My Process for Fugue Learning

  1. Because I’m trying to learn each movement relatively quickly (one prelude and fugue per week is doable, though not at performance-level), I have one initial listen-through with a random recording and will begin noting the architecture of certain lines. In my score, I draw square brackets around fugal subject and rounded brackets (parenthesis) around lines that are strongly derived from the subject. This  immediately draws my attention during a subsequent play-through. Although I could make the same markings by doing score study or by playing each voice alone, the process is speedier if I pencil in my “map” of fugal subjects while listening to Schiff, Gould, or Barenboim.

    A couple of square brackets for subject entrances in the C minor fugue
  2. I learn large sections (half a page at a time, usually) with just a single hand. Honestly, I find it a bit pointless to learn each voice separately, as it is not conducive to planning my fingerings. I need as much context as possible to start writing in fingerings, and usually the two voices in a single hand are enough. There are certain moments, though, when even that isn’t enough context (moments when one hand has to dip into the other clef to play three voices), but planning that comes later in my process. I’m using the Henle Edition of Book 2, so I do attempt its editor’s fingering recommendations first. Sometimes they work, sometimes they just need small amends, and sometimes I don’t find their suggestion helpful at all. I try to be extremely conscious of the fingering markings I put into the score, which usually takes a few focused hours for a single page. I’ll cross out the editor’s suggestions so that they don’t mingle with my own; I’ll circle fingerings that are very important––the fugues are puzzle-like, so it helps to know those miss-it-and-you’ll-be-guaranteed-to-stop moments of getting the right finger; I’ll seek out very specific, quick moments that I’m unsure of which finger to use, which usually results in me writing in more fingering numbers than I need.
  3. Repeat step two with the opposite hand. Usually the other hand goes quicker, as it may only have one voice for that half-page of music.
  4. Playing extremely slow and legato, I put the hands together. I’m most concerned that I’m consistent with the fingerings I’ve written in, almost more so than correct notes. However, feeling the intervals between each finger is also extremely important in the process, so (obviously) it helps to play the correct notes. With that said, there are times I’ll play the wrong note, but with the correct finger. I’ll simply make a mental note and count that play-through as a success. Building a consistent fingering is ideal. I also make a mental note of parallel fingerings––moments when, usually on a larger beat, the same finger plays in both hands. Thumbs together! I think, and usually draw a tall circle around those instances.
  5. After I get the tempo at more than a snail’s pace, I’ll start referring back to the notations I’ve made in the first step of the process (the “map” of brackets). Always paying attention to fingering, I’ll start bringing out the fugal subject. I’m really just hoping to learn the fugue “straight” first, even if it may sound pedantic or square.
  6. If time permits, I’ll play each phrase with a different voice brought out and make some interpretative decisions based on what I like. Based on the fugue’s form, I’ll also note points that a primary voice isn’t necessarily important (sequential patterns between voices).
  7. After I’m able to play through the entire thing (under tempo) and feel rather comfortable, I go back to a couple of recordings for ideas. Of course, not for the purpose of copying another pianist, but just for inspiration on how to make it more interesting with different voicing or ornamentation. This is also the point that I experiment with different articulations and touches. For example, in the C minor fugue, I will play passages staccato just for practicing sake. In the faster C Major fugue (Book 2, No. 1), however, I may start practicing staccato because I think it may be the correct detached touch needed for the style––I begin practicing for performance, per se.
Some initial markings, after the first day of learning the C minor fugue

In a future blog post, I’ll discuss those instances when a hand has to dip into the other clef (either to play three voices at once, or just general hand substitution). In the image above, those moments––commonplace in Bach––are shown with a long, curved or swooping line.

Prelude No. 1 in C Major


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Just the opening bars of the C Major Prelude (Book 2) offer ample interpretive decisions for pianists, evidenced by the small sample of recordings I’ve put together. In choosing three records, I wanted musicians who may be emblematic of the performance practice at the time of recording.

Here are the recordings at hand, all of which are of the complete WTC Book 2:

I should note that I intentionally left out the one pianist who is most known for Bach: Glenn Gould. I personally love his recordings and always am interested in his approach to a work––his disregard of previous examples of “how the music should go,” his artistic autonomy, his intensity…I could go on. However, I’m leaving him out of my sample of recordings because I think there has been enough analysis of his style, almost to the point of mythologizing. Although I’m stunned by what Gould did throughout his life, I simply am not seeking to be yet another voice talking about the nuances of his Bach interpretations.

