"It ain't no rapids. All you need are the right tools, and it's just a pasture ... with a bunch of sheep -- lying down and snoozing."
-- John "Quasi" Weissrock
We need the right tools to learn how to play a fugue, and those tools are basically three in number: 1) the right fingering and hand division, 2) the right heel-and-toe pedalling, and 3) the right approach to practicing.
The organ is essentially a polyphonic instrument, which makes the multi-voice fugue the organ piece "par excellence."
The organist therefore MUST ... repeat MUST ... be armed to know how to approach learning an organ fugue.
The information in this posting is critically important for new organists to thoroughly understand and adopt as part of their practice routine:
We have talked at great length on this web site about how to write organ music and how to go about practicing and memorizing -- along with a boat load of related conceptual learning.
Some additional tips are very important to bear in mind when it comes to sitting down on the bench and learning to play fugues or any other type of polyphonic music, for that matter.
This posting is not about how to play, or perform, a fugue once it's notes are learned and already under the fingers and feet; it's about how to LEARN one in the first place.
There's a special process involved with that -- and there are some performers who seem to be able to get away with condensing the process into fewer steps or even ignoring that process altogether, but these are very rare; the vast majority of players find it necessary to embrace the practicing of all polyphonic music in general, and fugues in particular, in a special way which assures them of success [See blog, Practicing & Memorizing, Part I].
It's natural to struggle with fugues; they're harder to learn and really tough to sight read compared with preludes because, even though preludes may have polyphonic sections, the fugue is contrapuntal throughout, which means that each voice imitates other voices -- each voice takes up a theme (called a "subject") and presents it in different shapes and ways, in different voices and keys.
The mind has to notice all that, all the while that other voices are doing something else and, very often, more complicated.
A fugue therefore isn't like other music -- it's a different animal altogether, and acknowledging this fact is the actual first step forward in learning how to play one.
Fugues are written from left to right, not vertically like songs and so many other pieces with a single melody line; although the fugue composer keeps track of harmonies and progressions to be sure, fugues are horizontal in design, hence there is counterpoint, and pieces having counterpoint require a special manner of practice from which we do not deviate.
In terms of the number of ways we can practice a fugal passage, practicing just one line obviously provides just one way, but when we add the 2nd line to it we suddenly have 3 ways of practicing the voice combinations (i.e., right hand alone, left hand alone, both hands together); adding a 3rd line in trio texture causes the number of ways to increase to 7 (right hand alone, left hand alone, both hands, pedal, right hand and pedal, left hand and pedal, both hands and pedal); when the 4th voice enters in SATB texture, the number of ways jumps to 15, and so on, according to formula [See blog, Calculating Stop Combinations Parts I-III].
Because all 15 of these combinations in a 4 voice fugue must sound clearly if broken down separately, this means that it requires 15 times the coordination, hence it's 15 times harder, to perform a fugue in 4 voices on an organ with pedals than it is to play just one of the moving lines all by itself.
Little wonder then, why a special approach to practice is needed when learning organ fugues, but this is something we just don't want to hear from our coach or teacher; when we've got our eyes fixed on reaching the tallest summits it's only human to want to look at a stepped process as a needless preoccupation; but the complexity of Bach's music makes this a non-negotiable point.
Before taking on any major Bach organ work, it's a very good idea to first learn to play something shorter and less complex; this might mean a few selections from the 8 Little Preludes & Fugues or "the 48"; before that, the Three Part Sinfonias; before that the Two Part Inventions; before that maybe any of the 413 Bach Chorales or a few Preludes from Friedemann's or Anna's Klavierbuchlein.
The truth of the matter is, in the 8 Little Preludes & Fugues we find not only a great many variety of things that are important for organ study, but they make useful repertoire; the Inventions and Sinfonias are fugues in 2 and 3 parts, respectively, and also sound well on the organ, as do any of "the 48" with suitable registrations drawn; the Bach Chorales are not only the basic fodder for the teaching of harmony the world over, but his part writing is all over the map; his voice leading bends and breaks every so-called "rule" in the book.
Study of any of this material is never a waste of time; the world can never ever, repeat never, get enough of Bach's music.
This defines the path, but anyone moving from the piano to the organ and still struggling with learning to play one of Bach's organ fugues usually isn't struggling because it's beyond their capability; they simply aren't attacking it with the kind of strategy and tactics that will grant them victory.
