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The polyphonic instrumental works of Bach and his contemporaries were called by such names as Preludes, Fugues, Canons, Inventions, Toccatas, and Fantasies; but since a complete account of all these forms would lead too far afield, we shall confine ourselves to a description of the Canon, the Invention and the Fugue. A Canon (from the Greek [Greek: Kanôn], meaning a strict rule or law) is a composition in which there is a literal systematic imitation, carried out to the end, between two or more of the voices (often with subsidiary voices filling in), and maybe considered a kind of musical dialogue in which the second, or answering, part reënforces the message previously uttered by the leading voice.

This imitation may take place at any degree of separation; and Canons are in existence at the interval of the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. The most effective Canons, however, are those in which the answering voice is an octave away from the leading one. Although the Canon is not a form employed frequently by modern composers for an entire composition, Canonic imitation appears so often in all large works for orchestra, string quartet or ensemble combinations, that the music-lover should acquire certain ease in listening to a structure of this type. The Canon, moreover, is an integral factor in the style of César Franck, d’Indy and Brahms; and illustrations of its use abound in their works. The organ is particularly well suited to the rendition of Canons; since by its facilities for tone-color, the two voices may be clearly contrasted.

Those interested in organ literature should become acquainted with the following excellent examples:

The Canon in B-flat major, op. 40, by Guilmant;

the 4th movement of the Fifth Organ Symphony by Widor; the

In other fields of composition, the following should be cited: The set of Pianoforte Pieces in Canon form, op. 35, by Jadassohn; alike set by Rheinberger, op. 180; the Canonic Vocal Trios, op. 156, by Reinecke and the famous Canon from the first act of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. There is also a beautiful bit of Canonic imitation between two of the upper voices in the introduction
of Berlioz’s Carnaval Romain Overture for orchestra. One of the most appealing Canons in modern literature is the setting for soprano and barytone, by Henschel, of the poem Oh that we two were Maying by Charles Kingsley. This example alone would sufficiently corroborate the statement that the firmness of structure inherent in the canonic form is perfectly compatible with genuine freedom and poetry of inspiration. In the first movement of César Frank’s Symphony in D minor, at the recapitulation (page 39 of the full score) may be found a magnificent example of the intensity of effect gained by a canonic imitation of the main theme–in this instance between the lower and upper voices.

Possibly the finest example of canonic writing in all literature is the Finale of César Franck’s Sonata in A major for Violin and Pianoforte in which, for several pages, there is an eloquent dialogue between the two contrasting instruments. The movement is too long for citation but it should certainly be procured and studied. In the Trio of the Scherzo in Beethoven’s Seventh Sonata for Violin and Pianoforte there is a free use of canonic imitation which will repay investigation. Lastly, the Aria with 30 Variations–the so-called Goldberg Variations of Bach–is a perfect storehouse of every conceivable canonic device.

A few standard examples are to be found in the Supplement. These should be played over and studied until they are thoroughly familiar–not only for the pleasure to be derived but for the indispensable training afforded in polyphonic listening.

Canonic Variation by Schumann from the Études Symphoniques.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

One of the most simple and direct types of polyphonic composition is the form is known as the Invention in which, as the term implies, the composer–through his inventive genius and by means of the polyphonic devices of imitation and transposition–develops to the logical conclusion some short and characteristic motive. We are fortunate in having from Bach himself, that consummate master of polyphony, two sets of such Inventions: fifteen for two voices, and fifteen for three. These flights of fancy–in which art so subtly conceals art–though originally composed for the clavichord and harpsichord (the precursors of the pianoforte), are very effective on our modern instrument and should be in the possession of every music-student.[36] A brief analysis is now given of the first one in the set for two voices, and Nos. 4, 8 and 10 in this set are particularly recommended for study; also Nos. 2, 6 and 14 among those for three voices. The opening motive is the foundation of the entire composition and is at once imitated,
canonically, in the lower voice. Then the two voices play about, with figures clearly derived from the motive, until we reach, in measures three and four, a systematic downward transposition of the material.

Such transpositions or shiftings up or down in pitch are called Sequences. They are very frequent in all polyphonic composition, give a strong sense of unity to melodic progression and are generally carried out in groups of three, i.e., the original figure and two repetitions. After the sequence, the music naturally works toward the most nearly related key (the dominant) and in the seventh measure reaches in that key its first objective. These Inventions of Bach, as well as the Dance forms soon to be studied, are almost invariably in what is known as Two-part form, i.e., the music consists of two main divisions, clearly marked off by cadences; the first of which modulates to the dominant or some related key while the second part, starting in this key, works back to a final close in the home key. In Inventions, it early became customary in the second part to begin with the same motive as the first–but in the opposite voice. Thus we see, in the Invention now being discussed, that the seventh measure begins with the original motive in the bass which, in turn, is imitated by the Soprano–a process just the reverse of that in the
opening measures.

In pieces in this Two-part form the second portion is generally longer than the first; for the composer, by the time he has reached this second part, may consider the material sufficiently familiar to be expanded and varied by excursions into more remote keys, and by more intricate manipulations of the chief motive. In measure 11 we find a modulation to D minor and then, after some free treatment of the motive, we reach–in measure 15–a cadence in A minor. A long sequential passage brings us, through a modulation to the subdominant key of F major (in measures 18 and 19), to a strong closing cadence in the home key.

It should be noticed that in this Invention and in some of the dance forms there is shown a strong leaning towards a tripartite division of the material as is indicated by the three cadences in measures 7, 15 and 22. Since, however, the middle part is lacking in any strong contrast–which is such an essential factor in the fully developed three-part form–it seems better to consider this piece, and others like it, as a tendency rather than as a complete embodiment of tripartite arrangement. It is expected that the music lover will take these Inventions for what they really are and not search in them for those notes of intense subjectivity and dramatic power so prevalent in modern music. They are merely little pieces–a “tour de force” in polyphonic ingenuity; music rejoicing in its own inherent vitality. Accepted in this spirit they are invigorating and charming.

