Counterpoint, the art of combining two or more independent melodic lines, is the prime distinguishing feature of Western music. Music began with monody – unaccompanied melody – and with rhythmic patterns beaten out on sticks and drums: the majority of the world’s folk music is monodic. Often, percussion underlines the rhythm, and sometimes a drone is added, an unchanging note in the bass, which keeps the tune in touch with the earth as it makes its aerial flights: this is a feature of some of the most sophisticated non-Western musics, for instance classical Indian. Indonesian music uses heterophony, or different versions of the same melodic line sounding together. But European counterpoint is something else altogether. It is a conversation, acknowledging the presence and participation of the other. Two independent voices may be played by the same musician, on a keyboard, for instance, but they are more often given to two players, who must listen to each other.
By no means all European music is predominantly contrapuntal; much of it is melody with harmony, the kind of music that has the widest popular appeal. Even a complex piece such as a Beethoven symphony will almost always have a main melodic line that you can sing or whistle. But try whistling a Bach fugue. After the first few bars, where the main subject is announced unaccompanied, the music divides into two parts, then three, then possibly four, or even five or six. The contrapuntal discourse is continued for as long as the piece lasts. How can you hear all these lines at once? Most of us probably don’t. The experience of listening to a fugue is stimulating yet forbidding: this is intellectual music. But it is also capable of expressing emotion; and where intellect and emotion are in perfect balance, the result can be sublime, as it is, for example, in the B minor fugue in Book I of Bach’s ‘48’, the six-part ricercare from his Musical Offering, and the opening fugue of Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131.
In his preface, Joseph Kerman quotes Charles Rosen:
The ‘pure fugue’, the meditative fugue, is basically a keyboard work for Bach … Only the performer at the keyboard is in a position to appreciate the movement of the voices, their blending and their separation, their interaction and their contrasts. A fugue of Bach can be fully understood only by the one who plays it, not only heard but felt through the muscles and nerves.
Rosen is surely right; in the same way, a string quartet is best understood by a player taking an active part in the instrumental conversation. Mere listeners, however, should not despair. It is possible, with practice, to learn to hear contrapuntal music, especially if you can read music and follow a score. Then you will see as well as hear how, for instance, in the first fugue of the ‘48’, one of the 16 fugues that Kerman analyses in some detail, the first seven notes of the subject are inverted – turned upside down – in two overlapping sequences, so that the second voice comes in with the subject a fifth higher, as prescribed by the rules of fugue. This little piece of clever craftsmanship – one of many in this fugue – is, on rehearing and in contemplation, much more than that; it becomes a mystery, an example of the power of counterpoint to suggest the unfathomable.
Fugue developed out of canon or round, a form that makes strict use of the device of imitation, and is exhilarating to perform, as anyone who has sung ‘Frère Jacques’ or ‘London’s Burning’ will know. Canon can even be found in pop music, in the Beatles’ ‘She Said She Said’, for instance, or the fade-out endings of a number of Beach Boys songs. Fugue is a freer form than canon but most fugues adhere to a general scheme. First, an exposition: the voices enter with the subject one by one; in a four-voice fugue, in soprano, alto, tenor and bass registers (in any order). As the second voice enters, the first voice continues with an accompanying ‘countersubject’, which must fit the subject, whether it is played below it or above. Additional countersubjects may be invented for further entries of the subject. Devising memorable countersubjects is a test of compositional prowess, one at which Bach especially excelled. A development follows, where both themes appear in new keys (if it is a tonal fugue) and combinations. Then a return to the home key and finally a ‘stretto’, where the subject entries overlap, typically over a sustained note in the bass emphasising the main tonality.
