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WORKSHOP #3: "Fugue in F Major - Quirky Diamond In the Rough"

I can't tell you how many times I tried to learn the Toccata and Fugue in F Major (BWV 540) by J.S. Bach. Unfortunately, my attempts always ended the same, with me moving on to something a little more friendly. The Toccata was obviously a beautiful piece but difficult and long. The Fugue always seemed kind of blah after all the pizzazz of the Toccata. Not being the kind of person to give up, though, I recently decided to give the 540 another chance at life. This time, however, having previously declared Summer 2002 the "Summer of Fugue" (Weekly Rampage "The Heart of Fugue," June 20, 2002), I started with the Fugue.

To be honest, it was a little tough going in the beginning but not because the Fugue is an overly complex piece or technically challenging. What took some getting used to was that the voices were quirky and didn't always go where I expected them to. They would go up when I thought they should go down and vice versa. But I did get used to that and eventually realized that the Fugue is actually the perfect foil for the Toccata. It has a steady, quiet energy that's refreshing and beautiful.

Before you protest that the F Major Fugue is too hard, I'll let you in on one of my secrets. When I'm learning a piece, I always hit a point where the piece is not ready to be played as a Sunday postlude, at full volume and finished tempo, but I can tell how much fun that's going to be. So I "cheat." I pick a lush registration and a real slow tempo and play the piece as a "freebie" right before my regular prelude. Last week, for the F Major Fugue, I chose a tempo of Quarter Note = 72 but you could perform it even slower. It created such a nice mood and gave the beautiful harmonies a chance to shine like so many facets of a diamond. (It also qualified as slow practice!)

Brief Analysis:

The chromaticism of the Main Subject (Example 1) allowed Bach a great deal of flexibility with the keys throughout the Fugue. In fact, he's all over the place. I might even suspect a mischievous nature in his choice of Subject.

Ex. 1: Main Subject (Measures 1-5)

Things progress normally (for a Bach fugue) until Measure 70 when a new theme enters (Example 2). It's a jumpy little critter. Great Horny Toads! We have a Double Fugue: two subjects for the price of one!

Ex. 2: Second Subject (Measures 70-74)

As we continue on our way, we encounter one of the highlights of the piece (for me), beginning in Measure 119. I love how the suspensions in the left hand dance with the Second Subject in the right (Example 3).

Ex. 3: My Favorite Part (Measures 119-121)

Bach stays on the Second Subject for a while, periodically throwing in bits of the Main Subject. After a sneaky full statement of the Main Subject in the alto (F Major) in Measure 128, both subjects enter in C Major in Measure 134 (Example 4).

Ex. 4: Measures 123-139

Example 5 picks up the fugue in measure 152, after it has just modulated from C Major to D Major-Minor-Major. Here the Main Subject is in Bb Major and the Second Subject is in C Minor. Then in only a matter of bars, the Main Subject is back in F Major, followed a measure later by the Second Subject in F Major.

Ex. 5: Measures 152-163

Bach wraps it all up with an ending that can only be described as lovely (Example 6).

Ex. 6: Measure 164 to the End

Something to watch out for is that there are several places in the Fugue where you will need to play the alto voice in the left hand with the tenor. Depending on the edition, this may be notated for you but in the edition I use it is not (Examples 7a and 7b).

Ex. 7a: Alto Notated in Right Hand (Peters edition - the one I use)

Ex. 7b: Alto Notated in Left Hand (CD Sheet Music edition)

It's always great fun "discovering" new pieces. I had overlooked the hidden treasures of the F Major Fugue because I hadn't taken the time to look beneath its surface. It had secrets and charms just waiting to be coaxed out. Not many of us have learned all of Bach's Toccatas, Fantasies, Preludes and their accompanying Fugues so there's plenty more treasure where that came from. "Thar's gold in them thar hills!"

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