Monday, February 25, 2013

Must be a real snoozefest

Hello. Today's piece is a real snooze that I doubt you'll enjoy very much. Great advertising, huh?

Actually, it's not a bad little piece; you might even find it charming, and a little personable in a bubbly sort of way. I stumbled across it online last year and thought it didn't sound like it would take much time to learn and it would be a chance to play something from merry old 18th century England. And it's short.

I won't pretend it is a masterpiece. But as I said, the prelude has charm and seems like it ought to be good company for a minute and a half. The unfortunate part is that it has a fugue attached, and a rather stentorian, pious one at that.

Now I personally have nothing against fugues. But the problem is that the fugue is a very difficult musical form. It is hard to write a good one, and it is not that easy to listen to, either. There are so many things happening at the same time that it takes a well trained ear to be able to sort all that out--or at least the patience to listen to it over and over again.

But if you are thinking this might not be for you, you have company. It isn't just the general public that doesn't like them; a number of composers have said some rather unkind things about them as well. One of Bach's own sons said, in effect, that they just weren't worth all the trouble. A lot of later musicians have felt the same way. On the other hand, you'll find everybody from 20th century Russian symphonists to jazz pianists sticking short fugal sections in their pieces to, at the very least, establish their credentials as a composers to be reckoned with. Look, I can write good counterpoint. Aren't I something?

What is interesting is that often it is just these preconceived ideas that affect the final product most of all. If I as a composer think of the fugue as a dry, academic exercise, and I am asked to write one (probably as a class assignment), isn't it likely that that is exactly the kind of thing that I am likely to turn out? In other words, I think fugues are boring, and I am going to do my level best to make sure they stay that way.

That may be what has happened here, and why the best thing I can say about Mr. Wesley's fugue is that it is short (barely over a minute long), and harmless. I don't really know Mr. Wesley's attitude toward the fugue form, actually. One course of action might be to ask musicologist Nicholas Temperley, an authority in this area, who happens to live right here in Champaign. And I'm not even sure he'd know.

Anyhow, now that I've given the back half of the piece such a rousing send-up, I'd recommend you hit the play button anyway. It's shorter than the time it took to read all this.

Wesley, Samuel     Prelude and Fugue in D    (the fugue starts at 1:41)

But then I want you to do something else. I want you to listen to another fugue. I think you'll find this one more enjoyable. It was written by a fellow who really knew how to write them. He didn't find them dry or dull or too cerebral and as a result he wrote them with a kind of freedom and passion that you rarely find outside of his own works. A guy named Bach. I was going to put you onto a larger one of his fugues, but I thought I'd save that one for later. This is a short fugue in g minor which has earned the nickname "little" and isn't much longer than the one by Mr. Wesley. But what a difference. In order for this fugue to turn out the way it did, a lot of things need to be working together. For one thing, one's skill at writing several voices that work together has to be so great as to make it seem effortless. In other words, all the technical problems have to be solved so well that you don't notice they are there. And this particular fugue also happens to be very melodious, which might be cheating a little bit, but does make it a little easier listening than some of Bach's other fugues on first acquaintance. Still, on the whole, Bach was able to make what for others was an arid exercise in sheer cleverness without meaning into a universe of meaning teeming with life and vitality. I think what you'll find, actually, is that Bach's fugue is charming the way Wesley's prelude is charming. He doesn't give us a pleasant little preamble and then stop on a dime and announce it is time for our musical castor oil. All of which goes to show that feats of the head can still stir the heart, and make the toes tap a little, too. Amazing what you can do with a little musical medicine.

Enjoy. I mean that.

Bach: Fugue in g minor, "little"

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