These pieces are far and away the most complicated of music to get into the fingers and feet, being made up of a multiplicity of interweaving, interdependent voices perpetually reacting to one another, appearing at times upside-down, backwards, rhythmically lengthened or shortened, and migrating through various keys all the while forming a coherent harmonic unity; the Bach fugue brings performers to their knees and can strike fear into the hearts of keyboard players the world over, yet most have never actually learned HOW to learn a fugue.
The majority of piano students moving to the organ are oblivious to the fact, and are entirely unaware, that there IS a "how."
It's an all too familiar story: the student begins study with a teacher, loves to listen to Bach and finds his music wonderfully, awfully, sublimely challenging, has their first fugue assigned to them, begins learning it like they would any other piece of music, and then, 6 or 10 or 15 bars in, their head is splitting.
They're trying to sight read it like they would any other piece of music, front to back, without dividing it and breaking it down for digestion; it isn't working -- they feel overwhelmed, disgusted; they can even feel like pulling their hair out and yelling, "THAT DEVIL BACH !!" -- as loudly as they can.
But he isn't a devil -- he never was; he never deliberately made his music difficult to play -- that's not so; he simply gave all of his voice parts equal freedom and equal independence; the result is a piece of music with dense counterpoint and a greatly enriched harmony which changes not just with every measure, 2 measures, 4 measures, or even with every beat, but kaleidoscopically with every movement of every voice.
The inevitable by-product of this type of composing is this: simplicity is automatically thrown overboard-- and this is precisely what makes the entire creativity of this enormous man Bach so endlessly fascinating.
In breaking down the barriers of possibility for all of the voices in his compositions like this, a reliable authority (his pupil Kirnberger) stated that J.S. Bach would never hear of anything being "not feasible" -- this belief stemmed not only from Bach's sheer mastery of the techniques of composition but also his religious beliefs.
When we today are so used to hearing and playing songs with homophonic texture such as are frequently encountered in Romantic, Modern, and Contemporary music -- where the separation of hands tends to align with the organization of the music, the right hand typically plays the melody or tune, the left hand plays the accompaniment, and the left foot holds down a pedal note -- we're in a zone where the top line reigns supreme in the foreground, background harmonies are strictly subordinate to it, and, not surprisingly, it provides us with little if any issues to settle.
Polyphonic music like Bach's isn't like that; in it, foreground and background elements may take place in either hand or in the feet, in any part of the manuals or pedals, even divided between the hands, and the harmony changes not just with every beat, every other beat, or with every measure, but kaleidoscopically at every moment and with every move of every voice, providing a perpetually shifting harmony of extreme richness.
Organ fugues, therefore, are difficult and time consuming to learn, but beautiful to hear; their difficulty is proportional to the number of voices -- but still, people try to practice them by getting all the notes into their fingers and feet like they do with any other type of music and come performance time they just hope for the best; then, they're terrified of performing them in public for fear they'll lose their way.
Yet it's possible to learn to play a Bach fugue, or anyone's fugue, securely if we only know how to learn it; fortunately that learning process is easy to grasp, although it demands a certain disciplined approach and a dogged determination to stick with it.
The exact system of approach varies with the teacher, but all of them involve dividing the learning into steps before trying to play the fugue completely through.
When the new organist questions their teacher about how to best go about learning one of Bach's major organ fugues, the traditional answer given is to keep certain principles in mind, which run something like the following:
1. The first and foremost principle would be to know each voice as though it were a separate instrument; in this sense the organist is, in effect, both the entire ensemble and the conductor -- because the end result is beautiful when each line is shaped as if it were being played by an individual instrument.
The famous blind organist Helmut Walcha in fact learned to play Bach's organ works this very way, i.e. by having someone read the score for him and tell him what it looks like, playing back each line at the keys on the spot, memorizing each line singly, and then putting it all together [See blog, Practicing & Memorizing, Part IV]; it took incredible resolve and effort to work this way, but, not surprisingly, his playing of the most complicated polyphony was extremely clear and very solid.
2. The second principle would be this: marking the fingering and hand division in the score using a pen or pencil is essential to to get things smooth and leave nothing to chance; very slowly, almost painfully slowly, we should try sight reading the fugue in small "chunks" -- just one page, one entry, or one episode at a time -- and experiment with which combination of fingers is most comfortable and natural and corresponds to the musical effect the composer is attempting to communicate; this must be approached with care and caution; this is not a time to be careless and sloppy, as the learning process -- that of making musical impressions in the memory -- begins at this time.
