regrettably the Symphonie Antique has not yet made its way to the Internet.)  As for Vierne, who served as Widor’s assistant at Saint-Sulpice and eventually became the titulaire at Notre Dame in Paris – he continued in Widor’s path.  Like his mentor, Vierne wrote “symphonies” for organ alone.  Vierne endowed his second such “symphony” (1903) with a stately fugue for its second movement.  Vierne knew his Bach well: In 1928 at the keyboard of the Cavaillé-Coll organ in Notre Dame he let be recorded his performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-Minor.

Vincent d'Indy

Vincent d’Indy (1851 – 1931)

D’Indy, in his orchestral Symphony No. 2 in B-Flat (1902-3), had recourse in the finale to fugal practice.  Indeed, the Symphony’s fourth movement takes the form of a studious prelude and fugue, on Bach’s model, as refracted through the harmonic-instrumental prism of the French Late-Romantic style.  Marked Lent – Modérément Lent – Extrêmement Lent,” this movement (beginning at 29 minutes into the clip) unfolds slowly with cool graciousness adding layers of complexity in the phases of the fugue.  The theme of the fugue proves to derive from the recurrent motto, first exposed in the opening bars of the first movement, which now returns in its original form, in the stretto of the fugue, in the form of a chorale.  Writing forty years ago in an essay on the French symphony, Laurence Davies found d’Indy’s work “stifling, intimidating.”  More recently, however, Richard Freed in notes for a recorded performance declared the same work “the most beautiful of all French symphonies.”  As Davies misidentifies the concluding movement as an “Allegro,” and seems to be working from a vague memory of the score, Freed must trump Davies.  D’Indy’s fugue completes the symbolic journey that his Symphony describes – from the dark night of the soul to gracious redemption.


Marcel Dupre (1886 – 1971)

Like Widor, whose office of titulaire at Saint-Sulpice he inherited in 1934, and Vierne, with both of whom he studied, Dupré assumed the career of an organist-composer who intended his compositions mainly for his own execution on his own instrument.  Dupré’s many independent fugues for organ attest not only the brilliance of the French contrapuntal tradition in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but also the continued relevance of fugue in the arena of serious musical expression in the same period.  A recording from 1957, of Dupré improvising on the Klais organ in the Cologne Cathedral, hints at the deep internalization of the contrapuntal ethos that the man achieved through a lifetime of rigorous discipline; Dupré invents first a passacaglia, itself no mean feat of the musical imagination, and then a double fugue, astonishing in its self-confidence, logic, and verve.  Dupré wrote two “books” of preludes and fugues, his Opus 7 (1912) and his Opus 36 (1938), each comprising three numbered (and paired) items.  Later he wrote a Chorale et Fugue (1962) and a set of Four Modal Fugues (1968).  The items of Opus 7 are: Prélude et Fugue (B-Major), Prélude et Fugue (F-Minor), and Prélude et Fugue (G-Minor).  The items of Opus 36 are: Prélude et Fugue (E-Minor), Prélude et Fugue (A-Flat-Major), and Prélude et Fugue (C-Major).  The American organist Frederick C. Mayer wrote of Dupré after sitting with him in the organ loft at Saint-Sulpice during the regular Sunday Mass that he gave the impression of “a great artist imbued with… profound religious faith”; Mayer invoked such terms as “mysticism, sublimity, and exaltation” to describe Dupré’s music in both its compositional and performative aspects.

Koechlin 01

Charles Koechlin (1867 – 1950)

Of Charles Koechlin (pronounced not as it would be in French, with a soft c, but with a hard c and a nasalized, disappearing n), musicologist Wilfrid Mellers has written, in Studies in Contemporary Music (1947) that he “is among the very select number of contemporary composers who really matter – matters, that is, for the distinction of his mind and sensibility, for he has no revolutionary part to play in musical history.”  The work of Koechlin that is relevant here, his Offrande musicale sur le nom de BACH (Op. 187), had only just been written when Mellers was commenting and had not yet been performed; in fact, the Offrande had only one performance in its composer’s lifetime and had no second performance until sixty years after his death.  Koechlin’s title looks back to Bach’s own Musikalisches Opfer (1747) and to Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H., but the Offrande is, if possible, on the same mighty scale as Bach’s score and more ambitious even than Liszt’s.  Some perceptive listeners react to Koechlin adversely, claiming that his music is remote and impersonal.  Writing in Studies in Contemporary Music (1947), Wilfrid Mellers countered that while “it is true that [Koechlin’s] spirituality and serenity have not the centrality of Palestrina’s or the vigour of Bach’s – that relatively they seem ‘personal’ and even precious – but those are hardly comparisons that any contemporary composer could stand up to.”