Kerman’s book (which usefully includes a CD containing scores of all the fugues he discusses and recordings of some of them played on piano, harpsichord, clavichord and organ by Davitt Moroney and Karen Rosenak) concentrates on analytical detail and does not attempt to put Bach in the wider context of fugal writing throughout musical history. Kerman assumes a fair amount of prior knowledge, including an understanding of the vocabulary of harm-ony; but musically literate readers will find their appreciation of these fugues greatly enhanced by the insights that he brings from a lifetime’s study as he examines the music with scrupulous care, bar by bar. His prose is technical but never dry. Reading his commentary on the B major fugue from Book I of the ‘48’, for instance, made me think anew about the way the subject rises, falls and rises again to a higher note, and how this contour is mirrored in the progress of the fugue, so that the highest note reached, a B, which occurs three times but is entrusted to the subject only on its third appearance, feels there like the climax of a great aspiration. It descends from this high point ‘with the greatest dignity and calm. With no harmonic undercutting and no tumble of faster notes … The soprano response feels like a slow, deep bow … touched with something like regret, though feelings are blurred by another suspended note … Even as the fugue quietly gives up aspirations for the heights it moots confident new possibilities, even now, for breadth.’ This is eloquently precise. Kerman concludes his book by asking himself what he has tried to do, questioning the practice of writing about music, and gently justifying it: ‘Talk mediates, differentiates, elucidates and consoles; we use words, however imprecisely, to talk about love and death because talk, it seems, we must. We also use and surely must use words to talk about music.’
The art of fugue had been practised for only a hundred years or so when Bach brought it to perfection, an achievement insufficiently appreciated by his contemporaries, some of whom thought the whole thing out of date. The new classical style which swept through Europe in the mid-18th century, and whose first practitioners included Bach’s sons, was centred on accompanied melody rather than on polyphony. But fugue did not die out with Bach; there was soon to be a revival of interest – in fact, there has been virtually no major composer since who has not written at least one notable example. There are exceptions: Chopin’s forms admitted Bachian counterpoint, but not the fugue, which must have seemed alien to his Romantic sensibility. Chopin was the most modern, least antiquarian of all the early Romantics: adapting the sonata was the furthest he was prepared to go in accommodating himself to the recent past. Wagner, in some ways the inheritor of Chopin’s erotically-charged Romanticism, learned the art of fugue from Theodor Weinlig, a successor to Bach as cantor of St Thomas’s, Leipzig, and there is a fugue in the finale of the symphony he wrote when he was 20. His mastery of Bachian counterpoint in Die Meistersinger is flawless, above all in the wonderful fugato ensemble at the end of Act II; but, as with Chopin, there was no place for a full-blown fugue in his mature music.
Both Mozart and Beethoven revered Bach – and Handel – and both made transcriptions of fugues from the ‘48’. Mozart transcribed three for string trio, to which he added preludes of his own. His fugues sometimes seem to want to outdo Bach in sheer cleverness, as in the Adagio and Fugue K. 546, where the tense subject drives relentlessly through the music, as insistently memorable in inversion as it is the right way up. In the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, Mozart dazzles the listener as he nonchalantly shows off every contrapuntal trick in the book. Here is the spirit of Apollo: pure delight in the form.
With Beethoven, for whom the fugue became more and more important, Apollo is joined by Dionysus in the duality that Nietzsche thought essential to the highest art. Dionysus prevails in the most extraordinary fugue of all, the ‘Grosse Fuge’ that Beethoven originally conceived as the finale of the B flat Quartet, Op. 130, but later detached to form a self-sufficient piece. As the opening Allegro charges along with manic exuberance, there is a feeling of exploring uncharted territory: huge vistas are glimpsed but are tantalisingly out of reach. The pace is relentless, the dynamics always forte. Then suddenly it stops and a new fugue begins, slow and full of intense lyrical emotion. And then a third: a rough-edged, unbuttoned dance which sometimes loses all sense of key. So Beethoven has contrived to encompass all the elements of the symphony within the texture of the fugue. This music will always sound modern because it is stretching the limits of the possible; it is still fiendishly difficult to play. No fugue since has ever been quite so adventurous on every level.
Many Romantic composers would have been wise to heed Schumann’s warning: ‘The emptiest head thinks it can hide its weakness behind a fugue; but a true fugue is the affair of a great master.’ Liszt’s fugues, for instance, tend to show up his deficiencies as a contrapuntist. His chromatic harmony sounds laboured, and he quickly runs out of steam. The whole philosophy of Romanticism, after all, was opposed to that of the Baroque: the individual, revolutionary voice, whose natural expression was heightened melody, in contrast with the voice of the community grounded in political stability and religion, and symbolised by polyphony. The majority of later 19th-century fugues are choral, and are descended from Handel rather than Bach, a routine part of the ubiquitous oratorio which was the pious Victorian counterpart to Wagner’s unleashing of erotic feeling in his operas. Most of them are dutifully dull, but the best composers, such as Brahms in the German Requiem, or Elgar in The Dream of Gerontius, overcame pedantry with intellectual passion.
