Support! Shop our affiliates!
Sheet Music PlusFeatured Sale

Weekly Rampage Archives

Search for Keyword:  in Rampages 

Home Page

October 7, 2002
Vol. II, No. 37

"How Great Bach Art"
"Here we go again. Doesn't he ever get tired of going on and on about how great Bach is?" Uh, actually, no, I don't. I'll admit, I do spend a great deal of time marveling at Bach's genius. As a mental activity, I rate it right up there with pondering the stars on a cold, clear night or communing with the waves at the shore. I can't help it; I'm hooked on awe. But at least this time I have an excuse. With fall well under way, I thought it was about time I report back on my self-imposed "Summer of Fugue" ("The Heart of Fugue" - June 20, 2002). You may remember that the goal of this exercise was to spend the summer studying Bach's fugues and trying to reach a deeper understanding of what makes them so great. In the end, I got more than I bargained for but I should start at the beginning.

While I found Alfred Mann's "The Study of Fugue" informative, I gained more insight from George Oldroyd's "The Technique and Spirit of Fugue," which derives from his analysis of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," Books I and II. From his study of the 48 fugues found therein, Oldroyd outlines two possible structures of a fugue based on the seven components Bach generally used; the Exposition, First Episode, First Middle Entry or Entries, Second Episode, Second Set of Middle Entries, Third Episode, and Final Section. Then, by analyzing the various ways Bach treated material within these components, in other words, when he used compositional devices such as double or triple counterpoint, sequential repetition, free imitation, canonic imitation, stretto, pedal tone, etc., Oldroyd extracts the rules Bach generally followed when composing fugues.

It would be natural to assume that you could use these structures and rules to write a Bach fugue. In reality, while the result might be in the style of Bach, it wouldn't necessarily satisfy like a Bach fugue. Why? One reason is that Bach did follow these rules and structures, except when he didn't. That's why I used the word "generally" twice in the last paragraph. Oldroyd frequently reminds the reader that, faced with a compositional dilemma, Bach followed his musical sensibilities rather than blindly adhering to a set formula or rules of theory. Another reason is that Bach's fugues are unique and inspiring, whether he breaks the rules or not. In other words, there's only one Bach.

Here is where my Summer of Fugue took a left turn. Musical sensibilities as something separate from the rules of composing music? What role then do the rules play? Do they even matter? I really enjoyed Oldroyd's book but these questions and others left me with the feeling that I had been led down the wrong path. I had learned how Bach composed great music but still couldn't quantify what made that music great. Bach's mastery of compositional techniques was essential to the creation of his masterpieces, yet obviously he was more than a soul-less musical technician following a set of rules.

In the final analysis, Oldroyd's book was simply the first step of a journey that turned out to be too long for one summer and too complex for one Rampage. Stay tuned for the next installment: Philosophical Quagmire.
Click this link to read comments and offer your own:

Books of Interest
"The Technique and Spirit of Fugue" by George Oldroyd
"The Study of Fugue" by Alfred Mann
"Introduction to Counterpoint" by R.O. Morris
"The Study of Counterpoint" by Johann Joseph Fux (translated by Alfred Mann)

Updated Pages
Featured Links:
A link has been added to an interview with Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, who discusses the healing properties of sound.

Art Prints Store:
Free shipping on orders over $35.00 through October 31, 2002.

Have a great week!

Dan Long

Have an Opinion on this Topic?
If you would like to share your opinion or see what others have to say, please click here.

Weekly Rampage Archives: Click here for Back Issues.