There is undoubtedly a stereotype of organists being obsessed with fugues, and I am not going to try to refute that, because I completely fit the stereotype. But I suppose it is worth asking the question of why that might be the case, because there has to be something more to it than the simple fact that organists find themselves playing fugues rather a lot of the time, and therefore don’t really have a choice.
To explain in the briefest terms, a fugue is a polyphonic piece of music, usually with three to six voices of equal importance. The vast majority of the material for the piece is derived from “the subject”, which is the primary theme always heard on its own at the start of the fugue. What follows after that is a number of sections, in some of which the subject will be heard several times and then some sections of new material (called “episodes”) which often act as a modulatory bridge until the next entry of the subject. No fugal structure is ever the same and thus, there isn’t really a definitive theory about how a fugue should be structured, which makes studying them very open-ended. The opposite is true of the Classical “Sonata Form”, which has suffered from our modern-day compulsion to pigeon-hole everything, and is described very clearly by the GCSE and A Level Music syllabuses as having a fixed strusture but in actual fact, there are very few Sonata Form movements which fit this template. One of my professors claims that only one piece by Mozart falls within the template but even then, there are several differences.
Whilst in their construction, fugues can be extremely complex, the concept is remarkably simple. It is the ultimate economy of effort. How can you construct a six-minute piece out of a theme lasting fourteen seconds? The fact that the majority of the material is derived from the subject, which can be anything from one to twelve bars long, means that there is always something for the listening ear to latch onto. Thus, the subject is what pulls the listener through (the quality of the subject therefore has a massive influence on the quality of the fugue; a good subject usually results in a good fugue). The development of the subject can also create a build up of tension, which is down to the composer’s control of harmony. If the fugue has been paced well, the release of harmonic tension will normally occur at the final or penultimate entry of the subject. Then there are all sorts of extra devices that composers use such as stretto, augmentation, retrograde, inversion etc. I am already over my word limit so it would be foolish to try to explain all of these but they are all things you will hear during rehearsals from conductors who are keen to demonstrate their intelligence.
A criticism that often gets levelled at fugues, and sometimes even at organists, is that they are purely academic, mathematical, and without emotion. This may stem from the fact that fugues are commonly used as compositional exercises. It is thought that Handel would write the opening of a fugue and then have a student complete it. Occasionally, one notices the change in quality midway through the piece! Brahms and Bruckner would write a fugue a day, possibly during breakfast. Countless students at university and music college are made to write them to pass their exams. To anyone who questions the significance of fugues, I would imagine that every composer from 1650 onwards wrote fugues at some point, but not all of them wrote a symphony or a string quartet.
What I think it boils down to is that, when written well, the fugue is a musical form that perfectly combines mathematics and academia with emotion. Is it possible not to feel tremors of excitement when the trumpets come screaming in with the fugue subject at the end of the last movement of the Bach B minor Mass? Is it possible to remain completely unmoved as the Kyrie from the Duruflé Requiem reaches its zenith? Upon completing the performance of a fugue, I feel a huge sense of satisfaction because not only have I enjoyed an emotional and evocative experience, but also negotiated a mathematical puzzle. For me, it is an unbeatable combination and hopefully my childish excitement during rehearsals might make a bit more sense now! But my biggest hope is that when we sing the Laudate Pueri from the Mozart Vespers or any of the many fugues in the Beethoven Mass in C, my enthusiasm will be shared by all. In short, fugues are the best.
James Orford, 2020