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 other 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 a fugue or any other type of polyphonic music.
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 ignoring this process, but these are rare exceptions; the vast majority of learners find it necessary to embrace the practicing of all polyphonic music in general, and fugues in particular, in a special way to assure them of success [See blog, Practicing & Memorizing, Part I].
This is because a fugue isn't like other music; it's a special, different kind of animal in the musical world and thus requires special handling.
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; when we've got our eyes fixed on reaching the tallest summits it's only human to want to look at smaller goals 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; and the Bach Chorales are the basic fodder for the teaching of harmony the world over; study of any of this material is never a waste of time.
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 doing the little things that will allow them success.
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 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 loud as they can.
But he isn't a devil; he never was; this music in front of them wasn't deliberately written to be difficult; Bach simply wrote it this way to give every voice, not just the top line, equal rights, equal freedom, and equal independence; in other words, it's difficult because it has to be.
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.
Bach fugues therefore are not easy and nobody ever said they were -- 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 his or anyone else's fugues written in the same style 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 fairly simple to understand, 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 the core of most systems involves dividing the learning into steps before trying to play the fugue completely through; in an ideal world where sufficient practice time is no object, we would adopt an approach which finds these 7 steps at its core:
1) The first and foremost principle would be to know each voice all by itself; each voice needs to be treated 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 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 very solid.
2) The second principle would be this: using the proper fingering and hand division is essential; very slowly, at half concert tempo or even slower, we need to sight read the fugue in sections, one hand at a time, starting with the right hand, 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 might find ourselves writing in one fingering and then using another one; we should try practicing the piece a few times to get to know it, THEN write in fingering -- and the fingering we indicate need only be the troublesome or critical spots, not every 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 laws and rules of part writing so we know which notes to tie and which ones to play at half written value when a legato is desired and 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.
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.
Speaking 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 lines 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: 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.
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 playing a Bach fugue for organ or keyboard is that, due to its complexity, it's virtually impossible to sight read it; all the moving lines are independent, have equal rights, and require the fullest accuracy, which requires the left hand and feet to cooperate with and be as equally skilled as the right hand.
4) The next principle would be: once we've arrived at the best fingerings for both hands, we write them down and do not deviate from them; the fundamental component for developing the memory to play fugues by heart is writing down the fingering.
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 are 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 practice the pedal line and write down the pedalling, heel and toe, into the score based upon the articulation we want to use; this should then be practiced slowly, all by itself, until we get the feeling of where our feet need to be.
6) The next thing would be: when we can play the hands separate perfectly, we start practicing both hands together at a painfully 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 stop where we keep faltering; this may take longer and be really irritating, but it will pay off in the end.
7) The final principle would be: we add the pedal line to both hands and practice the whole thing, slowly, at half concert tempo; when we can play it this way flawlessly, then and only then do we increase the tempo.
There are variations in this basic system for practicing a fugue advocated by different people; some advise singing a part, some advise practicing the parts in all their various combinations and permutations; for a 4 voice fugue, once again, this means devoting time to practicing the work 15 different ways [See blog, Calculating Stop Combinations, Parts I-III].
Now, today's motivated student presented with adopting such a system for learning a fugue, despite its logic and many advantages, is nevertheless inclined to resist adopting it; the reason is, in a world bulging with so many other activities and responsibilities which tug at their time and attention, they simply cannot find the time required to set it in motion and stay with it, as is, much as they would like to, without some sort of modification; they find that they have to abbreviate it in some way or be faced with not employing it at all.
What many wind up doing is omitting the 1st of these steps and combining/rearranging the remainder; this leaves them with a fewer number of steps which, in a nutshell, are:
1) Practice (sight read) the RIGHT HAND part all by itself, SLOW, write the fingering and hand division into the score, and STICK WITH IT.
2) Do the same with the LEFT HAND part.
3) Now practice (sight read) the pedal part, all by itself, SLOW, write the heel and toe indications into the score, and STICK WITH IT.
4) Now, practice (sight read) both hands together -- SLOW.
5) Finally, put it all together -- SLOW -- at half concert tempo or less -- and gradually increase the speed.
There are some organists who NEVER break their fugue practicing down into separate steps like this and always practice all parts together, working out the fingering, hand division, and pedalling 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 seems easy for one may be difficult or even impossible for another.
The truth is, all we need are 1) the right tools and 2) the type of approach to learning that works for us, and the most recalcitrant fugue is within our performing grasp.
It will require some experimentation therefore, in order for each of us to settle into the approach to learning a fugue that, for us, leads to results.