Four Mystery Novels
Cluny Media, and a Couple of Other Literary Things

New Criterion Article on The Art of the Fugue

It seems to be the practice these days to leave out the second "the" and refer to the work as The Art of Fugue. I don't know the reason for that. The German title is "Die Kunst der Fuge," which according to my high school (and little bit of college) German is literally "the art the fugue." (I don't know how English came by that second "u," or why the German doesn't include one of those "of"-type words, like "auf.") The two recordings of it or parts of it that I have, by Glenn Gould and Gustav Leonhardt, were made in 1962 and 1969 respectively, and reissued in the 1980s, and both say "the fugue." I assume there is some good linguistic reason for  discarding the "the," though it sounds off to me. I also assume that's why this article by Jonathan Gaisman, in the May issue of The New Criterion is called "The Heart of Fugue."

I have a sort of compulsion, which I'm trying to break, to read every magazine to which I subscribe from cover to cover, in order. It was hard for me not to defy that compulsion in this case, as the fugue article is the last one in this issue, and I was eager to read it, because I have a problem with the fugue as a musical form and am always vaguely hoping for some sort of breakthrough in that difficulty.

I've always found the form somewhat...I hate to use this term...dry. Almost inaccessible. Around this time last year I started the project of listening thoroughly to the entire Well-Tempered Clavier (see this post). My intention was to listen to every prelude-and-fugue pair at least three times. I knew I would like the preludes, in general, but had my doubts, based on past experience, about the fugues:

With a few exceptions, the form has left me cold. It seemed dry, abstract, academic. You get the statement of the subject--which is frequently not all that interesting in itself--three or four times, and at that point I usually lose the thread: the piece just becomes a lot of wandering counterpoint, with the subject emerging from time to time. 

I don't think I ever reported on the completion of that project, but I did complete it, with many stops and starts, probably six months or so after I started it. And I very much enjoyed it. And the pattern of very much liking the preludes and being unenthusiastic about the fugues continued throughout. I did, as my listening continued, find that I was enjoying the fugues more, but still they continued to seem, well, all the things that I just mentioned.

The New Criterion article pointed me toward a possible resolution of the problem: just give up. I think it's an excellent brief introduction to the form, and to The Art. But it makes clear to me that a true appreciation and enjoyment of it is beyond me, because my ears and brain are not capable of grasping the structures that make it so impressive and fascinating to those who can grasp it.

I'm very well aware that there are subtleties and complexities in most classical music that I don't and can't grasp. And that some of these are accessible only to those who have substantial training in music theory and very good ears. That undoubtedly limits but does not present a major obstacle to my enjoyment; to be brought to raptures by a piece of music is sufficient, even if I'm missing a lot.

Why is the fugue different? The opening of the article is a simple observation:

Many people, if they wonder how music is made up, suppose that it consists of a tune and an accompaniment. The paradigmatic guitarist in front of a campfire croons the melody, while his hands create the harmonies that give it color.

Well, yeah, but I'm more sophisticated than that, I thought, mildly annoyed. But Gaisman goes on with more elaborate examples: 

Frédéric Chopin admired Bellini, and his nocturnes reproduce the same model: the right hand unfurls a line of singing melody on the piano, and the left provides (in his case) exquisite harmonic support.

Yes, a long way from the campfire guitar, but the basic concept is there in Chopin. Counterpoint, on the other hand, is:

... a compositional method in which there is not a dominating tune and a subsidiary accompaniment, but contrariwise a democratic parity between the voices. (They are called voices even when they are instrumental, not sung.) A choral piece by Johann Sebastian Bach or Handel typically shares out the elements equally between soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, so that the distinction between melody and harmony does not apply; every line contributes to both.