If in works like Das Musikalische Opfer and The Art of the Fugue Bach subsumed the whole of musical evolution up to his own activity, then in the Offrande one would need to say that Koechlin did the same, subsuming Bach and Liszt in the process.  For large orchestra – which, however, pares itself down to a chamber ensemble and even to a piano solo in places – the Offrande requires nearly an hour for its performance.  While not every section of the Offrande is a fugue, every section is fugal, from the opening chorale (on the B-A-C-H theme) to the penultimate fugue symétrique and the peroration-like finale.  The Offrande will never be a concert favorite but it will certainly impress itself on a knowing connoisseurship as one of the indisputably great works of the Western contrapuntal tradition.  People of the Twenty-First Century are lucky indeed to have available to them the resources of the Internet, where they can educate themselves musically, almost at will.  In passing on from the French School, we come now to the Austro-German mainstream of fugue’s modern itinerary – to Mahler, Strauss, and Reger.  Mahler, the eldest of the three, earned his reputation in his lifetime as a rigorous and demanding conductor of orchestras and gradually after his death in 1911 as the composer of ten or eleven, depending on whether one includes Das Lied von der Erde, massive symphonies and three or four sets of orchestra songs.

Mahler Right Profile

Gustav Mahler (1860 -1911)

Mahler availed himself of large-scale fugal procedure three times in his symphonies – in the Rondo-Finale of his Fifth Symphony (1902), in the choral Veni Creator Spiritus of his Eighth Symphony (1908), and in the third-movement Burlesk of his Ninth Symphony (1909).  Mahler’s Rondo-Finale has the same function in his Fifth Symphony as the concluding Lento does in d’Indy’s Second Symphony – celebrating the passage from the melancholy “Dark Night of the Soul” to redemptive illumination.  Mahler wrote his Fifth to celebrate his marriage, after a stormy courtship, to Alma Schindler and his Rondo-Finale does so extravagantly with a type of knowing, “see what I can do” virtuosity during the course of which, to revert to the organist’s vocabulary, he pulls out all the stops.  As Michael Kennedy writes in his 1974 study of the composer: “It is a brilliant display combining fugue and rondo, the main theme assembled from fragments hinted at the start, each theme emerging effortlessly from its predecessor, the Adagietto theme [of the preceding movement] made joyous in a quick tempo.”  Mahler, Kennedy writes, “had a sense of fun.”  Kurt Blaukopf, in his study of Mahler (1969), traces the inspiration of the movement to the summer of 1900: “On a walk through the woods… Mahler and some friends came upon a country fair, with barrel organs blaring from all the roundabouts, swings, shooting-booths and Punch-and-Judy shows, mixed with the strains of a military band and a male choir, all of which on that clearing, ‘regardless of one another produced an incredible noise.’”  Mahler is supposed to have said, “That’s polyphony.”  Blaukopf’s anecdote communicates with the anthropological “theory of fugue” being developed in this essay and its precursor: Fugue consolidated itself during the social conflict and civilizational breakdown of the Thirty Years War – the religious conflict that saw a one-third reduction in the population of Northern Europe.  We argued that fugue represented the characteristic phases of civic dissolution and social crisis that were characteristic of the period.  Carnivals and fairs also mimic dissolution and crisis, but in safety so that the intense emotions provoked by the situation can be experienced in joy rather than in fear.  Mahler’s remark – “That’s polyphony” – suggests that he intuited these same connections.  Interestingly the basic meaning of the word polyphony is “many voices,” as of a crowd, either boisterous or angry.

In the Eighth Symphony (1906), Mahler uses fugue to evoke the psychic intensity of religious exaltation.  The Eighth is a choral-orchestral symphony in two parts – the opening Veni Creator Spiritus (“Come, Creator-Spirit”) being based on a medieval hymn and the following, much longer, movement being based on the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, Part II.  The outstanding fugal passage – it is in fact a fully worked-through double fugue – comes in the first part, the Veni Creator, beginning at the words accende lumen sensibus.”  (The moment comes at 12.20 into the clip.)  Kennedy writes, “This movement has an irresistible vitality, rushing headlong to its apotheosis.”  In the Ninth Symphony (1909), Mahler reverts to purely instrumental forces.  Commentators invariably cite the work as having profound autobiographical connotations, which it undoubtedly does: Mahler’s marriage was failing; his health was deteriorating – the Ninth is “dark” in comparison with the Eighth.  The third of four movements, the Rondo-Burleske, has the form of a prelude-and-double-fugue, but if Mahler were conjuring the spirit of Bach he would be doing so in a mood of ironic grotesquery.  The label “burlesque” implies as much.  Mahler’s Rondo-Burleske anticipates the fugues and fugal passages of Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), especially the latter’s.

