Stephen Smith

Vancouver pianist, composer/arranger, choral conductor, teacher, and writer on music


03 Oct 2020

Bach's Naughtiest Fugue: BWV 864

A note-by-note analysis of a fugue from the "48," with reference to Daffy Duck!

The A Major Fugue (No. 19) from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier stands alone among the hundreds of fugues Bach composed during his lifetime. This essay will explore in detail what makes it unique; but first, let us consider briefly the prelude that precedes it, which is remarkable in its own way, since it is in fact a fugue itself, in all but name. 

While it is far from the only prelude among the "48" that is (or contains) a fugue, the A major from Book I is the only prelude that is a triple fugue! Though its brevity (24 bars) and the overt tunefulness of its three-part texture may belie the fact, it does indeed contain all the necessary ingredients! 

There are three distinct subjects (each three bars long): one consists mostly of sixteenth-notes, another mostly of eighths, and the third is largely comprised of quarter-notes. This follows Bach’s practice in other triple fugues (the C-sharp Minor in this same book, and the "St. Anne" fugue for organ, for example). 

In the first 11 bars of the piece, each subject is heard in each of the three voices in turn, in tonic, dominant, and tonic key areas respectively—the return to the tonic being delayed by an episode lasting a bar and a half (i.e., three half-notes). The second half of the piece contains three more of these triple expositions—one in the submediant, and, following an episode three bars long, two more in the tonic.

All the above is to say that this Prelude is a highly organized and exceedingly regular composition—as such, it is typical of Bach, and the emphasis on units of three, in a three-voice piece with a key signature of three sharps, is what anyone familiar with the master’s work would expect. At first glance, the adjacent fugue appears to be another example of Bach’s love of "conceptual unity" in that, along with its three voices and three sharps, it has a time signature of 9/8 (i.e., three triply-subdivided beats per bar). But as it turns out, that is the only way in which this fugue satisfies our expectations—or even observes the usual niceties of fugal construction! 

I think of this fugue as a musical version of the famous Chuck Jones cartoon in which Daffy Duck and his (until the end) unseen animator wage a pitched battle over how the character should be drawn and what course the storyline should take. The creator has certain ideas in mind, but the creation has ideas of its own! Just so, the three voices in this fugue seem disinclined to obey their master, and there’s an implicit interplay among the unruly voices and the composer who is trying to tame them—or perhaps more likely, enjoying letting them run amok for once, finding the resulting chaos rather amusing.

Upon hearing its first note—an eighth-note A, which plops itself down in solitary splendour on beat one—a listener might well feel like he’s being teased with the possibility of a literally monotonous subject! But the rather unpromising beginning is followed by a comical flurry of activity: five rising fourths flail about, their waddling pairs of eighth-notes showing a total disregard for the written metre. And while we are still aghast at that ungainly spectacle, the alto voice jumps in and begins its tonal answer with a premature plop onto an E—before the soprano has even finished. 

Trying to ignore this rude interruption, the soprano part moves gingerly toward the dominant; but then, as if realizing that this customary courtesy to the succeeding entry has been rendered moot by the alto’s bumbling intrusion, it replaces the expected E (on the downbeat of bar 3) with a G-sharp. This causes some anxiety, but in the nick of time, a D-natural appears, to usher in the opening "plop" of the bass entry. 

No sooner has A major been thus re-established than the soprano inexplicably interjects a D-sharp, which the bass is forced to contradict with D-natural a beat later. The alto immediately seconds this choice of D-natural—and indeed the alto is so eager to agree with the bass that, as bar 4 crosses into bar 5, it briefly parrots the bass-part, eighth-note for eighth-note.

Once all three voices have made their initial appearances more or less according to the rules of a fugal exposition, the composer has essentially "paid his debt to society" and is free to take the music in any of a number of different directions. From the way the soprano hovers nervously around G-sharp and A all through bar 5, it clearly expects a cadence on the tonic. But Bach, seemingly regretting the botched dominant entry back in bar 3, opts for a cadence on E and an extra entry (which, though irregular, is not unheard-of), affording the bass the opportunity to supply what the alto failed to: a proper tonal answer.

The alto, embarrassed by this ungracious act, skitters away from its planned arrival on the tonic in bar 6, leaving the soprano to hedge its bets for a while before committing to a decisive cadence on A (trill, Nachschlag, and all!). Buoyed by the success of this, the soprano then commits a serious overreach by going for an extra extra entry in the tonic (which is both irregular and unheard-of)!

Now it is apparent to everyone that this silliness has to stop. There must be an episode, and some tonal centre other than I or V must be sought without delay. The bass offers an A-sharp to get the ball rolling. This is quickly followed by the soprano’s bold suggestion of both D-natural and G-natural, but the bass ignores these and throws out the wild notion of an E-sharp instead. The alto thinks this sounds like fun, and ventures there too, but regrets it almost immediately; upon which the bass says (in effect), "Come on in, the E-sharp’s fine!" It even uses its E-sharp and an A-sharp in a new entry of the subject. 

