Nov. 9, 2021

How To Play A Fugue

In previous postings in this blog/archive we have essayed how to WRITE an organ fugue [Ten Steps Of Fugue Writing] and how to LEARN an organ fugue [How To Learn A Fugue] ... now we will take up 5 of the most critically important points having to do with how to PLAY one ...
1. It's important to bear in mind that the whole idea of a fugue is crescendo, textural contrast, and tonal contrast (modulation); in the exposition there is a step-wise dynamic increase as each voice enters, and when the voice texture thins during the episodes the music undergoes a contrasting decrescendo; this contrast, of course, can be and usually is accentuated -- within reason -- by registration changes, manual changes, and use of the swell pedal.
It isn't good to start a Bach fugue on a single 8-foot stop at a barely audible pianissimo and end with an Armageddon of sound ... why? ... because all extremes in densely contrapuntal music need to be avoided like the plague to keep things clear to the listener.
It isn't good for the sound level to decrease suddenly and drastically during episodes between entries ... why? ... because the idea is to keep the listener with us; if the music is moving along at a forte dynamic and the bottom suddenly drops out it has the same effect on listeners as if we were to take off at an insanely fast tempo and leave them behind -- then they have to catch up, and they're a little lost briefly.
The same is true of tonal contrast, or modulation; the music need not wander all around the Circle during episodes in order to prepare the way into the key of the next entry; all that may be needed to link the last entry with the next one is a short modulating sequence of 4 or more bars which moves through a common chord, gradually adding or subtracting accidentals as needed; brevity during the episodes in fact will help create a sense of rapid and weighty development.
This leads to the next point ...
2. At its most elemental level, before hands or feet ever touch the instrument's keys, everything in performance will depend upon the organist's choice of stops.
It's critically important to spend some time in advance with the instrument getting to know each and every one of its voices, their tone color in high, low, and mid-ranges, and to find a combination of stops that creates a balanced chorus on the main manual, balanced ensembles on the other manuals, and a lean full organ sound.
For the Bach fugue it's better to avoid the use of large scale, tubby-sounding diapasons and flutes, big reeds, highly imitative strings and color reeds, and screaming mixtures in ensembles; it isn't good to start out the fugue with the biggest sound the organ can produce because it leaves nothing left to be brought on for the big finish; a big punch at the end serves the music, thus it's a good idea to hold something back for the coda.
Using Bach as the example, the exposition typically ends when the first pedal entry comes to a stop; in each subsequent entry the pedal line typically restarts and comes to a stop for the episodes between entries, and typically the final entry of the subject will be in the bottom octave of the pedals with the addition of a Pedal stop or two, such as a tame 16-foot reed or, if such a stop is already drawn, a 32-foot stop if one is available.
Clarity of the moving lines, particularly in the bass, if of prime importance in the performance of multi-voice fugues, thus at the outset narrow scale and mid-scale diapasons of a tone not too commanding and powerful along with other non-imitative quick speaking 8-foot and 4-foot foundation stops (including a mixture stop, if not too strident, in the main manual) are good to draw in the manuals along with a balance of 16-foot and 8-foot foundation tone in the Pedal, whatever the organ happens to have.
It's a good idea to start out by including in the Pedal either a tame 8-foot reed (possibly the Oboe coupled from the Swell) or a tame 16-foot reed, this to supply definition so the listener can easily pick out and follow that all-important pedal line.
A ministering art of performance is needed when selecting stops for Bach playing; to play fugues we set combinations in advance as we do for all music, but subtle changes are what's needed for playing Bach; in the Bach fugue the temptation to use the organ's absolute power, to make registration changes too frequently or in large clumps at a time. needs to be resisted.
3. It's important to LISTEN FOR THE LISTENER.
DON'T listen to it as YOU hear it ... separate from that and listen to it as THE LISTENER hears it.
These are two different things.
If we listen to it only as WE hear it, sometimes things aren't kept clear that really need to be kept clear.
This is a critically important general concept to integrate into our playing from the get-go, for EVERYTHING we play.
Maintain the hypnotic pulse of the music, but keep the tempo elastic; we don't want it to sound mechanical from beginning to end, like a typewriter is playing; nuance the music by starting the subject at the outset just a tad slow, then increase to tempo, maintain the pulse, but slow it a barely appreciable trifle before something else starts and then resume tempo.
Our ear tells us, for example, that when playing densely contrapuntal music like multi-voice fugues the more we connect the left hand line, the less the right hand line is evident, the more it's compromised; in such places the moving lines aren't really audible -- they are just vaguely moving.
At times we may have to "change the manuscript mentally" to get clear what's written on the page ... why? ... because the idea is to deliver ALL of the majestic powers at work on the page to the listener.
With Reger, for example, we have to change hundreds of things in the way he wrote it, but we do it because when we play it exactly as written our ear tells us that not everything on the page is really audible, and it's wonderful writing.
On the other hand, with Bach playing, we're not really changing anything -- we're just not connecting everything.
4. We also need to get used to the idea, if we aren't already, that THE ORGANIST PLAYS THE BUILDING AS WELL AS THE INSTRUMENT.
The touch and tempo will suggest itself depending upon the way the instrument breathes in its own acoustical environment and how much "bounce" the room has.
The way we performed it at our last public service or concert or the way we always practice it at home may not, and often does not, work at all on the instrument at hand.
In wet acoustics it may be necessary to play a little slower and more broken; in dry acoustics we can quicken the tempo and play less broken or even legato.
In very dry acoustics the values of rests written between big detached chords may have to be shortened (and the chords held longer) from what is written to keep the music from sounding too choppy; the composer, in writing the music, gauges the values of these rests written into the score between big chords by imagining the effect they would have in a moderately reverberant building -- which may not be the case at all where we're playing today.
5. One more thing: DO WE ... OR DO WE NOT ... SOLO THE FUGUE SUBJECT? ...
This is a modern development typically limited to the moving line in the left hand taken momentarily on a secondary manual, a maneuver which has gained acceptance among those players who tend to think orchestrally even when playing a multi-voice Bach fugue.
In the Bach fugue all of the voices in an entry are independent and have equal rights, thus they are to be weighted equally in performance simply because in the mind of this composer -- the greatest fugue writer who ever lived -- any of the moving lines can function as foreground material, not just the subject.
Some of the charm of polyphonic music like this is precisely due to the composer giving each moving line -- subject, countersubjects, and a free voice, if present -- equal treatment on the page and the interpreter giving them equal treatment in performance (the only possible exception being the final entry where with Bach the subject typically is assigned to the bottom octave of the pedals possibly with the addition of another subtle layer of sound -- this to allow the subject to exploit to the fullest the downward sonority of the instrument).
For this reason soloing the subject in an organ fugue -- unless written into a certain place in the score where the composer wanted the subject to be specially accentuated, such as at a redundant entry [See top menu bar, 5 Postludes, Postlude in F# Major Op. 33, for an example of this] -- is contraindicated.