Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Composing Idiomatic Fugues

So many things astonish me about J.S. Bach's Art of Fugue, but one of them is that it is an idiomatic work for solo harpsichord. In addition to the infinite universe of material Bach was juggling around, he was also working within the range of the Baroque harpsichord, the span of the hands, and the intracies of fingering possibilities (And impossibilities). For me, Davitt Moroney has recorded the definitive version of Art of Fugue (Available on Amazon, last I checked) using exact reproductions of Baroque harpsichords, and - more importantly - Baroque-era well-tempered tunings. It is simply awesome.

Since Art of Fugue is my favorite of all musical monuments, I had it as a goal of mine to write something in that style for many years before I finally nailed it, and even then I didn't write a solo keyboard piece, I wrote a string quartet. Not being a keyboard player, it wasn't a priority, and the quartet gave me added freedom of range and I didn't have to consider fingering possibilities for a polyphonic/homophonic instrument I don't even play: Many less things to worry about.

Now, from the moment I fell in love with Art of Fugue until I finished the quartet was about fourteen years. During that time I wrote a whole bunch of very bad, bad, not so bad, fair, decent, pretty good, good, and very good fugues for a variety of instruments. Since my girlfriend during much of this time was a Lutheran Music Minister and virtuoso organist, some of these early efforts were for the organ. She would let me know when I wrote something she couldn't reach or finger, so I kind of had a guide there. Later, I wrote for string trio and woodwind trio (Yes, I almost asphixiated a wind player or two).

The point is, if you want to get good at something like this, you have to practice it. A lot. Even Mozart had to work hard to master counterpoint and fugue: I saw some facsimilies of his notebooks from when he was studying with Padre Martini, and he was horrible at first. Many of his early exercises he had to abandon because he wrote himself into corners (Martini's corrections are masterful). It was only some fifteen years or more later that he was writing the finale of the Jupiter symphony.

My particular problem is compounded considerably: Immitative counterpoint is not idiomatic to the guitar at all. In fact, almost any time a bass line is moving faster than the upper voices, it's problematic. Tossing a fugue subject that has a wide range and a lot of leaps around on the fretboard is positively nightmareish. As a result, composing fugue subjects that will work on the guitar has been one of the greatest compositional challenges I've ever faced, and it was only after writing all of those other fugues I mentioned that I finally pulled it off.

When Bach wrote fugues for solo stringed instruments (Thank God I had those models to examine), he wrote subjects with small ranges, few leaps, and even repeated note features for the most part, but especially when he was writing for the lute, which is far less easily athletic than bowed string iinstruments. The resulting fugues are very, very difficult to perform, but they work amazingly well. Thing is, these are mostly zippity-do-dah pieces that bounce along at an entertainingly fast tempo, and the subjects usually don't offer a lot in terms of contrapuntal combinations to work with: Large parts of these fugues are occupied with virtuosic passage work. I call them extreme episodes.

What I wanted was a more stately type of theme along the lines of Bach's art of fugue (Remember, he wrote those partitas and suites many years before Musical Offering and Art of Fugue, and his style evolved significantly during those years: It's Bach's very late style that I love the most). With that in mind, let's take a look at the fugue that will be the finale of Sonata Zero.

First of all, yes this is solo guitar music notated on two staves. Trying to cram stuff this dense onto a single stave is a pain I refuse to deal with. Now that we have that out of the way...

As you can see, the subject has absolutely no skips at all: It begins with a head figure that tonicises the dominant degree briefly, and then decends stepwise to a tail figure that targets the tonic. There are seven different notes in it's range of a minor sixth, and only two different note values, which is OK for a subject this short. It's a model of utmost simplicity, which is exactly what I was after.

The answer is real - meaning is has exactly the same sequence of tones and semitones, until the final note. To me, that means I have to call it a tonal answer, but if a student called it real, I'd just point out that it's not precisely real, but almost.

Note that the counter-answer has three parallel third movements in a row, but it does introduce two leaps: A perfect fifth at the beginning, and a diminished fifth in the penultimate measure. There is only one new note value with the dotted quarter in measure eight, but the eighth notes immediately preceeding do add a bit more drive to the close of the phrase. Now, parallel thirds and sixths are very idiomatic to the guitar, so I'm making the maximum possible use of them here.

The top countersubject at measure nine also introduces two new leaps and one new note value: A diminished fourth and a perfect fourth to answer the fifths in the counter-answer, and a half-note to prepare for the first episode. The penultimate measure now has constant eighth notes, so this phrase has even more energy to close with, which is fitting. Countersubject two is the interior voice, and it is quite closely related to the previous counter-answer, which it shares it's rhythm with exactly.

This twelve bar exposition is very natural to play on the guitar, and despite it's simplicity it is quite interesting (My anecdotal evidence is that one of my students walked in today as I was playing it and said, "That sounds cool! What is it?!").

The constant eighth note surface rhythm is maintained throughout the first episode, which begins at measure 13. Since all of the axial motions in the piece so far have an overall decending trajectory, the rising sequential figure in the bass makes a nice contrast. The decending thirds above are just the consistent application of that thematic/stylistic feature of the piece, and the final measure of the episode brings us to yet another level of energy with it's simultaneous eighth notes in contrary motion. It's not exactly the most easy or natural thing to play, but it fits on the guitar just fine. Keeping the A ringing throughout is kind of a pain though, but it's one of the effects I wanted.

My episode has brought me to the dominant region, and the first middle entries follow. The main point of the subject and answer statements here is to draw attention to the fact that the countersubject and counter-answer are now essentially the same, just as subject and answer are. The free voice in the bass is slow to allow this to be noticed, and also to introduce the new note value of the half-note tied to the quarter (A dotted half-note). We now have five different note values so far.

The chromatic lick in the bass at this point is quite tasty, and the entire piece now converges on a minor third that implies a V/V. I'm going to write the first extreme episode at this point.

I don't have all of the internal archetecture worked out yet, but I do know how I'm going to end the piece.

After some extreme episode or other, we will wind up at the brief recapitulation I have here. The only stretto of the rectus version of the subject that I've discovered so far is this one. It only works if I allow for parallel perfect fourths - which I don't usually do - and only with the subject therefore in the upper voice.

I really love this passage. Notice that I have expunged all leaps except for the one in the bass at measure 31. It's just really cool, and the final cadence is quite effective. We'll see how it develops, but I'd like the Scherzo and the Fugue combined to total at about the same length as the Sonata, so it probably won't be overly brief. We shall see what we shall see.

UPDATE: After posting this I added a point of resistance to the tail figure of the subject: The first note of the final measure of the subject is now a dotted eighth-note, followed by a sixteenth-note. This figure is also applied to the figures in the episode (And the recap). So, the subject and answer now have four note values, and there are seven note values in total. Much nicer, and the implications for further development are profound. One of which is that I want to work toward a constant sixteenth note texture for one of the episodes, and this will help facilitate that.


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