Artistic Significance of the Fugue

The very word ‘fugue” suggests to the greater number of folk everything that is learned and dry in music. The pedant-bandits, who have seized upon the word (only the word), for their own funny purposes, are responsible for this. As a matter of fact, the fugue is one of the most beautiful and significant of all musical ideas. The reality of it has been the despair of theorists ever since it crystallized into some kind of shape. That any musical idea may find expression it must get into a body of some kind. The more beautiful and logical in the body-shape, the better the expression of the idea.

Pedants, seeing nothing but the skeleton, have imagined that to be the fugue, and have accordingly written anatomical treatises thereupon. Alas for them! With the advent of every writer of fugues they have been forced to construct their bony science afresh. We will not, therefore, take the theorists for guides.

Polyphony results from several voices being required to sing the same thought without losing their various individualities. In the vocal art that thought was, in the first lace, religious and objective. Upon being removed to the element of pure tone, the thought became subjective. The fundamental idea, however, remained: one thought, many individual expressions of it. Having been placed upon this footing, the tonal art was bound to evolve a shape similar, in general outline, to what is known as fugue-form. The counter subject was the obvious extension of the first voice, during which a second voice enunciated the theme. Key relationship dictated the position of the answer, and limited the wandering of those episodes which the desire for relief or contrast had brought into being.

The necessity of concentrating the voices upon the main musical thought would cause the composer to introduce episodic matter of subordinate interest, or to construct his bars of relief from some little odds and ends clipped from his subject and counter subject. Even the stretto and pedal point have their causes in artistic necessity.

Any expression of feeling reacts upon and intensifies its emotional cause. In polyphonic music this can do no other than draw the parts nearer together by making each voice proclaim the theme more vehemently at shorter intervals of time. The pedal point is caused by the desire to take firm root in the home key after a period of wandering or unrest.

The main features of the fugue, then, are inevitable if the several voices are to retain their melodic individuality while uttering a single message, without violation of an artistic sense of concentration and climax. And the greater, the more forcible the mind of the artist, the less will he diffuse his idea by meandering through material which does not logically bear upon his theme, and through keys which carry him far from home without giving him some extraordinary compensation.

Monothematic music in polyphonic style was bound to result in a fugue sooner or later. Nor does the double or triple fugue put a different complexion upon the matter. The extra subjects stand to the chief subject in a relation quite unlike that of the two sonata subjects. The fugue-themes have their separate individualities, but their final business is to enhance the effect of the chief subject. The two sonata-themes have a separate contrasted individuality to the end. The second subject of a double fugue serves the first subject – not by contrast – but by deliberately merging itself beneath it, and thus adding to the richness and beauty of the main idea.

Herbert Spencer compared the structure of Gothic and Greek architecture to the growth of the vegetable and animal worlds respectively. The comparison will hold good of fugue-form and sontata-form. The latter is bilateral; every limb must be doubled or its natural symmetry is gone. The symmetry of the fugue is like that of the tree. It grows upright to its conclusion, sending out beautiful branches and flowers on its way, and the fugue is especially like Gothic architecture in its mass of detail, some of it unheard, even as the complete beauty of a foliated spire is unseen.