Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fuguing on the Edge

For some reason there have been a lot of posts about fugues lately. Why was that? Oh right, I wrote them and then somebody commented on them. Just to round it off, let's have one last post on fugues and be done with it--for now. As I said in a comment to this post a fugue has independent voices or melodic parts. One or more singers or instruments per voice. Two flutes can perform a 2 voice fugue and so on. But some instruments can more or less play multiple voices. Keyboard instruments like organ, piano and harpsichord do this fairly easily. There are a number of keyboard fugues by Bach for five voices, which is pushing it. Other instruments like the lute and guitar can play fugues, but with considerable difficulty because each note requires a finger from each hand to play. Whereas on the keyboard, one finger can play one note, on the lute you need one finger to press the string down and another on the other hand to pluck the string. Same with the guitar. But you do have several strings to work with--in the case of the baroque lute, thirteen strings.

Now imagine an instrument with only four strings, no frets and instead of plucking the notes, you play them with a single bow. Right, the violin. This would seem to be a very poor instrument to play fugues on, but Bach wrote several for the violin. They are right at the edge of what is possible. The fugue from the first sonata for unaccompanied violin in G minor is a fine one. Here is the young Slovak violinist Ondrej Janoska performing live:

Bach later arranged the fugue for baroque lute, adding some entries in the bass:

The lute version sounds particularly good on guitar:

Bach liked the challenge of pushing the possibilities to the limit. Perhaps the biggest challenge he took on was to write a series of fugues exploring every possibility of counterpoint and using just one theme for all of them. That little project is The Art of Fugue and I guess we will talk about it in a future post...

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