In this video I'm going to share with you the beginning process of learning to improvise a fugue on the melody of Psalm 26 from the Genevan Psalter. We'll cover a two-part counterpoint. Hope you will enjoy it! I'm using the Sauer organ sample set from Chemnitz by Sonus Paradisi and Hauptwerk VPO software.
SOPP597: Two things that frustrate me are it takes me about 3 months to learn these big fugues (practicing about 1.5 hours/day) and the playing the strings of 32nd notes evenly at high tempo
Vidas: Hello and welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast!
Ausra: This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better organist.
V: We’re your hosts Vidas Pinkevicius...
A: ...and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene.
V: We have over 25 years of experience of playing the organ
A: ...and we’ve been teaching thousands of organists online from 89 countries since 2011.
V: So now let’s jump in and get started with the podcast for today.
A: We hope you’ll enjoy it!
V: Hi guys! This is Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 597 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Bill. And he writes,
I put in 15-30 minutes a day working on the sight reading course. I've been working on BWV 543 Bach Prelude & Fugue in A Minor mostly beyond that. Two things that frustrate me are it takes me about 3 months to learn these big fugues (practicing about 1.5 hours/day) and the playing the strings of 32nd notes evenly at high tempo. Any suggestions to speed up learning and play better at high tempos would be appreciated. I do like the sight reading course, it certainly has me reading better!
V: So, Ausra, do you wonder why Bill is struggling with BWV 543 so much?
A: Well, you know, it’s one of the major pieces by J.S. Bach, and my suggestion would be, if it takes for you 3 months to learn such a piece and you still struggle playing 32nds in the fast tempo right, it means that actually this piece is actually too hard for you, for right now. If I would be you, I would go back to an easier repertoire. Make sure you have played all 2 part and 3 part inventions, you have done some of the Well Tempered Clavier, you have played all 8 Preludes, Small, Little Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach, and even then, after starting working on a major prelude and fugue by J.S. Bach, A Minor is probably not the easiest out of them. Definitely there are easier ones.
V: I should also add that you have to define what kind of level you should be when you take the new piece. I have to say, what kind of, you have to master the piece, and what does it mean, right? You have to be able to perform it for others, and then go to the next piece.
A: That’s right.
V: If you don’t want to share your work online with strangers, that’s fine. But please play it at least for your friends and family. You learn a piece, and you show them what you’ve learned.
A: Because, you know, for the piece like this A Minor, I guess if you are at the right level to play such kind of difficulty of piece, you need to be able to do text of it, roughly in a month. If it takes you longer, it means that this piece is still too hard for you.
V: You say you learned entire Clavierübung III by Bach, in a month.
A: Yes. That’s what I did. But it was when I was in good shape, at the full potential of my capacity, so…
A: Capacity, yes.
V: Was your professor George Ritchie surprised?
V: He wouldn’t learn so fast?
A: Well, I don’t know. Maybe he would learn it, I don’t know, but really I think I was getting to him sometimes at my learning tempos.
V: Mm hm. Yeah, that’s right. Did you have good sight reading abilities at the time?
A: Yes I did have. But you know...it’s...usually people take it for granted - if you are a good sight reader, you can learn music fast. It’s not true. I was always a really good sight reader. But usually when I play the same piece the second time or the third time, I would make more mistakes than just sight reading it.
V: I can see why, because you lose concentration, yes?
V: The first time might be the best.
A: Yes, that’s how it works for me.
V: Mm hm. Maybe you should try sight reading short recital!
A: (laughs) Maybe not.
V: Like easier pieces, and see how it goes. I did that once with 8 Little Preludes and Fugues, BWV 553-560 and it went okay. It went without major mistakes. But the feeling for me wasn’t very nice. I wasn’t relaxed.
A: Well, it wasn’t true sight reading. Because you had played those pieces many, many years ago.
V: Mm hm.
A: And then you sort of re-sight read them again.
V: Exactly, yes.
A: So it’s not the same. I’m talking about…
A: Completely new.
V: I see. When you learned to sight read on the organ, did you use my sight reading master course?
V: Of course not.
A: It wasn’t ready at that time.
V: It’s a dumb question, right?
A: Yes, it is.
V: And I mean that, you learned, you taught yourself just by playing repertoire.