With that said, I’m most drawn to Rosalyn Tureck’s rendition of the first prelude (in addition to her entire recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier). She plays with a depth of sound, rather than a loudness, and never seems overtaken by the desire to be virtuosic for its own sake. In faster works (the C Major fugue, for example), her tempi are attractive to me: unapologetically not too fast, emulatable. Essentially, her record is great one for score study. If you listen closely, you’ll hear how the first few notes accelerate into an a tempo; throughout the entire first line, there is a subtle ebb and flow to the right hand line (notably, a slight ritardando into the entrance of the alto voice at measure 3).

András Schiff, the pianists’ pianist, plays with marked clarity in tone and articulation. (Of all the pianists I’ve heard live, he has such a consistent, almost objective style in the music of the Baroque and Classical eras.) In his 1986 recording, his decisions of articulation seem entirely natural (though so difficult to emulate), tightly controlled yet spontaneous and fresh. Consistent with the time signature, Schiff makes it easy to feel a quarter-note beat by emphasizing the G on beat two of the first measure. This contrasts a bit with Turek’s rendition, which I can feel as either a quarter- or eighth-note beat throughout the opening line. Even though Schiff replays several notes that are indicated as ties throughout the movement, his generally brassy, soprano-dominate, confident sound makes me love these inconsistencies with the score.

Alexandra Papastefanou sets up a tempo that is a bit faster than Tureck and Schiff but chooses not to maintain the tempo throughout the second page of the prelude. The recording space is also a wetter environment, which creates a bit more bleeding-over of sound (or, perhaps she’s just using a tad more pedal). The most striking element of her Baroque playing are moments of space between the hands; she’s not always playing the hands together, rather landing on a bass tone a millisecond before the other notes that are present. In the past, that characteristic was common in the performance practice of 19th-century music, perhaps in its effect of heightening the level of romanticism to the work. For the most part, we’ve since done away with that practice, perhaps in an effort to play the music more “correctly,” to be more literal about what’s on the page. New Criticism, the mid-twentieth century system of literary analysis that sought to analyze work only as it appeared on the page (rather than through historical context or the writer’s biographical information), seemed to have an effect on the classical music world during the rise of competition pianism. Alexandra Papastefanou’s playing seems to reference an older tradition that I find interesting in today’s landscape. In the opening of the prelude, she seems to give emphasis on those thumb-notes––those leaps downward in the soprano melody––because it helps establish the measure’s harmony. The down side of this is that it creates a phantom alto voice, which isn’t present in the score. In my opinion, Papastefanou plays into agogic tones too often, though it is effective in creating a more romantic interpretation.

Just based on the first few measures of music, I’m inclined to continue studying Tureck’s and Schiff’s recordings. In the case of the latter, I find his playing unparalleled; it will serve as a reminder of possibilities within the Baroque style––possibilities I don’t necessarily plan to emulate (because that’s likely unattainable), but that showcase Bach’s musical transcendence.

Ep. 4: Narrative of “The Alpine Chough”

Messiaen includes a written account of his birdsong collecting tour in the preface to each movement of the Catalog. Read as a quasi-ethnographic account of the ecology around him, the prefaces can also be interpreted as a type of narrative. This episode explores the place and birds of the first movement of the Catalog, followed by a union of Messiaen’s written account with a musical performance of “Le Chocard des Alpes” (The Alpine Chough). Guest: Mark Berres, ornithologist.

Transcript & Citations


Ep. 3: Natural Sounds in Musical & Social Practice

Music history is full of examples of composers who used environmental sounds in their works, notably Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, in which he uses Western instruments to mimic the sounds of three different species of birds. In the 20th century, composers were able to use recordings of natural sound in their works, but not without problematic entanglements. Guest Craig Eley discusses the connections between recorded sound and environmentalism. Musical performance: Le Merle Noir for flute and piano.

Transcript & Citations


Ep. 2: The Language of Birdsong

How does one translate sounds of the forest to the manuscript page, or even describe a natural sound in language? Do Messiaen’s transcriptions succeed? Guests: Mark Berres, ornithologist, and Steve Dembski, composer. Musical performance: “L’alouette Lulu” (Song of the Woodlark) from the Catalog.

Transcript & Citations