Figuring out Fugues: 10 STEPS to Learning A Bach Keyboard Fugue Efficiently

By Tan, Siok Lian | American Music Teacher, June-July 2019 | Go to article overview

Figuring out Fugues: 10 STEPS to Learning A Bach Keyboard Fugue Efficiently


Tan, Siok Lian, American Music Teacher


J.S. Bach's fugues are core repertory for pianists. College entrance auditions and piano competitions often require pianists to perform a Bach prelude and fugue; yet, it is challenging for many developing pianists to learn and play Bach's fugues effectively. As an active piano adjudicator, I've often heard mechanically and monotonously played Bach fugues in auditions and competitions. Unlike classical sonata movements that are mostly homophonic, with melody and accompaniment, fugues are contrapuntal works, with layers of independent lines, requiring a different approach for mastery. Pianists need good finger and hand coordination to properly manipulate multiple voices simultaneously in a fugue. They must also understand the complex design of a fugue to make informed musical decisions. Studying Bach's fugues conscientiously, particularly his fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, allows pianists to understand the fugal procedure and cultivate the technique and musicianship required to play these works.

Learning a Bach fugue can be a daunting task for students; however, piano teachers can use the following approach to guide students systematically in learning his fugues with confidence and efficiency.

TEN STEPS TO LEARNING A BACH FUGUE EFFICIENTLY

1 Know then main components and compositional procedures of a fugue

When first introducing students to a Bach fugue, clearly explain the fugue's main ideas, basic form and thematic treatments. Such fundamental knowledge helps students understand the structure and inner working of a fugue. (See Table 1).

2 Listen to multiple recordings for different interpretations

Several performers known for quality performances of Bach's music include Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt. Students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with these artists' interpretations of Bach and listen to two or three different recordings of the fugue they are studying. By listening to what are considered good performances, students learn to develop a sense of "good taste" for playing Bach's music. Key elements students should listen for include: how main ideas are presented, how clarity of lines and textural balance are achieved, how each section is defined, how characters are conveyed and how the overall direction is projected. Listening to different pianists' interpretations of the same fugue may reveal distinct stylistic differences to express the piece convincingly.

3 Analyze the fugue to understand its structure and the way it unfolds.

It is essential for students to identify the overall design of the fugue, which can serve as a road map to the performer and the audience. Knowing the overall design helps determine the direction of the piece and identify places to breathe within the music. For example, in the exposition of a fugue, the gradual increase of the number of voices with successive subject entrances often signifies a build-up of dynamic level and intensity as the texture becomes thicker. The end of the exposition is usually articulated with a cadence and a small breath before continuing to the next section.

Understanding the function of an episode helps with making musical decisions as well. Functions of an episode include modulating from one key to another, linking two groups of subject statements, providing a relief to the tension build up from the previous subject entrances, serving as a tension builder to welcome back the next subject statement, or providing color and mood contrast. In addition, students need to identify the different key areas within the fugue. Different key areas often represent different moods and students could vary their tone color, dynamic level and articulation to communicate different moods.

For a student's first fugue, it is appropriate for teachers to assign a three-voice fugue with no complicated subject treatments, such as the Fugues in C Minor, D Minor, E Major and B-flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. …

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