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: Much repertoire. The more, the better. So I think Bill will also get better at sight reading with our sight reading course, this will be more systematic than just simply sight reading whatever you want. But Ausra says very wise suggestion: to take and learn easier repertoire first. There is on American Guild of Organist website a list of graded repertoire. For Bach music, for Langlais music, for Messiaen, for music composed after Bach in Germany. And you can see which level A Minor Prelude and Fugue belongs to. It certainly is not at the beginning and probably not even in the middle. This graded repertoire list has 10 levels. So it might be maybe level 10 or 9 or 8, something like that. So pick something from earlier levels first, right?
A: Yes. Because I think that playing music, any kind of music, has to give you some kind, some sort of pleasure. And if you are playing too hard pieces that are too hard for you at that moment, you might get frustrated and disappointed.
V: That’s right. And take the time to learn each piece really well. I recommend recording yourself, even if you don't show it to anybody else. Because this, knowing that you only have one chance to play through a piece without any stops. Because you know that the recording is going makes you focus much better.
A: True. And you know why I'm not arguing for you to, not encouraging you to play too hard pieces. Because I know for myself, when I was at the second grade at the academy for music, at the beginning of my second year of playing organ at all, my teacher gave me to play the B Minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 544 by J.S. Bach. And as you well know, it is one of the most complex Preludes and fugues by J.S. Bach.
V: Which level, which year was that?
A: Beginning of the second year.
A: Of playing the organ. And…
V: And you wonder why my teacher gave me the A Minor at the 12th grade?
A: I struggled so much just to learn that music, you know? And I did it like in 2 months, but it took me such a pain, and so many hours. I put so much effort into it. I finally played it for an exam, but it never gave me any pleasure, and I never went back to this piece. Never in my life. And probably will never will. And even now, when I now listen to other organists playing this piece, I’m having this very sort of uneasy, unpleasant feeling. So basically, that teacher just ruined me this B minor piece forever.
V: Young teachers are like this. They imagine things much more differently than experienced teacher would, right? But I guarantee that if you took up this piece right now, it wouldn't be a problem for you at all right now, probably. You would just slowly sight read it very comfortably.
A: Yes, but I’m not willing to do it.
V: Yeah. So guys, please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice
A: Miracles happen.
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By the time you guys read this, Ausra and I should have traveled to the French Alps - to play an organ duet recital in Alpe d'Huez at Notre Dame des Neiges on the organ designed by the late Jean Guillou (the notorious palm-shaped organ facade) next Thursday.
We are flying from Vilnius to Lyon and going by bus to Grenoble and from there to Alpe d'Huez. This place is a famous ski resort which has organ concert series all year round every Thursday. We will try to report from the location how we are doing 1880 meters above sea level...
By the way, support might be limited until next Saturday because we don't know what kind of Internet connection we will get in the mountains...
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
V: Let’s start episode 414 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Jeremy, and he is on the team who transcribes our fingering and pedaling videos. So, he writes:
I have been struggling with the Bach Dorian Fugue. The notes for the most part are there at half speed, but getting it up to speed has been… difficult. This being said, I did have a bright moment today that I will verify tomorrow by phone. I am learning the Dorian's Toccata and fugue for the AAGO exam in June. As I filled out the paperwork for I thought today, I realized only the Toccata is on the list of pieces. Huzzah! I can almost play that part of it up to speed already!
V: So Ausra, I wrote to Jeremy that even though the fugue is not required for the Associates AGO exam, I hope he will still be practicing it, and he said yes, he fell in love with the fugue, and he will be trying to master it in time.
A: Actually, I also like the Fugue of this Dorian Toccata, even better than the Toccata itself.
V: I agree. Somehow, this fugue is so polyphonically complex, that it could be like a compendium of Bach’s canonic techniques. It has all kinds of subject entrances in all kinds of intervals, and especially canonic subjects, where one subject is following another at certain distances—at a certain interval—and these intervals and distances, they vary between each other, and that’s the most beautiful part of it.
A: So, it’s a very good example to study if you want to explore a fugue, and how might be composed. What do you think about Toccata?
V: Well, Toccata… it’s a tricky piece to play, actually, because of the motoric motion. You have to have a decent finger technique, and quite a good coordination between hands and feet.
