What makes Bach Work? What Makes a Fugue Work?

Johanne Sebastian Bach (1865-1750)

BWV 1005 Fugue

Follow along with this recording here:


What You Need To Know:

-The Baroque era of music existed between 1600-1750 and placed a higher value than previous music eras on virtuosic music with alot more notes.

-Common compositional methods used by this period and in this fugue are: melodic patterns called sequences, improvisations on the written melody called ornaments, and melodies written to sound good played at the same time together using a technique called counterpoint

-To perform a fugue in a way that is compelling to the audience, the performer may change dynamics, tone color, instrumentation of the different voices, being flexible with the time to denote the end of sections of the piece (called agogic accents), and bringing out the subject amidst other voices.

-A fugue is based off of a single melodic line stated on its own at the beginning of a piece. The subject is varied throughout the piece and its rhythms and shape can be heard in different voices along with literal restatements of the subject.

Period and Values:

The Baroque period of music spans roughly from 1600-1750 with the death of Bach. This era placed a strong emphasis on using music to effect the listeners emotional state or "affections". As a result of that philosophy it was common for pieces of music to have a certain "feel" to them, with multi movement works sharing that feel across the different movements. A single work may also have several sections that illicit certain emotions. 

This was an era that placed a higher value on the individual performers and composers when compared to previous eras, and partly because of that the music tended to be more virtuosic in character. Keep in mind that Bach is almost a style unto himself. There are very few composers from his time period that sound very similar to him. In general though unlike a Mozart/Classical era piece, this era of music did place a greater emphasis on the following:

Lots of notes: Please know that I am generalizing, and Bach is an extreme case, but when you hear the series of notes presented in the recording at 0:23-0:37 that is relatively indicative of the virtuosic and "notey" style of the time period. It is a melody, but not one that you can't remember easily and sing in the shower. 

Sequences: 0:23-0:37 also is an excellent example of another stylistic element from this era: the sequence. A sequence in music is typically a melodic pattern that a composer creates and then repeats, sometimes in different keys but also in the same key. Bach was a master at creating sequences. Listen for this in 0:23-0:37.  0:25-0:28 you hear the first statement of the sequence. 0:28-0:31 you hear the second statement. 0:31-0:36 you hear the sequence a 3rd time. Note that the sequence does not always have to match exactly and literally each time to the original statement. When you hear lines like this that repeat a similar melodic sound, it is usually a sequence.

Counterpoint: Perhaps the most important element to recognize in this era and also another element of music that Bach was a master of. While I am simplifying, counterpoint is essentially a compositional process where the composer makes two or more melodies that are played simultaneously by one or more instruments and that sound "good" together. This has the effect of creating something that sounds both like one complete melody with accompaniment and at the same time sounds like several individual melodies at the same time. This is unlike a Mozart work, or a modern pop song, where there is one main melody that you know and could sing and the accompaniment stays out of the way (like Mozart, or anything you hear on the radio, This Land Is Your Land, etc.). While there may be one melody that the composer wants to be most important and stand out, the accompaniment to that melody may be one or more melodies that could be payed attention to in their own right. It takes time, but eventually you can develop the ability to hear both the individual parts and the whole they create and process all that mentally as the music is happening.

Ornamentation: The Baroque era featured highly ornamented music. Ornamentation is embellishments of a melody with small trills, or more virtuosic runs, often improvised by performers. I will point a couple out.

How a Fugue Works:

On performing a fugue: The performer has many things they can do to make this work entertaining and not monotonous. 1) Changing volume through the performance 2) changing the tone color by varying from very bright and sharp and loud to very warm and round and mellow 3) taking time at the beginning and end of different sections, briefly relaxing the time to indicate one section has ended and another is beginning (its called an agogic accent and you can hear an example of this at 2:57) 4) bringing out the subject so that you can hear it clearly even when multiple voices are happening in counterpoint with it. When the composer writes a fugue for a large ensemble, he can give different melodies or different sections to different instrument groups.

Like we know the 5 paragraph essay format well, its important to know the fugue format!

The Subject: The subject is the basis of the entire fugue. Its the foundation upon which everything else is built off of. The subject is a single melody presented at the beginning of the fugue that is then modified, varied, and restated to create the rest of the fugue. The entire fugue is based off the melodic and rhythmic content of the subject, so even when you are not hearing a literal restatement or variation of the subject, the music is always shaped by it. That is what is fun about a fugue, it is like a "wear is Waldo" song where you try to listen for the subject hidden amongst the other melodies. It is also like a theme in that the subject, while perhaps not always literally present, is the basis for all the music, even content that does not sound explicitly like the subject. 

At this point, we need to talk about voices: When I say "voices" I mean that the guitar actually has multiple melodies or "voices" playing at the same time that the the artist must keep mental track of. If it where a choir of say 4 people, Soprano, Alto, Tennor, and Bass (SATB), each singer would keep track of their own voice and try to keep together with everyone else. In this case though, like 0:11-0:14, the performer has to bring out the subject in the upper voice while still maintaining the lower voices that have entered previously. Usually A fugue starts out with one voice and gradually adds more, usually up to 4 although there can be more than 4.

On the structure of the Fugue:

While it might seem like a monotonous stream of notes, a fugue usually has some kind of form or at least distinct sections. I will provide you with an outline to follow:

The subject for this fugue is heard at 0:00-0:03. Thats it. Its tuneful, singable, and dancelike. After the subject is played on its own that voice continues and the subject gets stated again at 0:03-0:06 in a new key and in the bass in counterpoint with the previous voice that originally started the piece and introduced the subject. You again here the subject in a higher voice at 0:11-0:14. 

0:00-0:22: Just hearing the subject and some counterpoint

0:23-0:38: Single melody melodic content.

0:48-2:18  : This is the start of the subject being stated and varied by taking it in multiple keys, turned upside down, reversed, made minor or major, etc, all while in counterpoint with other voices. 2:05 is the start of the end of this section and the single unchanging note in the baseline gives the music a sense of tension that we are building to a climax, and the release comes at 2:18 when we enter a new section of single line melody with occasional sparse bass accompaniment. 

2:18-2:47: a bunch of fun sequences!

2:47-3:27 we come out of the single melody content and back into counterpoint, although the next section of the piece really starts at 2:57 as the performer rhythmically lets us know we have entered a new section with an agogic accent. The single line content from 2:18-2:47 has a contrapuntal exit that leads us out of that section and into the next section at 2:57. Notice how we hear a version of the subject in a happier sounding major key!

3:27-2:56: We go back to single melody content and sequences!

2:57-4:39   We return to counterpoint with the subject blasted in our ears in the highest voice and at the highest pitch it has been throughout the entire work.

4:40-end. The piece ends with some single melody content. at 4:38 you hear a trill (a type of ornament). At 5:01 you hear a very virtuosic ornament that was written by Bach and dramatically brings the piece to its conclusion. The alternation of two notes at 5:10-end is an ornament added by the performer to drag out the suspense before resolving the piece to its conclusion.

Check out this fugue I recorded and performed last year on my website (its the one labeled 998 fugue)


Also a bream recording of that same fugue