Bach J.S. - Fugue in F minor BWV881 (Well Tempered Clavier Book 2)
The idea of writing linear parts began a long time before the Baroque period. Renaissance polyphony saw the art of writing in counterpoint reach its peak in the vocal music of composers such as Palestrina, Monteverdi and Byrd.
With the rise in instrumental music during the Baroque period, and certainly in the hands of such a supreme musical intellect as J.S.Bach, the fugue found new heights of perfection. The capacity to play in any key, and not just in the keys that were suited to the previous tuning temperaments of the day, is demonstrated here in the volumes of 48 Preludes and Fugues.
Bach’s genius is arguably nowhere better demonstrated than in the works of his last five years, which included the Canonic Variations on Vomm Himmel Hoch, The Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue. Indeed, Manfred Bukofzer believes the latter work, 'by virtue of its profoundly artistic imagination', to be 'the eternal monument of polyphony altogether'.
Bukofzer, M.F. (1948) Music in the Baroque Era, London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd
Pupil Match & Suitability
This work should not be the starting point in playing three part counterpoint for any pupil. If this is the case then the learning curve will be far too steep.
Most students will have, or should have, studied a range of works from pieces such as Bach's Two Part Inventions to some of the easier two part-pieces from the Bach Keyboard Suites.
The prelude is more musically accessible than the fugue. Although a three-part, rather than a four-part fugue, there are considerable challenges here, not least in the fact that the mood and tempo are brisk.
Apart from the choice of a student who has the technical capacity to play in three parts, there should also be some interest in the form and even, perhaps, a sense of maturity in approach.
The work is unlikely to be of great interest to the younger child and early teenager, unless they are particulaly skilled and talented.
Style & Tempo
The rate of harmonic movement is one in a bar and this would suggest a reasonably brisk pace. Should the performance sound uninteresting, it is possible that this may, in part, be down to the choice of a slow tempo.
The articulation adopted should take account of the stylistic conventions of the day. Other than this the main importance in the performance of any fugue is the realization of the counterpoint. This is where the work in preparing a fugue is considerable and should not be underestimated.
Listen to the complete Prelude and Fugue played here by Demidenko.
Phrasing & Articulation
There are certain conventions which tend to govern the playing of fugues. The specific articulation applied to the subject, counterpoint and other aspects of the material are usually played with the same consistent articulation. To do otherwise would imply either a lazy ear or lack of appropriate preparation. The playing would sound untidy, unstructured and without consistency of articulation throughout the parts. Therefore this is an element of central significance when working on a fugue.
Listen to this recording of Kenneth Gilbert playing the harpsichord. Note how length of notes and articulation detail form a clear basis for phrasing on an instrument that does not possess the tonal gradations belonging to the modern piano.
Tone & Texture
The key to creating a colourful and engaging performance lies in the effect that the performer is able to make of rich, contrapuntal texture. Listen to these examples; one achieves this effect well, whereas the other is bland and musically unsatisfying.
These musical effects will only be realized if the student can hear each individual part and combination of parts. This is very much dependent upon how the piece has been practised and put together.
Think carefully about how you can go about building up aural awareness in this particular way in the work you do in the lesson.
This version contrasts with Demidenko's livelier version, heard in the Style and Tempo section. The video is somewhat irritating but the interpretation is interesting!
The techniques required to play contrapuntal music well are, above all, musicianship skills. Do not underestimate the importance of developing a wide range of aural skills, which, ideally, will have been built on good foundations earlier on in the student's learning.
The capacity to hear separate and independently phrased lines before attempting to play them is of enormous importance.
Coordination skills need to be in place so that students are able to play not only with different dynamic levels between hands, but also with differing articulations. All too often, playing tends to do one of these things at a time, but not two or three in combination.
The capacity to play with different dynamic levels within the same hand, as well as different articulations, is also important.
Finger swapping is a skill worth having, as is the ability to share a middle part between the hands in order to maximize the ease of playing.
These kinds of techniques need to be developed to work eventually at speed.
A very important principle to bear in mind is the choice between finger swapping and using the same finger twice in succession and/or jumping from one finger to another in a non-legato fashion. If a perfectly legato fingering system is sought in a musical context such as this, a number of technical difficulties will be created as well as the resulting performance being musically unstylish.
Take time to study the various fingering possibilities listed here and work out how these principles can be applied elsewhere. A major cause of unevenness and tension in contrapuntal writing is often down to unhelpful fingering that stretches the hand too much.
The choice of fingering will depend partly on how you wish to articulate. Also, certain fingering patterns are associated with particular keys, in this case the key of F minor, and the general principle of fingering in accordance with these key-specific patterns, wherever possible, is a good one.
A detailed study of Baroque ornamentation is not within the scope of this advice, nor would it be particularly relevant for most performers. Appropriate and stylish ornamentation will add to a fluent performance, but here this relates to the mordent, in most editions, placed over the second note of the subject and to a trill at the final cadence.
It does not make a great deal of sense to place a mordent on the RH F in bar 1 unless this is followed systematically through to the other identical places as each of the other part subjects enter.
Do add a brief trill to the final cadence:
Pedalling is unlikely to feature in the performance of the fugue, although it may well be used to join one or two notes where the geography of the textures make it otherwise awkward.
Apart from this, there is no compelling reason for using the pedal here in the fugue.
Experience shows that most students do not particularly enjoy learning fugues! It can be a very dry and often boring process, especially if the student does not know what he or she is aiming at. Even then it takes a lot of painstaking work to realize a fugue well.
There are two crucial things to remember:
(1) careful, slow work on all individual parts and in combinations is essential
(2) appropriate achievable goals must be set, both in the lesson and for practice
As far as (1) is concerned, the student needs to know what a fugue is about. Teaching it in a vertical rather than a horizontal way does not work. In other words, do not start hands together but always encourage the understanding of separate parts first.
Getting to know a fugue takes time. The rewards can be great, but this is only ever a reflection of the time put in.
It is often the case that a student will spend many fruitless hours learning a fugue in a manner which is not best conducive to realizing the part playing and this is a real shame, so be certain from the outset to stipulate exactly how to practice and have a clear plan to put to the student.
Boredom can often be a factor which impedes progress in any piece and not just a fugue.
The answer could be to change the piece, or better to find out the reasons for lack of interest and try to engage the student more fully, working on better returns for the amount of practice time spent.
An excellent performance might be described in the manner of looking at a beautiful painting which is expertly finished off. You would be able to stand for some time in front of this canvass and keep seeing more and more detail. The structure of the painting will slowly emerge as it is revisited each moment. In the musical performance the listener will hear the richness of the textures and be aware of all the parts weaving in and out the texture. The subject matter will be clearly heard and consistently articulated. There will be a satisfying sense of structure to the performance and at its very best may lead to a sense of peace with the world and a marvel to the ingenuity of the composer.
In a good performance the elements of part playing will be clearly defined here and there should be a sense of overall structure and musical cohesion. The finer points of detail may not have yet become evident, and there may be some loss of clarity in the part writing at moments of greatest complexity and difficulty. Nonethless, it will me a very meaningful and musically shaped performance.
A sound performance will be a fairly consistent pace and sense of authority here, alongside some rudimentary awareness of contrapuntal playing. The performance should rise above the level of a mere homophonic texture and there will be elements of understanding, although these may yet be a little crudely formed. The listener is likely to sense something of a rougher musical effect and there will be some scope for greater refinement in the handling of the tone and consistency of the articulation.