A: Well, true, but don’t you think that that motoric motion throughout the piece makes it a little bit boring comparing to others of Bach’s Toccatas for organ? Because none of the other toccatas are so mechanically even.
V: I know what you mean, and this Dorian Toccata might be one of the earlier examples of modern toccatas, where we have examples of Widor Toccata or Böelmann Toccata, or Gigout Toccata, or Dubois Toccata, where the same pattern is repeated over and over again. Having said that, Dorian Toccata is still composed from a couple of different episodes, which are presented interchangeably in different keys. But as you say, 16th notes, those rhythms dominate the piece.
A: True, and of course, all toccatas have some mechanical motion. That’s what it is for, but I think in this toccata, it’s the most prominent.
V: Do you remember the origins of the toccata with the Italians?
A: Yes, I remember it. It comes from the Italian word “toccare,” which means “to touch.”
V: And it doesn’t say to touch fast, or motorically, or virtuosically at all. Right? In those days, if we talk about Frescobaldi or earlier composers such as Diruta, Merula, they wrote sectional toccatas, sort of like ricercars, but maybe more passages and runs throughout the piece, I would say, but they really resemble the ricercare in nature.
A: True! So, I think that Italian toccatas, especially, are well suited for church services, because they are sectional.
V: And why do people need sectional toccatas today?
A: Well, because sometimes in the liturgy, you don’t know how long you will have to play, so if you know the piece is sectional, you can finish at the end of any section, basically, or you could repeat some of the sections if you need more music.
V: I think Frescobaldi wrote, in his “Fiori Musicali,” that this is the reason he created sectional pieces—for various Mass parts, that organists could stop at the end of any episode.
A: Well, and that’s especially true with the Catholic churches, because you never know how much attendance you will have, and how long it will last—one or another section of the Mass.
V: Right, and for this reason, of course, improvisation is very useful—in earlier days, and today as well, because you can end on your own timing.
A: True, but if you don’t want to improvise, then play Italian music.
V: So guys, we hope this was useful to you. If you are studying pieces like Dorian Toccata and Fugue, don’t give up just yet, and work on gradually expanding your fragments. I found this technique very beneficial in reaching the concert tempo. And remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
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Vidas: Hi, guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 409, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Jeremy, who is on the team of transcribing fingering and pedaling for us. So he writes:
Finished transcribing fingering for BWV 541. Normal practice routine. Am getting a little frustrated with the Bach Dorian Fugue. The Toccata is in good shape, with two transitions requiring some attention, but the fugue is simply being difficult. Trying to speed it up: working on two pages a day, starting at half speed, and then working it up. There are moments that aren't a problem, but there are an equal number of sections that I am having getting up to speed. Will try again tomorrow. Just venting.
V: I’m happy that Jeremy doesn’t give up after a few unsuccessful attempts with the Dorian Fugue, don’t you think?
A: Yes. He’s very brave, and I think we all should be. It’s natural to struggle with fugues. They are usually much more difficult and much more complex than preludes. And why do you think it is so, Vidas?
V: Thank you, for this thoughtful question. I think fugues are polyphonically much more complex because even though preludes might have polyphonic sections within the prelude, but fugue is contrapuntal throughout, which means that each voice imitates other voices—takes up a theme, and this theme is presented in different shapes and ways, in different voices and keys. And your mind has to notice all of that. All the while other voices are playing something else sometimes—even more complex things. Four part polyphony, like in the Dorian Fugue—I’m not sure, maybe it’s even five part, five parts polyphony. Could be. It’s really complex for your feet and hand, and your mind especially to grasp. And because this is alla breve meter, not 4/4, but 2/2, basically two half notes per measure. It is much faster tempo and you have to adjust to that.
A: Well, then what do you think about speeding things up? Do you think it’s worth to push or somehow you need to keep working in a slow tempo, and tempo will speed up by itself?
V: Yes, and no. Yes means that if you are not ready to speed up, then working in a faster tempo will just damage the texture, probably. But if you are ready to start pushing it up, upwards, then maybe working in smaller fragments in a really fast tempo—in a concert tempo, and stopping at the end of the fragment, and then continuing in a fast tempo and then stopping again—would be a good way to go. Maybe stopping at each half note first, and then at each measure, at each, every two measures, every four measures, and so on, always doubling the fragment.