This may seem pretty obvious. It is pretty obvious, in essence. But in this case, as often happens, I had missed the implications of the obvious: on reflection, I realized that almost all the music that I really enjoy exhibits to some degree that voice-and-accompaniment relationship. I would call it, in more elaborate music, a foreground and background relationship. The foreground usually involves melody, a single distinct line or perhaps a mingling of multiple lines, which may be one or two instruments or a whole section of an orchestra or even the orchestra as a whole, with harmony and/or subordinate melody and/or rhythm less prominent. There may be and often is a lot going on in this supporting stuff, but it isn't generally the center of attention. The relationships between foreground and background are far more complex than Gaisman's first simple voice-and-guitar instance, but they do participate in a structure where not everything is of equal prominence (I don't say "importance"--that's no doubt a tricky judgment). 

"... the distinction between melody and harmony does not apply...." That's the key, I guess. When I listen to a fugue, my ears keep searching for that prominent voice, the stirring tunes sailing over an ever-varying sea of harmony and rhythm, passages connected by transitions that in themselves keep my interest. And not only do my ears not find those things, they don't really grasp what they do hear. They hear a great many notes, but they don't grasp, they don't feel, the interrelationships among them.

All the fourteen fugues and four canons in The Art of Fugue derive in some way from a single theme or “motto” in D minor, but, following an initial treatment that almost wilfully eschews the usual devices, their ingenuity and increasing complexity amount to one of the great intellectual and artistic achievements of Western civilization...

Alas for me, I cannot hear that "ingenuity and increasing complexity." 

If this interests you at all, please read the whole article. It does make me wish I could experience what the author describes. The credit on that article, by the way, says only that "Jonathan Gaisman is a King’s Counsel, practicing in commercial law." Having gone into law after obtaining an undergraduate degree in music, perhaps. 

If you read all the above and think you deserve a reward, here it is. If you didn't, my feelings are hurt, but here's your reward anyway. I didn't bother making notes of which pieces in the Well-Tempered Clavier I especially liked, but I think the F minor prelude and fugue from Book 2 were among them.



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In regards to the missing "of-type word" in Die Kunst der Fuge, if I'm not mistaken Fuge is a feminine noun and der is the dative case of the feminine definite article die, indicating that Fuge is the indirect object, which in English is conveyed using prepositions like of, but in languages like German is communicated by altering the words themselves. In other words, there's no need for an "of-type word" in German because changing the article from die to der preceding it serves that purpose. Another example is Der Ring des Nibelungen, where des is (I think) the genetive case indicating possessive "of the Nibelungen" instead of just "the Nibelungen".

And if this seems confusing, let's all keep in mind that many languages change the form of the noun itself to indicate its case, and some languages have many more cases than German, so in those languages there could be a dozen words for, say, "flower" depending on its function in any given sentence.

That all being said, translating it as "The Art of Fugue" seems just as pretentious as saying "The Ring of Nibelungs".

Second, I would submit that most people saying they enjoy fugues by cultivating some intellectual ability to discern quasi-mathematical patterns in the music is doin' it wrong. IMHO the real pleasure comes from the fact that there is so much going on that listening to the exact same performance of the exact same piece over and over can be a totally novel experience each and every time because the mind is drawn to completely different things depending on what happens to be randomly going on in the ambient environment, what one happened to be thinking about before starting, etc.

That all being said, Bach-style counterpoint can be pretty dry, and there are many other composers out there who were more interesting in deploying pretty sophisticated counterpoint in the service of expressiveness rather than vice-versa. Exhibit A, and exhibit B.

Most interesting. I don't even think "counterpoint" when I hear either of those. I just listen. Definitely non-dry!

Thanks for the explanation of the German. I'd long ago forgotten all the case stuff, if I ever even really knew it. I do recall that Mark Twain makes fun of the weirdly gendered words by putting them into English with pronouns:

Gretchen. "Wilhelm, where is the turnip?"
Wilhelm. "She has gone to the kitchen."
Gretchen. "Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?"
Wilhelm. "It has gone to the opera."