It's also rather important to bear in mind NOT to write in fingerings before even playing the piece; if we finger the score without playing through it we often find ourselves writing in one fingering and then using another one; we should try practicing the piece a few times at the keys to get to know it, THEN write in fingering -- and the fingering we indicate need only be at critical or tricky points which are potentially troublesome, NOT every individual note.
If we sight read the music at very slow tempo we often produce the best fingering right away, but when we're working out the best fingering we need to be familiar with the general laws and rules of part writing as well so we know which rules involving tied notes are not observed when the notes are to be articulated.
To gain an understanding of these laws and rules, Part II of Marcel Dupre's "Methode d'Orgue" may be consulted.
We need to realize and accept the fact that this is a struggle, a gradual process, to learn a fugue, and when we play it with stops we need to play these "chunks" repeatedly, not just once.
Whenever we try to play a new fugue just once and then move to another piece, it doesn't count as complete practice; also, when we're practicing the manual parts of organ fugues on a piano, it sometimes helps to sing the pedal part at the same time, as it will help develop a sense of pitch as well as complete the texture of the music.
Certain time-honored editions of Bach (such as the Dupre or Henle editions) must be considered in light of recent knowledge, as they presumed little if any articulation and were designed such that the entire fugue could be played in an unvarying legato, when we know today that Bach playing survives on all types of touch and micro-articulations between motives.
Sometimes however when we try the editor's fingerings we learn so many tricks with the fingers that we may enjoy learning and internalizing them; others may say that the better editions are unfingered ones where we can "finger it out for ourselves."
In settling on a fingering we should have the articulation, laws and rules of part writing, and hand division firmly in mind as these have everything to do with the fingering we use.
Sometimes 2 voices in separate hands have the same note to play, and we need to decide which hand should play it; generally, if one of those voices is the subject, then the hand that plays the subject should also play that voice.
In the case of average size hands, when the alto and soprano voices are more than an octave apart the left hand will need to play the alto voice even though it's written on the top staff; there are also times when the tenor line is so high that it can be taken by the right hand to free the left hand to pull a stop or coupler or press a thumb piston.
This sharing of the inner lines (alto and tenor) between the hands is called "hand division" and is just as important to mark in the score as the fingering; it may be so noted in different ways; a curved line can be drawn over the notes in the alto to be taken with the left hand or drawn under the tenor line to indicate that it's taken by the right hand ... OR ... the designations "l.h." and "r.h." can be written close to and below the notes in the score.
Certain scores (such as this author's) are already marked with hand division indications, which saves time during practice.
The above excerpt (photo) from Bach's organ fugue in F Major illustrates a passage requiring hand division; the notes in pink are all taken by the left hand.
The reader will also note, in this passage, that the upper limits of the soprano and alto voices are stretched to their limits; true to what his pupil Kirnberger stated, Bach in his part writing could be very bold like this at times.
3. The next principle would be to try playing combinations of voices, first by sight reading the left hand part, slowly, playing the tenor line and, if necessary, the notes from the alto that the left hand must take; if we manage to bump into fingerings we need to change at this point, we make those changes.
In many fugues one of more voices (usually the alto) invariably will be shared between the hands; it's important to practice hands separately, but when we do, some notes will be missing from certain voices because these notes are played by the other hand; in such cases it's crucial that we hear the unplayed notes in our mind's ear; it helps to practice the voices separately to ensure we're listening to every note of every voice.
The hardest thing about learning a Bach organ fugue is that, due to its complexity, it's virtually impossible to sight read it; all the moving lines are independent, have equal rights, and are doing all kinds of different things; the left hand and feet are thus forced to cooperate with and be as equally skilled as the right hand.
4. Once we've arrived at the best fingerings for both hands the next principle would be to write them down in pencil on the score and do not deviate from them; the fundamental component for developing the memory to play fugues by heart is writing down the fingering and pedalling.
Many will dismiss this practice as only for beginners -- the know-it-alls will assume they know better -- but this simple method works; the foremost musicians don't consider themselves "too good" to write in fingerings, and neither should we.
The true masters of organ playing all have been masters of fundamentals; the sooner this dawns on us the sooner it will be, for us, a light bulb moment.