Strauss 01

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)

Like Mahler, Strauss was a virtuoso of orchestral counterpoint, in whose compositions every variety of fugue and fugato writing appears.  Strauss’s mastery of fugato or fugue-like writing that falls short of rigorous fugal procedure appears to great effect in the “Battle” section (beginning at 1.40 into the clip) of the  tone-poem Ein Heldenleben or A Hero’s Life (1899).  In its instrumental textures, all clashing, independent lines, the “Battle” resembles Mahler’s Rondo-Burleske not a little.  Strauss gives listeners a proper fugue in the most famous of his tone-poems, Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896).  The “Science Fugue” is noteworthy for being based on a theme that contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  As much as Mahler was in the Rondo-Finale of the Fifth Symphony, Strauss is here demonstrating his craft and deftness, as if daring other composers to show him up.  Only Strauss could outdo Strauss, however, which he went on to do in the autobiographical-programmatic Sinfonia Domestica (1903).  The Sinfonia allegedly gives an account – in purely instrumental terms – of a single day in the Strauss family household.  The final section of the Sinfonia, entitled “Awakening and Merry Dispute,” purports (very plausibly) to depict the late-night awakening of the youngest child, an argument between husband and wife as to whose turn it is to see to the baby, and their reconciliation once the baby is quieted – all in the form of a magnificent triple fugue.  Strauss’s triple fugue is close in its comedic aplomb and tongue-in-cheek fun-making to Mahler’s Rondo-Finale.  Strauss’s triple fugue also once again illustrates the relation of fugal procedure to the idea of crisis – here a mere domestic one, amorously resolved after the stretto.   When the Japanese government invited Strauss to contribute a new score to the celebration of 2000 years of the Japanese Kingdom, the composer produced a free-standing orchestral prelude-and-fugue under the generic label Japanische Festmusik (1940).

Reger 01

Max Reger (1873 – 1916)

The case of Reger is a peculiar one: Tremendously productive although short-lived (a mere forty-three at his death – seven years younger than Mahler at his death), Reger synthesized baroque practice with the expanded harmonic vocabulary and novel instrumental resources of the fin-de-siècle, while also carrying on the composer-performer tradition that had been marked out by Franz Liszt.  One exaggerates only slightly in claiming that hardly anything that Reger composed was not fugal or a fugue.  Reger made particularly his own the convention of variations-with-fugue, composing sets of them (ceaselessly, it seems) for all genres – piano or organ solo, chamber ensemble, orchestra, and chorus-with-orchestra.  Sometimes he formalized the variations as a passacaglia, one of his favorite devices along with fugue, or as a “fantasy.”  From Reger’s early creativity for organ solo is, as might be expected, a Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H. (Op. 46), quite as maniacal, and even more densely textured, than Liszt’s under the same title.  From roughly the same period comes the Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor (Op. 59), challenging Bach on his own turf.  Exploiting the organ’s ability to imitate symphonic resources, Reger wrote his Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue in E Minor (Op. 127), in 1913.  For piano, Reger wrote his variation-and-fugue sets on Bach (Op. 81), Beethoven (Op. 86), and Telemann (Op. 183)The Beethoven Variations also exist in a version for orchestra and makes an impressive triptych with the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Johann Adam Hiller for Orchestra Op. 100 (1907) and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart Op. 132 (1914).  Perhaps a small dose of Reger goes a long way for casual listeners.  Nevertheless there is something fascinating in the relentlessness with which Reger goes about developing his basic materials – and in the Hiller and Mozart scores particularly he approaches the freedom in felicity of Strauss.

