Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 224 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Steven and he writes:
It would be an extremely interesting subject some time for a podcast, if you and Ausra might consider discussing what the elements of a good free theme and a good fugue theme are, as regards development.
All the best,
V: So Steven he frequently composes various organ compositions and he likes to create preludes and fugues out of free themes not based on a chorale melody and he wants basically to know if there are any themes that are unsuitable for musical development or are any themes suited better than others. So of course we could take examples of masterworks by various composers, right Ausra?
A: True, yes there is so much music written.
V: And when you play those pieces Ausra do you notice that those melodies have something in common.
A: (Laughs) Of course all the musical melodies we have something in common and that’s the music notation and intervals, certain intervals.
V: So which intervals basically are not very good for developing a theme in a prelude or a fugue. Perhaps intervals which are difficult to sing?
A: Yes, I think big leaps maybe are not so suitable and not so common although you could encounter them as well. But in general when creating a subject or a theme for your piece you need to know how will it sound if you will invert it. Because especially in fugues the technique you use is called invertible counterpoint.
V: Exactly. For example right now we are looking at Prelude and Fugue in G Major by Bach, BWV 541. And the fugue lends itself very well for the canon because it has intervals of ascending fourths and ascending sixths and when you do that at a certain interval you get a nice strata so every good fugue usually has a strata, but not always, but composers tend to seek out elements of their theme that would be suitable for that.
A: Sure. Right now I’m thinking about the C Major fugue from Well Tempered Clavier, Part 1. It has a very nice steata at the end of it.
V: And basically this is a scholastic fugue because in almost every measure you can find appearances of the theme and in various ways as you say, inverted, and in canon and composer created this fugue specifically out of this theme and every measure is based on the theme basically. So whatever you do in your fugue you should always think about the theme and of course countersubject.
V: Is countersubject important Ausra?
A: Well, it’s of course important but probably not as much as the theme because what you do with your theme that you actually need to have it throughout the piece.
A: And whatever changes you do we can not go very far from the theme. You could do it augmented or diminished.
A: In long note values or in the short note values but basically you still keep the same interval structure. But what you can do with the countersubject, actually in some fugues the countersubject is kept throughout the piece and actually that’s a very high level of polyphonic composition if you keep the countersubject the same throughout the piece. But in some pieces it changes all the time, slightly or even more.
V: They say that’s it’s easier to compose a fugue with changing countersubject that with fixed countersubject.
A: True. I believe it.
V: And we could analyze a theme or a countersubject based on at least three elements, melody, harmony, and rhythm. And every melody, every subject, and countersubject should have those melody rhythmic elements and harmonic elements well fixed and well developed and encoded basically so that you could develop your piece entirely based on those three melodies. Let’s say we take a look at the theme of the G Major Fugue by Bach. And the melody it has nice intervals, right? And it has a nice range. It doesn’t exceed an octave. That’s usually.
A: Yes, that’s usually the case even I would say that most of the fugues are, the theme are not exceed more that a sixth interval.
V: Except in a minor mode they allow a diminished seventh.
V: So then here in G Major Fugue we have a range from D to B, this is a major sixth, that’s about normal.
V: If you have just a few notes of range like a minor third it’s a little too few notes, too few melodic intervals.
A: True, then you will not have a chance to develop them.
V: Maybe. If that’s the case your countersubject should be contrasting with wider leaps.
V: So then of course melody should be singable. Basically you need to write those intervals and sing yourself. Can you sing that fugal theme yourself. That’s another reason we try to avoid augmented intervals.
V: And wide leaps above major sixth let’s say. What about the rhythm. What do you see here Ausra?
A: Well most of fugue themes consist of eighth notes, quarter notes, some sixteenth notes.
V: So whatever meter you decide to create you have to use the values that are suitable for that meter.
V: Well some composers choose to use like triplets, special duplets, as they say, which is quite uncommon because then you mix duplets with triplets and in a fugal theme it’s not very often seen.
A: True. I think it’s better to stick with common values such as eighth notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes.
V: Because with the countersubject if you do let’s say sixteenth notes or eighth notes and with the subject you do triplets you have a hard time of mixing them together as a performer.
V: Um-hmm. Then it’s maybe better to change the meter altogether and write in a six, eight meter. What about the harmony? Of course a fugal theme is a melody for one voice. Of course we have sometimes double fugues where two voices enter subsequently one after another and then some harmony can be traced out of those two voices but it’s quite uncommon. If you are just starting writing fugues of course we recommend sticking to one theme.