So the alto summons its courage with an octave leap, and once more ventures to the E-sharp—and even to an A-sharp—before faltering and lapsing back to E-natural. Defeated, it gives the soprano’s G-natural a belated and half-hearted try, and the bass, shrugging, begins to tag along. But by this point, the soprano has forgotten all about G-naturals and is completely obesessed with A-sharps! 

Confusion now reigns—so much so that the bass starts a subject on B, but instead of proceeding with its rising fourths from an A or an A-sharp, tries to launch them from an E, and as a result fumbles one of the fourths and turns it into a prohibited tritone! All through this passage, with the voices behaving in this hapless manner, all at cross-purposes with one another, there is an overall sense of precariousness and uncertainty, which is heightened by the exceptionally jagged rhythms of the the individual parts (syncopations everywhere!) and by the extraordinary speed and relentlessness of the music’s harmonic rhythm. I can think of no other piece by Bach that has such a mind-bogglingly fast rate of chord-changes, since those rising fourths in the subject don’t group together into units harmonizable by a single chord, but each demand their own harmony. 

Another disruptive element is the frequent appearance of implied hemiolas—or perhaps they should be called "false hemiolas." Normally occurring within a metrical organization where two groups of three is the norm, a hemiola is a temporary reorganization into three groups of two. Hemiolas should not occur within a prevailing metrical organization of three groups of three; but here Bach throws in a "false" hemiola across the last two beats of the 9/8 metre almost every other bar! 

Despite all this chaos, we have somehow made it through an exposition, a couple of episodes, and some secondary entries of the subject. Structurally, we are now at the place where the composer would normally introduce some clever alteration to the subject, or impress us with a few stretto entries. And indeed, in bar 21, the alto attempts a quasi-inversion of the subject, turning the rising fourths into descending thirds. (Or did it just add a note (the A that follows the three rests) by mistake? It’s a sign of how haphazard everything is  that one can’t quite be sure!) A bit later, there’s one attempt at a stretto, which falls rather flat.

Meanwhile, at bar 23, the alto, which had earlier introduced a few sixteenth-notes almost by mistake, now "goes for baroque" and supplies the fugue, belatedly, with the countersubject of its dreams: a garland of sixteenth-notes that sucessfully distracts us from the stiltedness of the subject! It’s a genuinely good idea, and for a moment it seems that things might be looking up for this ill-fated fugue. But then the alto gets so carried away with its roulades that it actually loses itself altogether and turns into the soprano!

Although this occurrence, in bar 24, would go unnoticed by most listeners, it is difficult to overstate how exceptional—how almost taboo—this sudden abandonment of a voice-part’s identity is to a composer like Bach. It’s not an issue of range so much as it is one of relative position. Reading the score, one does a "double-take" when an E suddenly appears between the (ostensible) alto line and the bass line in bar 25. ("Wait a minute! Where did that tenor part come from? There’s no tenor in this fugue!")

Matters now go from bad to worse in a hurry. In bar 29, the bass wantonly changes the rising fourths of the subject to sixths, reaching a high A in the process! The soprano enthusiastically picks up on this idea in bar 30, and in attempting to execute the new wider leaps in the soprano range, promptly exceeds the limits of Bach’s keyboard! In bar 33, the bass again plays fast and loose with the motivic rising fourths, augmenting one and diminishing another (that tritone again!). The ranges of all the parts go crazy: the alto, which a moment ago became the soprano, now descends to an E-sharp below middle C; and the bass, after hurtling through two octaves in a single bar (b. 35), rumbles around at the bottom of the keyboard for a while, rises again more than two octaves in bars 39-40, then careers all the way back down in bar 41. Inelegant voice-leading and crass cross-relations proliferate, and things seem to be truly out of control.

But as the end of the fugue approaches—and even though bars 46-48 are some of the most jagged and random-sounding bars Bach, or any composer, ever wrote!—there’s no mistaking the fact that everyone is actually having a rip-roaring good time seeing this devil-may-care fugue through to its conclusion! The final piece of utter madness is the long breathless volley of sixteenth-notes in the bass that begins in bar 50 and rattles on for fully four bars before slamming headlong into the closing (hemiolic!) cadence. It also has to be one of the most fun passages to play that Bach ever wrote! 

Writing this fugue must have been cathartic for the maestro, because when you turn the page, you encounter, in the A Minor Prelude, an almost grimly-focussed J.S. Bach. And then—behold!—the A Minor Fugue: one of the most complex and doggedly-logical fugues ever conceived, as total in its commitment to soundness of construction and irrevocability of argument as the A Major Fugue is in its commitment to rule-breaking, nose-thumbing, and generally larking about!  

  Stephen Smith  (July 27, 2020)