2014-03-02 Notes from the Bench

“Fugue in A Minor” (BWV 543) by Johann Sebastian Bach

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was the great master of contrapuntal composition; his works represent the synthesis of German, French, and Italian writing styles of the era and the culmination of the Baroque style. Since the time of Bach, musicians have studied his works in great depth and composers have applied and adapted many of the compositional techniques Bach perfected within their own works. Bach continues to be one of the most influential composers of all time.

Among the types of compositions Bach is best-known for is the fugue. The English and French term “fugue” (fuge in German, fuga in Italian) is derived from the Latin word, “fuga,” which is related to the word “fugere,” which means “to flee,” and typically associated with the organ or clavier, however, there have been numerous fugues written for instrumental and vocal ensembles. A fugue often demonstrates a composer’s skill in crafting a contrapuntal composition. Bach was undoubtedly the master of the fugal composition; his final work, “Der Kunst der Fuge” (The Art of the Fugue), explores in depth the possibilities of fugal and contrapuntal writing.

The fugue is a type of compositional process with specific rules and characteristics that define this genre. Fugues are typically constructed with a set number of voice parts, two or more, whether they are written for human voices, an instrumental ensemble, or a keyboard instrument. A fugue usually begins with a single voice part stating a theme, the subject, which is the basis for the entire work and recurs throughout the work. A second voice is added that introduces the answer, which is the subject stated at the fifth, or in the dominant. At this point, the initial voice part typically continues with the countersubject, contrapuntal material set agains the subject. The process of subject and answer statements continue until all the voice parts have entered. The composer may introduce additional countersubjects or may choose to write free counterpoint as necessary. Periodically, a statement of the subject may be delayed, creating an episode, an opportunity for the composer to develop motives extracted for the subject or countersubject material, create sequences (the repetition of motives at different pitch levels), and modulate. Many fugues are structured with expositiondevelopment, and recapitulation sections, although this is not a requirement. The exposition contains the initial statements of the subject and answer and possible brief episodes. The development section contains more episodes, frequently modulates, and may contain incomplete statements of the subject. During the recapitulation, the composition returns to the tonic, or home key. During the recapitulation section, the composer may wish to create a stretto, the overlapping of subject entries.

A fugue may be an independent composition or incorporated within a large work. Fugues composed for keyboard instruments are typically paired with a prelude or toccata in the same key. The two genres complement yet contrast each other, the free contrapuntal style of the prelude or toccata versus the structured style of the fugue.

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