A: Yes! I think that would be very helpful.
V: But if this doesn’t help; sometimes people write me that ‘I tried this, but still, it’s a struggle’. You need to understand that each, let’s say, step, right? When you’re playing this with stops, you have to do repeatedly, not just once. So if you’re only playing a fugue, or any piece of music just once in your practice, and playing another piece, it doesn’t count as complete practice. You need to work several days like that—stopping on the smallest beat. And only when you’re feeling that you’re playing without mistakes like that, then you go to the second step—doubling the fragment. For some people, it’s as long as one week, for one combination.
A: True! Do you think that knowing the structure of the fugue will help? Analyzing complete fugue, would help to learn it easier.
V: Mmm-hmm. Of course, this fugue which Bach wrote, is a canonic fugue. It has many canons. And various kinds of canons. I mean, sometimes in inversion, sometimes in different intervals too. So when you’re playing slowly first, you write down what you see. You write which voices playing the subject, you write the key of that subject. What else? You write the number of subject appearance, one, two, three, four five, etc. And you could also write, you could write the counterpoint, if it is counterpoint one, two, three sometimes. They are interchangeable in some fugues. You notate everything, and you notice, especially—it’s important to notice when you’re practice—what you have notated, what you have analyzed. Would that help, Ausra?
A: Yes, because I think you know what voice does what. You will play differently. Because when subject appears, it’s important to show it off for people, and to hear it yourself, because if you will not hear it, nobody will hear it. And it’s very important. So I think understanding the structure will help you to learn faster, and to know what you are doing, and to play it with more success.
V: I would just add, with fugues, because they have constant number of voices, it’s also very beneficial to sing one voice and play the others. Of course it would be too difficult to play three voices and sing one, but maybe start with singing one voice, play and singing solo voice, any voice you choose. And then add one voice of accompaniment—one hand or pedals. And then do all the combinations. And then maybe three voices, meaning you sing one and play two. And after while you will be ready to do voices—sing one and play four. What benefit you see in this practice, Ausra?
A: Well, it’s very complex in benefit, because will develop your pitch, and you will develop your coordination, and you will definitely deepen your knowledge of music in general.
V: It’s basically the same practice that you do with kids at school in ear training classes.
A: True! And I’m trying to convince them that they need to sing when they are practicing piano. I don’t know if they are doing that but this is one of the best ways to make better your pitch.
V: Mmm-hmm. Improve.
A: Improve, your pitch, yes.
V: But always sing what you are not playing—never double the voice and the instrument.
A: Well, I don’t think it’s that important. You might want to play all and sing one voice.
V: At first.
A: At first, yes because otherwise it might be too difficult for the beginner.
A: Plus because of the singing, it might change things too. But that yes, the wise technique is that you won’t play that voice which you are singing.
A: And this is very helpful technique if you are playing on the piano, organ piece. Then you can sing pedal parts. That way you will have entire texture.
V: Exactly. Good advice! I hope will be helpful to people. So please keep sending us your wonderful questions. We love helping you grow. And remember; when you practice...
V: Miracles happen!
Would you like to master Fugue in C Minor, BWV 575 by J.S. Bach?
I have created this score with the hope that it will help my students who love early music to recreate articulate legato style automatically, almost without thinking.
Thanks to David Poole for meticulous transcription of fingering from the slow motion video.
Intermediate level. PDF score. 5 pages. 50% discount is valid until June 20.
This score is free for Total Organist students.
Bellow is my practice video in slow motion (for manuals only):
AVA225: What makes a good free theme
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 225 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Steven, and we are continuing our discussion about what makes a good free theme, let’s say for a prelude, because in a previous podcast we talked about the fugal theme. So let’s look at our example of BWV 541, Prelude and Fugue in G Major by Bach (and we discussed the fugue in the previous conversation). And the theme, of course, doesn’t start right from the beginning, right? It’s a flourish--it’s like a passagio, right Ausra?
A: Yes, and you know, in terms of talking about preludes, it’s so distant from the fugue.
A: It’s completely different, because the main purpose of the prelude is to set up the key for the fugue. So it very often has a more improvisatory character.
A: Or, you know, more virtuoso character. It can be like a toccata.
A: And I don’t think you have to create a specific subject to the prelude, because it’s not a fugue.