Music Personalities, pic: circa 1930's, Bela Bartok, (1881-1945) Hungarian composer

Bela Bartok (1881 – 1945)

I omit any discussion of Russian counterpoint in the Twentieth Century although fugue had a great master during the Soviet period.  Let us postpone the matter of Dmitri Shostakovich until another occasion.  I should like to bring the present survey to conclusion with a consideration of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945), who, like Strauss and Reger, has links to Liszt, but whose music sounds much more “modern” than theirs – leaner in orchestration and less prone to rhetoric.  Bartók chooses to begin his four-movement Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936) with a slow fugue (Andante Tranquillo) in what his commentators usually call his Nachtmusik- or “Night-Music” style.  The theme, as in the case of Strauss’s “Science” fugue, is heavily chromatic; the atmosphere is shadowy, heavy with implication, and phantasmagoric.  Bartók chooses to conclude his Piano Concerto No.3 (1945) with a third-movement Allegro Vivace in the form of a rondo with a central fugal section – the thematic material being based on Hungarian folksong.

It is in the fifth and final movement, marked Presto, of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1944), however, that we find what must be the fugal tour-de-force of the first half of the last century.  As Halsey Stevens remarks in The Life and Music of Béla Bartók (1953) – speaking of the Concerto as a whole – “contrapuntal possibilities are motivating forces in Bartók’s choice of materials; it is sometimes surprising to find a theme which has apparently been conceived as an entity combining with itself in canon of all kinds, both rectus and inversus, and elaborate stretto, and to realize that this thematic adaptability is never adventitious.”  Concerning the fifth movement, Stevens writes:  “The finale reverts to the dance rhythms that appear in so many of Bartók’s larger works.  Here the two principal ideas are a sort of ‘perpetual motion’ in the violins, out of whose ebullition numerous motives take form, and a broad fugue subject whose manipulations are extremely complex, embodying augmentation and diminution in several ratios, the expected inversion, and quadruple stretti.”

And yet there is something in Bartók’s fugue that Stevens, for all his technical competence, fails to hear – something that ties this fugue into our anthropological theory of fugue as the musical representation of a mimetic crisis of either the tragic or comic variety.  The striking, folkloric motifs that furnish the theme for Bartók’s virtuoso development have the rhythmic and harmonic characteristics of laughter.  Now laughter itself, which has a range of possible meanings from the threatening to the ecstatic, is above all imitative: When one person laughs, supposing he laughs hard enough, other people begin to laugh with him, as though by contagion.  Bartók’s laughter is not here sardonic or threatening; it is close to the ideal of laughter, as defined by Henri Bergson in his Essay on the Meaning of the Comic: The healthy laughter of a community, happy after the feast, that for a moment steps outside the rigidity of everyday life and enjoys the freedom of the carnival – even to seeing the ridiculousness in its own usual bourgeois priggishness.  This type of laughter – and this type of fugue – is an access of grace.  That Bartók could have written these remarkable pages while dying of leukemia makes them all the more necessary and astonishing.

5 thoughts on “I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 2

  1. Pingback: I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 2 | @the_arv

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

  3. Man, where to start a comment on these 2 excellent articles.

    Dupre’s G minor Fugue in the opus 7 always struck me as a bit creepy, in a cool sorta way.

    I don’t know about Reger’s organ works, though. Never could get much into them. What’s the old saying – poor Max, so many notes, so little music. Or the other story – Karl Straube, Thomas Kantor at the time supposedly challenged Reger to come up with an unplayable piece. He never succeeded in stumping Straube. The other issue with an organ fugue is that it can often be more enjoyable to perform it than just to listen to it.

    • Reger is a tough nut to crack. I recently watched Maximum Reger, a three-hour documentary about Reger and his music by director Will Fraser. In addition to the documentary, the six-DVD set contains many hours of performances of Reger’s music in all genres, with a liberal portion of these performances devoted to the organ music. One of Fraser’s arguments is that Reger was just as “modern” as Schoenberg and his school, but that unlike Schoenberg and his school Reger maintained adherence to large-scale tonal composition. I buy Fraser’s argument. And, with a good deal of concentration, I can appreciate, or so I believe, Reger’s large-scale organ compositions, almost all of which employ extended fugal procedures. The best way to “get into” Reger is by his sets of extended variations, all of which culminate in elaborate fugues. There are sets of variations on themes by Mozart, Hiller, and Beethoven for orchestra; and on themes by Telemann and Bach for piano (the Bach-variations have recently been orchestrated, and the performance is included in Fraser’s documentary). Even the ones for piano are “symphonic” in their thinking.

      Thank you for your comment. (T)

      P.S. Reger, who was corpulent, often signed his name as Rex Mager, “King of the Thin Guys.”

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