Monday, July 7, 2014

Pieces in Dialogue: Buxtehude and Bach

A few years ago I wrote a short article about Bach's visit to meet Buxtehude. This wasn't just a small effort Bach put out; it was a journey of well over 250 miles (I just checked it with the Google and it puts it at 293, or 472.3 km if you'd prefer). Bach's visit must have borne fruit in the influence he got from perhaps the greatest organist/composer in Europe at the time. I've read just enough of the Bach literature to know that connections have been drawn between pieces of Buxtehude's and pieces by Bach, but I am a performing musician, and busy in all kinds of directions; I am not a musicologist, so I haven't made the time to go into the subject in detail. But recently I stumbled over an example so obvious I had to share it with you.

It's Bach's wonderful Fugue in D Major, Bwv 532. I planned to play it last spring, but I was preparing a piano recital at the same time so I put it off until this year. It is a fun and sprightly fugue, with a virtuous pedal part that has the feet dancing away in a paroxysm of joy. (I'm allowed to use that word once a year, aren't I?)

Last spring I played Buxtehude's Praeludium in F, which contains a fugue (it is basically a prelude and fugue, though Buxthude calls all of his concoctions praeludia no matter how many sections there are and no matter what type). I wrote about it last year on this blog, calling it my "new favorite fugue."

One of the things I pointed out then was just how stupid the fugue subject is:


I don't mean to disparage the music. It is perfect for the occasion, and for what the composer does with it. But the actual makeup of that opening it just mindless. It is two notes trilling back and forth. It is almost as if Buxtehude's point was to show us how he could make such a terrific piece out of such unpromising materials.

At least, that may be how Bach read the situation. Now listen to the opening of Bach's Fugue in D:


Now that sounds even more pedestrian than his model. In fact, Buxtehude's bird-call opening gets more points for charm; it is possible not to particularly notice its lack of inventiveness simply because it has the naive charm of a bird in springtime. Bach doesn't do that. He tries to make his fugue subject sound like a finger exercise for the organist!

But there is something else. Notice how both fugue subjects have long pauses in them. Here's the Buxtehude:

ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta  (pause)  ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta  (pause) ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta (pause) tum-tum-tum-tahh-tahh-ti (here we dissolve into a profusion of rapid notes rushing down a scale)

And the Bach:

da-di-da-di-da-di-da-di-dah    (pause)     twi-dle-twi-dle-twi-dle-twi-dle etc etc very long stream of notes also rapid and heading in a downward trajectory

Now into those pauses, both composers are later going to be able to insert other material once the fugue gets going. In fact, when two or three voices are sounding at once in a fugue, it can often sound like the musical strands are talking over each other, albeit harmoniously. This is in fact typical for a fugue. But leave a hole in your theme, and instead of a harmonious blend, you end up with a dialogue--a conversation which quickly shifts from one voice to the other and back because they aren't "talking at once." In Buxtehude's case, he often has the other three voices in his four voice texture make this little comment to fill in that gap:


Whereas Bach resorts to this little ditty, even less sophisticated than his fugue subject:


After which, it is time to take care of that profusion of notes they've both written into the ends of their fugue subjects. Now there is only so much rushing around that is going to sound musically attractive. Both gentlemen solve that problem the same way, which is to let the fugue subject prattle on with its shower of notes, and have the other voices which are not stating the fugue subject largely stay out of the way. That concentrates the running activity in one voice at a time.

As I observed when I wrote about the Buxtehude, it seems a bit like cheating, mainly because it requires less compositional dexterity to follow one voice around while it chatters and let the other fill in with rhythmic plunks on the beat, but the effect is charming, and a good (or in this case great) composer knows when to get out of the way, and especially, what is most effective given the natural strengths and weaknesses of the material.

Two other observations: one is that the fugue subjects almost never go away. In most fugues there are places, usually transitions from one key are to another, where the fugue subject disappears completely and can be heard in none of the voices. In both of these fugues that happens only a little; it is almost wall to wall subject area, which means that once you have the opening fugue subject in your head you can hear it in the upper voice, the lower voice, or somewhere in the middle, practically the entire time.

Another observation is that both pieces really give your feet something to do. The pedal parts to these fugues are quite athletic and fun to play. Bach, the younger man, must have felt the need to outdo his predecessor, and he concludes his piece with a rip-roaring pedal solo. Not to mention the burp at the end! (Buxtehude chooses instead a soprano flourish.)

Here are both pieces in their entirety for your fun and profit. Happy listening!

Buxtehude:  Praeludium in F BwxWV145 (the fugue portion begins at 2:26)

Bach:  Fugue in D, Bwv 532

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