V: Maybe you could use several rhythmic elements to create certain episodes. Because with Bach--later in his life, when he matured and studied works of not only German composers like Buxtehude, but also Italian composers, like Vivaldi--he created what we call ritornello prelude. Remember, this recurring melodic idea which could be found throughout the prelude in various shapes: in the original key, in other related keys, in shortened or expanded version--it works as concert material for the entire prelude.
A: Yes, but you are now talking about more sophisticated preludes, more complex preludes.
A: And I’m talking about simpler ones.
A: You know, I’m not talking about what you just meant, like Prelude in E♭ Major!
V: With 3 episodes!
A: Yes, with the 3 episodes. But in terms of when I’m thinking about preludes: just imagine that you come to a strange instrument, that you see for the first time--a strange organ; and you sit down on the organ bench, and you want to…
V: Try it out.
A: To try it out.
A: For me, that’s what a prelude is about.
V: It’s an introduction to the fugue.
V: In this case, then, what you need to think about is a tonal plan.
A: Sure, sure.
V: Maybe one--just one--melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic idea which you could use in various keys. Right? For example, let’s take the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. The fugue is very complex--
A: Yes, it’s one of the most complex pieces.
V: With 4 parts, and many canons; but the prelude is so simple that it starts like arpeggiated chordal action.
A: It’s like basically a long cadence.
V: With the cadence in G Major, which means in the dominant key?
V: Then, I think it goes to d minor--to what, the second scale degree chord or key; it might touch, of course, the relative minor, which is a minor; and towards the end, it has what--dominant pedal point.
A: True, and then it resolves to tonic.
V: Tonic pedal point at the end, with an excursion to the subdominant key, and plagal cadence.
A: But it has all the same figures over and over again, throughout the entire piece.
V: Yes. That’s plenty for an entire prelude. It is, of course, a shorter prelude; for more sophisticated writing, this could be just the first episode, right?
A: Could be, yes.
V: Maybe a little bit long, but half of it could be for the first episode, and you could actually...actually, you could take 3 of Bach’s Preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier with the same meter and use the same figures in alternation to create something similar to E♭ Major Prelude by Bach, BWV 552/1.
A: True, and of course, when you select your key for your prelude, you could also think about the message that that key brings to you or to the musical world
A: Because I’m thinking about the same C Major Prelude, and then the c minor Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I---how different they are. Remember the second, that c minor prelude, how dramatic it is?
V: Well, yes; it’s like a toccata.
A: Yes. It’s definitely like a toccata. Fast motion all the time, very virtuosic.
V: But also no imitations, no fugal elements--
A: True, true.
V: Just simply arpeggiating those chords between 2 hands. And the same is with d minor, probably. Some of the preludes I remember from Well-Tempered Clavier, like E♭ Major, it already has imitations, so it’s more advanced writing. And Bach loved to create imitation episodes within the prelude, too.
V: Like in c minor Prelude and Fugue for the organ, BWV 546.
A: Because that’s a good technique to develop your piece, to make it longer.
V: And more interesting.
V: Because when you write imitations, it’s like a dialogue between the 3 parts.
A: Plus, all those imitations come with sequences, too. Sequential episodes.
V: Yes. So, sequence is what? It’s a technique to connect various keys, basically.
V: To bridge the gap between C Major and G Major, you add a sequence going downward and adding somewhere F sharp.
A: That’s right.
V: The new accidental of the new key. So things like that comprise a prelude, or basic prelude type of writing. It could be called sometimes Fantasia...
A: Sometimes Toccata...
V: Sometimes Toccata, if it’s a motoric piece...But mostly, it’s one and the same: free writing, not based on a fugal theme. If you have your fugal theme ready for you, and you created the fugue, you could simply select the key of the same fugue and maybe create a different meter: if your fugue was in 4/4 meter, maybe the prelude could have 3/4 meter, and vice versa. Or the same meter, could be.
A: Yes, I think.
V: But maybe different tempo.
V: And then think, sometimes, how the tempo relates to the prelude and fugue. What is the relationship between the tempo--sometimes there is...
V: And most of the time there is.
A: And it’s the sort of subject that always makes so many discussions and arguments, because everybody has their own truth.