I keep thinking there is some well-known German work of art in which an "of" type word is used in the name, and finally one came to mind: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Probably also explainable by case though "of a place" is a different thing from "of a subject."

I don't know much about the counterpoint stuff at all, but in my experience, it seems that like you I gravitate towards the melody/support model. In some cases though, I'm happy with appealing chord progressions, or even bass lines, where there isn't necessarily a strong melody (although I guess that the foundation being there one can sort of subconsciously imagine one).

One thing I'd like to investigate is the relationship between polyphony and counterpoint. I like Renaissance polyphony (Palestrina, Josquin, Tallis, etc.) very much, but it definitely does not fall into the melody/support model. Thing is, when I listen to that sort of music I don't expect there to be strong, sustained melodies. So I wonder how much expectations play a part: listening to a musical type where you expect a melody but don't get one would seem to be different than listening to a style where you're not expecting one. In a sense this may even be subconscious, I think.

A bass line is a melody, in the strict sense of the term.

I'm sorry to say that I have more or less the same problem with Renaissance polyphony. It's beautiful in a textural sort of way, but my appetite for it is similarly limited.

In case anyone noticed, I just corrected an error in this post. I said that was the F-sharp minor prelude and fugue. I thought that was what I remembered, but turns out it was the F minor one, which is the one I included. And it's from Book 2.

"A bass line is a melody, in the strict sense of the term."

Yeah, I guess so. I tend to think of it as the root of a chord progression, but I guess technically it's a melody.

I think that one of the reasons I don't like modern jazz much is that I don't find melody where I expect it. I like older forms of more melodic jazz much better.

I feel the same way as you do about fugues, Maclin, except that I also feel guilty because as a math person I *ought* to enjoy them. Or, rather, I felt guilty until I read Will's comment--thanks, Will!

Here's another well-known German work of art in which an "of" type word is used in the name: Das Lied von der Erde. The article form is still "der" but here it's in the dative case required by the preceding "von." The dative and the genitive feminine singular definite articles are the same.

Oh yeah, I should have thought of Das Lied as well. I knew I had seen that kind of construct.

I never was any good at grammar, not even English, and others...pretty hopeless.

"I think that one of the reasons I don't like modern jazz much is that I don't find melody where I expect it." I know what you mean, but there are some modern jazz musicians--depending on what you mean by "modern"--whom I like precisely because they produce a long flow of melody, in the sense of a single line. Bop and later jazz was all about chord progressions and doing interesting things within them, but I don't really grasp that. What I respond to in someone like Coltrane (not that there's anyone really like him) is that single line. Not a melody in the sense of a structured tune, but a continual flow of notes that just keep going in an imaginative way, ranging all over the place. At its best that can be very powerful to me. It needs the foundation of other instruments, at minimum bass and drums, to keep some sense of orientation.

I've not heard enough Coltrane to know what you mean. Any listening suggestions?

I think I've mentioned that the one jazz artist I like considerably (not counting Vince Guaraldi) is Bill Evans. But even with him, I prefer his more melodic "lyrical" work to the progressive stuff.

There are two obvious first suggestions for Coltrane: My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme. The title track of MFT is probably his single most widely loved track, but has the slight problem that there really isn't anything else quite like it, so other work may seem lesser. ALS is maybe not quite as immediately enchanting but would almost certainly make anyone's top two or three Coltrane works--the album as a whole, not just the title piece.

For most people, including me, the really great stuff is the period from 1960-65. But not including Meditations, which is too much for most of us: is it "a 13-minute outpouring of spiritual emotion that is at once compelling and exhausting" (AllMusic) or unlistenable wild atonal screeching.? Starting there, he went in the free jazz direction, until his death in 1967. And those recordings are not exactly accessible.

Thanks -- I've heard of both, and may have heard ALS as background music in the pub (the owner occasionally will play a jazz LP and that's one he has), but I've not listened with any sustained attention.

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