A: That’s right. But already I think you know that most of the Bach fugues could be analyzed in terms of harmonical chords.
V: Definitely. Let’s say we have the stronger beats in 4-4 meter every two beats, we have a rather strong emphasis on the note and here we have to change the harmonies and let’s see how Bach does. The first measure has D and G so on D you could harmonize as the dominant chord of G Major, on G you could harmonize what?
V: Tonic. Then the second measure starts with the suspension basically F# is the main note.
A: Yes, and you have the dominant again. That’s very common for opening stuff, any piece. Then you need to establish key and you use dominant, tonic.
V: Dominant, tonic, dominant, tonic. And then the second chord is on the note D which is also a tonic obviously.
A: Yes. There you also have some A note, this would be something of the dominant, yes. So basically this would be juxtaposition of dominant and tonic throughout the subject.
V: Yes, and the second half of the third measure has noted G. We could harmonize it as the tonic also. And the fourth measure begins with the dominant function ending of the fugal theme. So in every measure we should have at least two chords. And sometimes sub-dominant too. Tonic, dominant, and subdominant they work well and remember we could have inversions, not only root position chords but inversions. So when you write a theme for yourself on a sheet of paper maybe write on two staffs on the higher staff you could write the theme and on the lower staff you could add the bass line. And this bass line might be the basis for your countersubject.
V: Speaking of which, what is the difference between subject and countersubject right here in the second line. Are they similar or contrasting?
A: I’m looking at it right now. I’m trying to decide.
V: When the theme has eighth notes what does the countersubject have?
A: Of course the countersubject has smaller note values. That’s very typical for countersubject.
V: When the theme subject has smaller note values…
A: Countersubject has the longer note values.
V: Um-hmm. And vice-versa. Basically it’s a dialog between two voices.
V: One is speaking and another is listening.
A: Yes, because if everybody would try to speak at the same time you would have chaos.
V: Um-hmm. And since we didn’t have any tied over notes or just one syncopation in the theme there are syncopations in the countersubject as well. More of them, right? To make an interesting rhythmic element.
A: That’s right.
V: But if we look at the melodic element of the countersubject it has this wide leap upwards an octave. Ausra, what does the subject do at that moment? It goes...
V: Down. It’s an opposite direction. Always try to create a contrasting motion between two voices and that’s very good for making two voices independent.
A: But you could also have parallel motion for example when the third voice will come in. And you will have the theme, the countersubject, and the third voice.
V: Um-hmm. And by the way if you have three voices later on you could easily create a fugue with two countersubjects which are fixed and they are interchangeably connected and they could be inverted and used in various combinations and in various voices. This is called permutation fugue where soprano suddenly becomes the bass, alto becomes soprano, or the bass becomes alto or soprano. Any number of combinations. But then there is one caveat to avoid. What is the least used inversion of the tonic chord Ausra?
A: 4-6 chord.
V: Uh-huh. So we have to check that there is no such intervals as the fourth above the bass or the fifth above the bass because in inversion they would create fourths or fifths. Fifth in itself is good but fourth when you invert makes 6-4 chord so what do we use instead?
A: 6th chord.
V: And basically intervals of the thirds and sixths if you want to use this invertible counterpoint.
A: And actually you know if you really want to compose fugues you have to study the fugues written by great composers and most famous collections probably would be Well Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach, then probably if you want to study more modern style you could study Paul Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis.
V: And don’t forget Art of Fugue.
A: Yes, Art of Fugue of course but that might be too complex maybe, don’t you think so? And another composer probably would be Dmitri Shostakovich, also his 24 Preludes and Fugues.
V: In a modern style.
A: Yes, in a modern style. I think he also got his inspiration from J. S. Bach.
V: Um-hmm. That’s right. If I remember correctly Prelude and Fugue in C Major doesn’t have any accidentals at all.
A: I think so, yes.
V: White keys only. So that’s the start right? So not every melody is suited for fugal development.
A: Maybe you know if it’s hard for you to create your own theme for a beginner you could pick some of these composers themes and try to create fugues.
V: Um-hmm. What about prelude? Prelude of course it’s another story. Maybe we could leave it for another conversation in next podcast, right? Maybe we should start it with the prelude but since we started with the fugue now prelude comes later. OK guys, this was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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