The choral fugue that opens Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts is compellingly unorthodox, the subject making a dramatic downward swoop on the words ‘requiem aeternam’ while the countersubject sets the same words to a tremulous descending chromatic scale; at one point, each entry of the subject surges in a tone higher than its predecessor, producing great cumulative power. Berlioz also found a fresh and colourful use for fugato to portray the brawling Montagues and Capulets at the start of Roméo et Juliette. Mahler, as a student at the Vienna Conservatoire, neglected his counterpoint studies and failed his examination, and this seems to have spurred him on later to become an ardent student of Bach and eventually the most accomplished contrapuntist of all the Romantics. The influence of Bach may be heard as early as the Second Symphony, and is all-pervasive in the finale of the Fifth. It reaches its climax in the central double fugue in the first movement of the Eighth Symphony, where Mahler almost matches the striving intensity of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
The 19th-century vocal fugue reaches its apogee in the finale of Verdi’s Falstaff, the last operatic music he wrote. Verdi had already composed a remarkable and innovative fugue, ‘a light-hearted Grosse Fuge’, as Julian Budden has described it, in his E minor String Quartet, his only mature piece of chamber music. In introducing the fugue to the operatic ensemble, he brought to fruition what Mozart had hinted at in the final ensemble of Don Giovanni. At the end of Falstaff all the characters gather on stage to pronounce their verdict on life: ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla.’ It is a compositional triumph: a last summoning-up of all Verdi’s powers in an effusion of contrapuntal jest.
In the 20th century, the instrumental fugue made an impressive return. Bartók modelled the fugal first movement of his First String Quartet on Beethoven’s Op. 131, and Schoenberg in his First Quartet took up the challenge of Beethoven’s late quartets – the first two composers to do so since Schubert and Mendelssohn made their tentative response. Bartók went on to incorporate a fugue into the Allegro movement of his Third Quartet in a very Beethovenian way, and to write a measured fugue of masterly order and precision as the opening movement of his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The neo-classical movement after the First World War then brought the fugue further back into fashion. Busoni, who had already found his own way to an independent kind of neo-classicism, had in 1910 with impressive daring completed Bach’s unfinished fugue from The Art of Fugue in his Fantasia contrappuntistica. Ives, another independent, working in musical isolation in New England, delighted in contrasting the wildest experiments with the orthodox harmony and counterpoint he had learned as a student at Yale. Stravinsky, not a natural contrapuntist, absorbed himself in Bachian counterpoint in his neo-classical period and wrote an affecting chromatic fugue in his Symphony of Psalms. Later in the 1930s he made an assiduous study of Beethoven’s late fugues, which bore fruit in the fugal finale of his Concerto for Two Pianos, while in his late works he used both canon and fugue obsessively.
The nearest the fugue came to a Modernist version was probably Ernst Toch’s 1930 Fuge aus der Geographie. This is a four-part spoken fugue, whose rhythms follow the natural rhythms of the carefully chosen words. The subject is given to the tenors and needs a Savoy Opera dexterity to deliver: ‘Ratibor!/Und der Fluss Mississippi/und die Stadt Honolulu/und der See Titicaca;/der Popocatepetl liegt nicht in Kanada/sondern in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico.’ At which point the second voice comes in, and the standard fugal procedures are worked through. Toch’s fugue has a distant cousin in the Sirens chapter of Ulysses, in which Joyce attempts to use some of the techniques of fugue in a striking display of sonorous prose. He sets out his thematic material in an introduction – ‘Bronze by gold’ etc – and then develops it into rounded, musical sentences: ‘Shrill, with deep laughter, after, gold after bronze, they urged each each to peal after peal, ringing in changes, bronzegold, goldbronze, shrilldeep, to laughter after laughter.’ There is an illusion of counterpoint in the juxtaposition of overheard conversation, snatches of songs and onomatopoeia.
