The Art of Fugue

Last evening and next week, Carlos is working us hard on the two big fugues in Brahms’ A German Requiem, occurring in Sections 3 and 6.  That set me musing about fugues in general, the role they play in music and how they came to be.

If you want to read a full treatise on the subject, as usual Wikipedia is a good place to start.  Their page is here.  In short, it is a piece of music which starts with a melody  sung in succession by each voice, in different keys.  This leads to variants of the melody being sung in counterpoint, again in different keys, eventually the main tune coming in definitively in the original key before the whole piece comes to a conclusion.  I think Brahms’ two fugues in the A German Requiem match this description quite well.

“Fugue”  comes from French and Italian words meaning chase or flight in the sense of running away.  And that is what many fugues seem to do, especially those in A German Requiem.  It is a highly developed musical form, requiring concentration and skill to perform well, as we are finding out  The master of the technique was J S Bach, who wrote so many wonderful fugues for organ, orchestra and choirs that many subsequent composers paid homage to him by using the same form.  Brahms is probably one of those composers.

For a light-hearted look at fugues, you may like to watch this recording.  The noted Bach scholar and performer Glenn Gould wrote a fugue called So you want to write a fugue.  Click here to watch it.