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The Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578) may actually be Bach's most perfectly composed fugue. Unfortunately, that reputation can make it a bit intimidating to learn. In order to put a friendlier face on the G Minor, I've decided to write a series of workshops, breaking it down into smaller, easier-to-manage chunks. To keep things moving, I'm not going to get bogged down with a lot of terminology; the anatomy of the fugue has already been well documented elsewhere (see Related Link and Related Books below).
The G Minor Fugue has a most striking subject, at once stately and determined, yet melancholy and beautiful. The subject's compelling nature can be partly attributed to its progression from longer to shorter note values. As the note durations decrease and the number of notes per measure increase, a feeling of acceleration is created that draws you in and sets up the next entrance of the subject (Ex. 1a).
Exhibit 1a: Subject, Bars 1-5
Also contributing to this compelling quality is the harmonic structure of the subject. The subject constantly shifts from tonic to dominant: i-V-i-V-i, etc. (Ex. 1b) and creates a feeling of movement. If we break down the subject harmonically into two sub-phrases, we discover an underlying structure. The first sub-phrase ends at the end of bar 2, where the subject moves to the dominant (Ex. 1a, A). The second sub-phrase begins in bar 3 and ends in bar 5, back at the tonic. This progression of i-V-i over the course of the phrase creates just enough of a basic shape to give some direction to this feeling of movement within the phrase. It's almost like a little song within a song.
Exhibit 1b: Subject, Bars 1-5, with Harmonic Interpretation of Structure
The first five bars are in g minor. We're seeing F#s (Ex. 1a, A) because they're needed to create the D Major dominant chord. At the end of bar 5, we suddenly see an E natural (Ex. 1a, B). This is because we're preparing for the next entrance of the subject that will occur in bar 6, in the key of d minor. We're modulating.
While bars 1-5 are played with the right hand, bars 6-10 require both hands. The upper part (which returns with subsequent entrances of the subject but not always in the same voice) is played entirely with the right hand and the lower part is played entirely with the left hand (Ex. 2).
Exhibit 2: Second Entrance of Subject, Bars 6-10
Now that we're in d minor, we're seeing C#s in the subject where we previously saw F#s. This is because A Major is the dominant chord in the key of d minor and there's no C# in the d minor key signature.
The ornament in bar 7 will return so I have written it out to show how I play it (Ex. 3).
Exhibit 3: Written-out ornament from bar 7
At the end of bar 10 in the lower part (Ex. 2), we see the same run that we saw in bar 5, adjusted for the key of d minor. We're modulating again. But this time, instead of continuing on up to a minor, we're heading back down to the original key, as is customary in a fugue. To transition us back, Bach inserts a couple of measures at the point where the subject is due to enter again.
Another composer might bring in the subject abruptly or compose some filler to get back to the original key. Bach, on the other hand, is never (unintentionally) abrupt and never uses filler. He deftly uses this interesting chord (Ex. 4, E) for the transition. Note that this harmony is interesting without being so interesting that it sounds out of place. This is an example of the balance that permeates every level of Bach's composing and makes his music so wonderful. And even though we're back in g minor in only two short beats, it doesn't happen abruptly. Bach gives us a little chance to linger before the subject re-enters. We're on a g minor chord but it doesn't really feel like g minor until after we play the D Major dominant chord in bar 12 (Ex. 4, F). Bach utilizes a little delayed gratification so we're really ready for the subject when it finally enters in the tenor voice.
Exhibit 4: Bars 11-12
There's quite a bit to explore and enjoy in the first 12 bars of the G Minor and that's just the beginning. I'm going to stop for now with a final note regarding registration. This fugue is hearty enough to handle almost any registration that you can throw at it. So feel free to experiment with a wide range of registrations: ppp-fff, with or without mixtures, with or without reeds, flutes only, and so forth. I often enjoy 8' and 2' flutes coupled to the pedal, adding a 16' flute in the pedal. The important thing is to select a registration you think sounds good and begin enjoying some of the world's most incredibly well chosen notes.
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