‘In its highest form,’ Schoenberg wrote in 1936, ‘nothing would claim a place in a fugue unless it were derived, at least indirectly, from the theme’ – hinting at a connection with his 12-note method of composition. Indeed, 12-note fugues are quite feasible, though Schoenberg himself avoided them. It may be, however, that if the tonal basis on which the fugue had always relied is denied, a great deal of its strength is lost. In turning against Schoenberg and the continuing emphasis on melody in his interpretation of the method, the postwar European avant-garde also renounced all traditional devices of counterpoint, rules of harmony and regular rhythm, considering them obsolete in their quest for a new-found language. Instead, Boulez and Stockhausen pursued the ideal of the sonic ‘moment’ in a floating world free from measured time. This most extreme phase of Modernism has long since passed, and the majority of composers nowadays are trying, in various ways, to reinstate what was temporarily discarded. Few composers, however, are writing fugues, and it has to be asked whether the form can still make a valid contribution to contemporary musical language.
I would say it could, and can point to several examples that demonstrate the form’s continuing vitality. In the huge finale of his nearly three-hour String Quintet (1969-77), the Scottish composer Alistair Hinton included a twenty-minute fugue, or rather three continuous fugues, modelled on the Grosse Fuge and rivalling it in its scope and emotional intensity, if not quite achieving its transcendental vision. Hinton’s first fugue, in similar dotted rhythms, has the fierce energy of Beethoven’s opening one; his second, in total contrast, calm and sweet-toned and sounding like a piece from the Renaissance, begins and ends with a canon whose theme becomes a fugue subject in its central section; the third employs subjects and countersubjects from the first two together with new themes of its own, and combines all of them in the most learned (yet never pedantic) style, with the themes played backwards and in inversion, all the time gradually generating another eruption of Beethovenian energy.
The Moravian composer Pavel Novák has been working for the past 17 years on another vast project, a set of 24 preludes and fugues for piano based on the Old and New Testaments (12 for each). The second set is still to be completed; the first has so far had only one complete performance, by William Howard, for whom the work is being written. Novák has a radically unorthodox attitude to fugue: the first fugue, evoking the creation of heaven and earth, has only one voice, and no counterpoint; the sixth is built on a one-note theme and employs only seven notes. The music grows into greater complexity as the world grows with it. A fugue without counterpoint might seem a contradiction in terms, but Novák somehow contrives to give substance to his omissions. The background to his music is rich and firmly-rooted enough to enable him at times merely to sketch in the foreground. It is impossible to know yet what the cumulative effect of the whole work will be, but what he has composed so far constitutes one of the most impressive piano works of recent times.
At this point I should declare an interest. I had used canonic devices in my own music for many years, but it was not until 1998 that I felt able to introduce a fugue, a contemplative one somewhat indebted to Beethoven, into my Eighth String Quartet. It seemed to work. The following year, at a concert in London, I heard Peter Sheppard Skærved play Bach’s G minor Violin Sonata, which contains an elaborate three-part fugue. I wondered if it was possible to write a four-part fugue for solo violin, something that as far as I knew had not been attempted, for the obvious reason that four-part counterpoint on a violin is virtually impossible. I wrote a few bars and sent them to Peter, who to my surprise pronounced them playable. So I finished the piece, in a neo-Bachian E minor, and thought of it as a one-off technical exercise until Peter persuaded me to write more. I wrote another four-part fugue, in A minor but highly chromatic and almost atonal; then, over a period of nine months, carried on writing them occasionally until I had 15, cast in the more practical keys. Only five of them are four-part fugues, and even in these there is little continuous four-part writing, which would be almost intolerable for the listener, let alone the player. There are two two-part fugues and the rest are in three parts. I amused myself with the kinds of game that fugal writing seems to encourage: my first two-part fugue has a ten-note theme derived from the keys of all the fugues in my series in the order they appear (major and minor counted as one) and it modulates in turn through all these keys before returning to its home, C minor. One fugue was entirely pizzicato. Another was based on a blackbird’s song. I was learning a new skill, like a painter learning how to etch. Because I hadn’t been to a music college, I had never learned the art of fugue formally.
Even if counterpoint is at present neglected, it will not die out: it is too rich a resource. In Counterpoint, Edmund Rubbra, no mean practitioner himself of the art of fugue, claimed that the ‘history of Western music is the history of the form-compelling power of counterpoint’. There is no valid reason why, if composers continue to learn to master this most intriguing and demanding of contrapuntal forms, the art of fugue should not continue to evolve.