Jedi Fugue Tricks

Prelude & Fugue in Gm, Well Tempered Keyboard II    J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

“When In Our Music God is Glorified”


In keeping with the theme that sometimes ’less is more than enough’ I thought I would also devote this Sunday and next to selections from the Well Tempered Keyboard – a landmark collection of pieces composed for a minimal four octave beginner’s keyboard.

Down through the ages and in different cultures music works in different ways (speaking in very broad generalizations). From Gregorian chant through the Baroque period (ending about 1750) a piece of music was about one particular feeling, looking at it from many different perspectives. Something like meditation or lectio divina exercises: “The LORD is my shepherd, the Lord IS my shepherd, the Lord is MY shepherd, the Lord is my SHEPHERD” – one verse, four different perspectives. In the Classical/Romantic era (1750-1900-ish, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) music was more about contrasting different feelings. Beethoven in particular was a master of setting up one feeling, then delightfully judo flipping the listener into quite another. The most common musical form today is the song, which is mostly about the lyrics telling a story, and the music plays an essential but supporting role: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” — a story about love lost. (When I hear an instrumental version of ‘Yesterday’ I find it virtually impossible not to add the words in my head.)

There are three characteristics that make for a proper fugue: 1) it’s based on one theme, called the ‘fugue subject’, 2) there’s an official way to start a fugue, namely: the voices/parts enter one at a time and the first thing they do is state the fugue subject, and 3) each of the voices/parts is equally important – not the ‘one person gets the melody and everyone else has to play boring chords/accompaniment’ as in much of classical/romantic music.

Fugues don’t have to be scary or boring: there’s one in the fat middle of Handel’s Hellelujah Chorus and most everyone likes that piece just fine.

One way of listening to a fugue is a sort of ‘Where’s Waldo’ (or Pokémon Go!) trying to spot the theme — which can appear in any of the voices. And that’s fine as far as it goes. But the point of a well-written fugue is that each time the fugue subject appears, its musical context, and the feeling that goes it, is a little different. Definitely more subtle than Beethoven’s baseball bat, but there you are. (BTW Beethoven also wrote wonderful fugues.)

As musical forms go, fugues are considered one of the most difficult musical forms to write: having each of the separate voices/parts be melodic and expressive, and they all fit well together into a coherent whole, and the whole enchilada expresses real feeling – that is a major exericse of both the left brain/mind/reasoning and the right brain/heart/feeling.

In this morning’s fugue, Bach does all this, and more: On the left-brain/logical side, as the feeling of it really gets rolling, he ups the ante by doing Jedi Fugue Tricks such as having the fugue subject in more than one voice at the same time. (In other fugues he does Jedi Fugue Tricks like the fugue subject is upside down, and/or in slow motion.) Usually when you up the ante on the ’logic’ side, the ’feeling’ side suffers, but not so in this fugue: precisely where he does the Jedi Fugue Tricks is also where the piece has the deepest feeling.

Gee, what can one possibly do with a puny little four octave beginner’s keyboard? Oh, not much, merely the absolutely extraordinary!