MacDonald, Sarah, The American Organist
THUS begins Glenn Gould's legendary work for SATB and piano, which I sang as a member of the Ontario Youth Choir many years ago. Gould demonstrates extraordinary technical wizardry and compositional skill in this epic piece, as well as the occasional lapse of good taste. As organists, we play a lot of fugues, but these days not many of us have the urge to write one.
As a teenager enjoying Gould's humorous pastiche, I certainly never envisioned myself writing a fugue. Upon arrival in Cambridge, however, where this traditional compositional skill was, and continues to be, a compulsory component of an undergraduate music degree, I soon found myself immersed in the study of this contrapuntal discipline. Now, many years later, I am on the other side, teaching and examining the current generations of students. As I write, we have just completed the examination season here, and I have spent the past few weeks assessing the fugues written by undergraduates. Inevitably, I was moved to brood upon the role and purpose of this archaic and perhaps antiquated art form, which for some reason we continue to consider a crucial part of a basic musical education.
Music students in Cambridge enjoy the luxury of weekly one-on-one lessons (called "supervisions") with a specialist counterpoint supervisor. In the first year of a threeyear degree, all undergraduates are taught fugai exposition. Their initial study includes a detailed review of dissonance and how to treat it correctly (suspensions, accented and unaccented passing notes, 6/4 chords, etc.); lengthy reflections on tonal and real answers; consideration of, and responses to, prominent dominants; negotiation with, and neutralization of, modulations; composition of invertible countersubjects and codettas; implementation of redundant entries; and so on. The students also undertake in-depth analysis of the Well-Tempered Clavier's expositions, although (if truth be told) JSB didn't always obey all the rules (see, for example, the F-sharp-minor fugue in Book One, where the exposition proceeds in the order Subject, Answer, Subject, Subject).
Having mastered the exposition, students go on in the second year to learn how to write the rest of a fugue. They scrutinize structure and overall shape; they learn to navigate sequential modulations through the circle of fifths (and other progressions) between middle entries of the subject in related keys; they discover the perils of modulating too far sharp-wards or flat-wards; they quickly ascertain the usefulness of triple-invertible counterpoint in spinning out the number of measures they are able to present to their supervisors. Once these more basic compositional skills are mastered, the real fun begins, as they begin to experiment with devices like augmentation, diminution, inversion, retrograde, stretto, pedal point, aposiopesis, and other such esoteric musical trickery. …