Published On: Tue, Mar 13th, 2018

Perfected by Bach, fugues have enjoyed an impressive afterlife

JUST before this year’s Super Bowl, a Philadelphia Eagles devotee sat down at an organ and started to play. There were more melodies than the average fan may have been used to, but the instrument soon quivered to the familiar sound of the Eagles’ fight song, “Fly Eagles Fly!” Elsewhere on the internet, a rival musician quickly composed a reply, riffing off “Shipping Up To Boston” to honour the New England Patriots. Remarkably, both pieces were fugues, a musical genre polished 300 years ago. They have challenged and seduced musicians ever since. 

European composers have used counterpoint, the art of harmoniously tying different melodies (or voices) together through a piece, from at least the ninth century. Fugues themselves are a variety of counterpoint. Derived from the Latin for “flight”, their name hints at how fugues work. A catchy “subject” melody comes in first. It is then “chased” by different voices, all entering in turn and imitating what came before. Sophisticated fugues have four or five voices, each one picking up and savouring the subject before passing it on, like a group of friends discussing a philosophical idea at a party. To continue the analogy, no one in the room is ever quiet for long. Even when none of the voices are holding forth on the subject, they will still glimmer in and out of the musical conversation.

Fugues are taxing for the composer, too. Musical rules limit what they can do, and making all those voices sound good together is gruelling. But coddled by the ornate style of early-18th century Europe, Baroque composers hurried to the challenge. Italians were especially enthusiastic, with Vivaldi and Corelli writing several elegant fugues. Germans followed closely. At the end of his “Messiah” oratorio (1742), George Friedrich Handel laced together a glorious choral fugue from just one word: Amen.

The fugal master of the age, and probably all time, was another German. Over his long career, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote hundreds of fugues for everything from violins to harpsichords. His breadth was matched by depth. Taking an already-difficult form, Bach shaped fugues into a soaring palace of counterpoint. One movement of “The Musical Offering” contains six separate voices, all spiralling round an eerie 21-note subject. Bach also experimented with double and triple fugues, uniting several fugues—each with their own subjects—into one piece. 

Bach crafted fugues right to the end. “The Art of Fugue” (published 1751) is a monumental collection of 14 fugues (and four canons, another type of counterpoint), all based on a single subject. Bach probably passed away before he could finish the masterpiece, his fourteenth fugue stopping dead about eight minutes in. This might seem a poignant metaphor for the subsequent career of fugues themselves. The generation after Bach mostly rejected counterpoint, preferring clearer melodies.

But the form survived. In the 19th Berlioz, Verdi and Brahms all used the style wonderfully. Romantic composers pushed fugues to new places. In 1825, Beethoven finished a frantic double fugue for string quartet. Jagged and unpredictable, the “Great Fugue” is nothing like Bach or Handel. Viennese concertgoers found the music too wild, one reviewer dismissing it as “incomprehensible, like Chinese”. Later critics were far kinder. Igor Stravinsky called it “the most perfect miracle in music”.

Modern artists are introducing these classics to fresh audiences. A trio of choreographers recently turned the “Great Fugue” into ballet, each subsequent performance a variation on the theme, a sort of dancing fugue of fugues. Chris Thile, a folk and bluegrass musician, recently teamed up with Yo Yo Ma, a cellist, and Edgar Meyer, a bassist, to explore parts of “The Art of Fugue” on his mandolin. Sinfonity, a Spanish rock band, covers another Bach fugue, swapping organs for electric guitars and Baroque wigs for their own heads of fuzzy grey hair. Their effort has got nearly 2m views on YouTube.

The use of YouTube is no accident. The internet is a great way for fans to party contrapuntally. Online musicians have turned dozens of songs into fugues, from “Uptown Funk” to the “Star Wars” theme and “Old MacDonald”. Others are making older pieces easier to understand. By adding scrolling videos to the music—each voice marked by different lines of colour—Stephen Malinowski lets fans follow the subject with their eyes as well as their ears. 

Technology can prod the form forward in other ways, too. If humans need years of training to write a fugue, computers can do the job in minutes. David Cope, a composer and scientist, fed several Bach fugues into an algorithm, then published its own composition. The results are like Baroque from another universe. Famous Bach passages shimmer past, before disappearing into the computer-generated fog. This feels fitting. Like the form itself, musicians will keep fugues twisting on, always hunting for new subjects to chase. 

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Perfected by Bach, fugues have enjoyed an impressive afterlife