V: Yes, yes. So for starters, avoid complex metrical relationships; maybe use the same meter for the beginning, right? For your first 10 fugues and preludes.
A: That’s what I would do.
V: Excellent. And to make it more interesting, use excursions into related keys. In a major key, you could modulate to the second scale degree minor, third scale degree minor, fourth scale degree major, fifth scale degree major...What else? Sixth scale degree minor.
V: That’s the most common type. What about a minor starting point?
A: That’d be just the other way around.
V: For example?
A: You would have third scale degree major, and sixth scale degree major. Then, of course, fifth degree would be major, too, but the first scale degree would be minor.
V: You said major fifth scale degree?
A: Because the fifth scale degree is mostly major in both minor and major keys.
V: So if a starting point is a minor, the fifth scale degree would be…?
A: E Major.
V: E Major. Can you use e minor, then?
A: Well, yes, you could. This wouldn’t be so common, but you could do it. Of course, it would have a different meaning.
V: So the same as with first scale degree minor?
A: Yes, because you know, if you use the minor dominant in a minor key, it means that you don’t have a dominant chord. It means that you have a subdominant.
V: But I’m not talking about the chords. I’m talking about the episodes.
A: But these are all related, too, with the harmony. Don’t you agree?
V: What about… harmonic subdominant? Remember, a minor first scale degree chord--in a major key. Can it be used?
A: Yes, I think...
V: It is related.
A: Yes, it is related.
V: Just like a major dominant in a minor key...
V: Then minor subdominant in a major key.
A: Yes, because you know, what I’m thinking is: for example, in a minor key, if you would use the episode in E Major, then you could have the tonic straightaway after the dominant episode.
A: E Major episode. If you would use an e minor episode, then probably you wouldn’t go back to the tonic episode. You would probably have to use something from the subdominant material.
V: Okay, guys. This was our discussion about creating a prelude; and as you see, the most important thing is to choose a fun rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic figure, and keep it throughout. And by the way, I teach this technique in my Prelude Improvisation Formula, which is based on the Klavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the preludes that Johann Sebastian Bach created for his eldest son. So people who want to learn to improvise like that, in a free style--they can train from this collection as well. Okay. And please send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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.
A few days ago I have received a request from Christian-Angel to provide a score of BWV 579 with fingering and pedaling. That's Johann Sebastian Bach's Fugue in B minor on the Theme by Corelli.
Today I finally finished this project which any of our students can now take advantage of. It will save you many hours of struggle and help you to master this beautiful fugue easier and quicker. It's a PDF score with 5 pages.
A few tips on learning this piece:
For Christian-Angel the most difficult part is the final Stretto - the last 3 systems. This is not surprising because in any Stretto composer develops the theme canonically. This means that a few voices have the same melody played but not at the same time - the parts enter before the previous one has finished.
In this fugue it's so important to practice ALL 15 combinations separately: S, A, T, B, SA, ST, SB, AT, AB, TB, SAT, SAB, STB, ATB and SATB. Make sure you don't skip any of the steps and try not to rush - extremely slow tempo works best for practice purposes.
Don't forget that you don't have to work on the fugue on its entirety, practice of small episodes of about 1 line works best. Start and finish each episode on the downbeat. This helps to connect the fragments between themselves.
In my experience, I had to repeat each step at least 3 times without mistakes in a row before I was ready to go on to the next combination.
And if you apply my fingering, you will achieve articulate legato naturally, almost without thinking. 50 % discount is valid until November 15.
Enjoy and let me know how your practice goes.
This score is free for Total Organist students.
#AskVidasAndAusra 43 - What practice methods do you suggest for simple fugal improvisation?
Vidas: Let's start episode 43 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. And this question was sent by Lilla, and she writes, “Dear Vidas, if you could accept my question, here it is. What practice methods do you suggest for simple fugal improvisation? It might be a good idea to practice it in your writing as well. A good source material method would be tremendous help and would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for all your work. Sincerely, Lilla.”
Interesting question right?
Vidas: Not many people ask us question about the improvising fugues.
Ausra: Sure, because not many organists improvise them.
Vidas: Not many people are brave enough even to try.
Ausra: Yes, sure. But as Lilla mentions in her question, that's a good way would be to write it down first of all, or basically start to analyzing other composer's fugues, just to know how they are constructed, then try to write some of them down, and then just go to the practical work.