Writing down our fingerings is imperative; we can't assume that we "just know" them; writing them down forces the mind to focus automatically on consciously thinking each finger and each note, and thereby reinforces and deepens our knowledge of the piece.
A deeply ingrained and clear mental impression of our repertoire is our very goal, and anything that digs deeper mental grooves in any aspect of musical memory will be of benefit.
It may become necessary, as we get to know a piece better, to periodically alter a fingering to provide better alticulation or maybe because our original fingering isn't working effectively at concert tempo; we should strive however to keep retroactive fingerings to an absolute minimum.
5. The next thing to do would be to write down initial heel and toe indications in the score based upon the articulation we'd like to achieve; some of it will likely have to be changed when we start putting it all together, but this at least gives our feet a starting point.
6. The next thing would be to start practicing both hands together at a very slow tempo; we can jump the tempo up a little if we're confident that we won't make too many mistakes at the next level, but we should slow down again where we keep faltering; this may take longer and be really irritating, but if we continue this, a little bit day after day, using the same fingering, hand division, and heel and toe each time, the improvements we begin to see each day will seem like magic.
7. Once we have both hands well coordinated and are able to play them smoothly and with confidence, the final principle would be to add the pedal line and put it all together, slowly, at half concert tempo or even slower; when we can play it this way without mistakes, then and only then do we increase the tempo.
There are variations in this basic system for practicing a fugue advocated by different teachers; some advise singing a part, some advise practicing the pedal part with each hand separately before putting it all together, some advise practicing the parts in all of their various combinations and permutations (for a 4 voice fugue this would mean devoting considerable time to practicing the work 15 different ways, and others might simply advocate the practice of both hands together first, then practice the pedal part (both might be tackled simultaneously), and only then practice all parts together [See blog, Calculating Stop Combinations, Parts I-III]).
One student might find the teacher's own personal system very helpful, whereas the same prescription could be very cumbersome, if not a waste of time, for another student; there is danger here that the learning of a fugue can become a misery tour instead of a pleasant, disciplined, and rewarding exercise.
TIP #1: It will help to print off a hard copy, single sided, of the piece to be learned, and tape the individual pages together so they can lie 4 across the rack at a time (so they don't have to be turned so frequently); fewer interruptions to turn pages will lead to time better spent for sight reading.
TIP #2: settle on your heel and toe indications by running a working copy of the score, single-side, just for your own personal use -- tape the pages together so they'll lie 4 across on the rack -- seat yourself at a table away from the instrument, silently read the bass line, and move the feet all the while imagining them being on the pedal keys -- find out this way what feels most comfortable and requires the least movement -- see if you can get what works in one application to work in every other; don't be afraid to use the heels here, and use them generously; it's far more important to get the bass line controlled to where it can be executed smoothly and followed clearly by the listener (and the heels have a big role to play in that) than it is to abandon use of the heels altogether for the sake of a playing style, no matter how logical, admirable, or "authentic" that style may happen to be.
Every organist needs to keep in mind that the hardest thing about organ playing -- which is to get the left hand and feet to coordinate and move independently of one other [See blog, The Hardest Thing].
The new organist is apt to discover that the left hand and pedal together are the trickiest to get coordinated, particularly when a long time has been spent at the piano, as this trains the brain to expect the bass to be carried always in the left hand rather than the feet.
It isn't that our way at the piano should be "unlearned" when coming to the organ -- far from it.
On the contrary, it isn't really unlearning at all -- it's learning a new thing which isn't as familiar -- the old way at the piano is going to be put on the shelf for the time being, for what it is; the new organist is going to have a new adventure, but it involves going all the way back to the beginning and simply getting things where they're more familiar.
There are some organists who never break their fugue practicing down into quite so many steps and always begin by learning the parts for the hands, then the pedal, or sometimes all parts together, working out the fingering, hand division, and pedaling as they go along, measure by laborious measure, all parts at the same time; that's their system, and they even recommend it to others, evidently not taking into consideration that organists are all wired differently and what works best for one player may be difficult or even impossible for another.
The truth is, about all we need to conquer the most recalcitrant fugue (and the fear of performing it publicly) are 1) the right tools (fingering, hand division, heel and toe indications, sight reading ability, keyboard and pedal technique, etc.) and 2) the will to follow a special systematic plan for practicing that's settled upon in advance, once and for all.
(con't in Part II)