The form in which polyphonic skill reaches its highest possibilities is the Fugue, and the immortal examples of this form are the Fugues of John Sebastian Bach, found in his Well-tempered Clavichord and in his mighty works for the organ. The fundamental structure of a fugue is implied in the term itself (from the Latin “Fuga”–flight); that is, in a fugue, the main theme or subject is always announced in a single voice, and the remaining voices, appearing successively in accordance with definite principles of key-relationship, seem to chase each other about and to flee from pursuit. The several stratified entrances of the subject are relieved by intermediate passages called “Episodes.” An Episode, as shown by the derivation ([Greek: ipi hodos], by the way), is something off the beaten path–a digression; and it is in these episodical portions of a fugue rather than in the formalistic portions that the genius of the composer shines forth.

This is especially true of Bach, for almost any well-trained musician can invent a subject which will allow of satisfactory fungal treatment according to accepted usage; but no one save Bach has ever invented such free and fanciful episodes–so daring in scope and yet so closely connected with the main thought. The general effect of a fugue is cumulative: amassing and piling up of voices that lead to a carefully designed conclusion which, in some of Bach’s organ fugues, is positively overwhelming. A fugue may be called a mighty crescendo, like the sound of many waters. There is a popular conception, or rather mis_conception, that a fugue is a labored, dull or even “dry” form of composition, meant only as an exhibition of pedantic skill, and quite beyond the reach of ordinary musical appreciation. Nothing is farther from the truth, as a slight examination of musical literature will show.

For we see that the fugal form has been used to express well-nigh every form of human emotion, the sublime, the tragic, the romantic; very often the humorous and the fantastic. When we recall the irresistible sparkle and dash of Mozart’s _Magic Flute Overture, of the Overture to the Bartered Bride by Smetana, of the Finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and of many of the fugues in the Well-tempered Clavichord, it is evident that to call a fugue “dry” is an utter abuse of language.

It is true that there are weak, artificial and dull fugues, where the composer–frankly–had nothing to say and merely filled out the form; but the same may be said of every type of composition, i.e., among them all are examples inspired and–less inspired. This, however, is no indictment of the fugue per se, against which the only thing to be said is that it
requires on the part of the listener an exceeding concentration. Some of the masterpieces of the world being wholly or partially in the fugal form, it is the duty of those listening to polyphonic music to train their powers to the same seriousness of attention expected and freely given in the appreciation of an oration, a drama or a
cathedral. These latter manifestations of artistic expression, to be sure, are less abstract than the fugue and more closely related to daily life. Yet no effort is more repaying than the mental and emotional energy expended in listening to the interweavings of a good fugue; for, conscious of missing the periodic divisions of the Folk-song, we have to listen to more than one melody at a time. A fugue is a composition, as the French say, of “longue haleine,” our attention, in order to follow its structure, must be on the “qui vive” every moment. The fugue, in fact, is an example of the intricate and yet organic complexity found in all the higher forms of life itself; and whenever a composer has wished to dwell with emphasis on a particular theme, he almost invariably resorts to some form of fugal treatment, strict or free. The most effective media for rendering fugues are the chorus of mixed voices, the organ (by reason of its pedal key-board always making the subject in the bass stand out majestically) and the stringed orchestra which, with the “bite” of the strings, brings out–with peculiar sharpness–the different entrances of the subject. The student should become familiar with standard examples in each of these classes and should, above all, seek the opportunity to hear some of the organ fugues of Bach performed on a really fine instrument.

A few well-known fugues are herewith cited in order to stimulate the student to some investigation of his own. In all the Oratorios of Handel and in the choral works of Bach, such as the B minor Mass, may be found magnificent fugues–as free and vital in their rhythmic swing as the ocean itself. Particular attention should be called to the fugue in the Messiah “And by His stripes, we were healed [Transcriber’s Note: And with His stripes, we are healed].” One of the most impressive fugues in modern literature is the à capella chorus Urbs Syon Unica from H.W. Parker’s Hora Novissima. From among the organ works of Bach everyone should know the Fugues in G minor, in A minor, in D major and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. These have all been transcribed for the pianoforte by Liszt and so are readily available; they are often played at pianoforte recitals by Paderewski and other virtuosi. In hearing one of these masterpieces no one can remain unmoved or can fail to reverence the constructive genius which fashioned such cathedrals in tone. For orchestra we have the Prelude to Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, and the beginning of the Prelude to the third act of Wagner’s Mastersingers. There are striking fugal passages in Beethoven’s Symphonies, e.g., the first movement of the Heroic Symphony and the rollicking Trio of the Scherzo in the Fifth Symphony. In more modern literature there is the fugal Finale to Arthur Foote’s Suite for Orchestra and in Chadwick’s Vagrom Ballad a humorous quotation of the theme from Bach’s G minor Fugue for organ. One of the most superb fugues in freestyle is the last movement of César Franck’s Prelude, Choral and Fugue in B minor for Pianoforte. This movement alone would refute all charges of dullness or dryness brought against the fugue by the unthinking or the unenlightened. A good fugue, in fact, is so full of vitality and demands such active comprehension[39] on the part of the listener that it is not difficult to imagine where the dullness and dryness is generally found.

At this point by an analysis of a fugue from the Well-tempered Clavichord, let us explain some of the technical features in fugal structure. We shall then be in a position to understand the more subtle devices of fugal treatment and to appreciate more enthusiastically some additional comments upon Bach’s style in general.


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