David Matthews

  • The Art of Fugue: Bach Fugues for Keyboard 1715-50 by Joseph Kerman
    California, 173 pp, £15.95, August 2005, ISBN 0 520 24358 7

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.

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