Vidas: Yeah, exactly. What Ausra is mentioning is, before you had any treatises, before you had any method books, and exercise books, what did composers do? They studied other works, they studied a compositions of previous masters, who lived before them.
And they, of course, analyzed them and copied them note by note, and maybe arranged them for organ, for other instruments. Like, Johann Sebastian Bach arranged for harpsichord, I think Hortus Musicus by Johann Adam Reincken, these were for string quartets, also contrapuntal works and Bach studied this way. So, before somebody even wrote a treatise on the fugue, or even on contrapuntal imitation, improvisation, they worked practically, analyzing things and writing them down.
Ausra: Sure, and you know later you could take Weimar Tabulature by Johann Pachelbel, (not to be confused with Weimar Organ Tabulature) that's an excellent source for improvising. Easy fugues, fuguettes I would say. And then the next step would be, probably to take the Handel's book.
Vidas: Exactly, Continuo Exercises According to George Frideric Handel.
Ausra: At the beginning, he gives the number to exercises of basso continuo, and later on he gets to the fugues, to improvising fugues based on the basso continuo.
Vidas: What do you mean probably is like partimento fugue.
Vidas: Where you only have the bass line, and the entrance of the subject notated in the bass clef. Sometimes the clefs change, but they also notate which voice has to enter and according to the principals of polyphonic imitation you add other voices, based on intervals.
Ausra: Actually, yes. And after Handel you could proceed to the Langloz Manuscript. And actually this is much harder, much more complex than Handel's book. But after Handel you definitely can try to do it.
Vidas: It's a very interesting collection of contrapuntal fugues, which are also simplified in notation, just like Buxtehude would write in his organ praeludiums and toccatas. Those intricate fugal sections, but you could write them in one line, in bass line, they're very lively, fast moving instrumental type of fugues, just like Buxtehude and his friends. Therefore, they're more difficult to play than Handel's.
Ausra: Definitely. I remember doing them and that's very hard.
Ausra: Very hard.
Vidas: But if you practice them diligently (it's a big collection), if you do all of them, one by one, it gets easier.
Ausra: Yes, definitely, just don't practice them all in a given row. You just pick up the easiest first.
Vidas: Yeah, with slower note values.
Ausra: Yes, definitely.
Vidas: And also, these are primary sources, right?
Vidas: Composer's at the day, in the 18th century wrote them as exercises for their students.
What about a little bit later collections and exercises that people could practice? You know there's a student of Bach, Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg I think wrote-
Ausra: A big treatise, yes, I remember that.
Vidas: Treatise on the Fugue.
Vidas: That’s in English and in German it's Abhandlung von die Fuge. It is like an analysis of many, many, Bach's fugues, basically Well Tempered Clavier and even Art of Fugue contrapuntal pieces, it's like a predecessor of modern Treatise on the Fugue, and many modern Treatises on the Fugue method books, are based on this, right?
Ausra: They are based on Marpurg. And because Bach hasn't left any written sources, Marpurg's book is actually about Bach's legacy.
Vidas: Now based on Marpurg is a collection of exercises, which were practiced at the Paris Conservatory in the 19th Century and into 20th century too by Andre Gedalge. It's called Treatise on the Fugue, it has 11 or 12 chapters, and each chapter is based on one particular aspect of the fugue. Like the theme, the counter subject, an answer, episodes, stretto, things like that. It's indispensable for any serious student of fugal improvisation.
Ausra: Yes, and good luck with that.
Vidas: Now, do you think that people could benefit from practicing Marcel Dupre's Treatise on Improvisation Vol. 2, where he has an entire chapter on the Fugue?
Ausra: Definitely, yes.
Vidas: But it's for later, because Marcel Dupre himself advises people to go back to Andre Gedalge’s Treatise on the Fugue first, and write down exercises, on the paper with pencil first, and only then try to improvise on the organ from Dupre's treatise.
Ausra: So basically, there are three steps. Analyze other composer's work, then try to write Fuges down by yourself. You can compose your own subject or you can pick up some subjects from real fugues and then try to improvise it.
Vidas: Three steps. Very good, Ausra, I hope people can take advantage of this, and let us know what specific step is your favorite from this podcast conversation, what would you apply this week, and let us know how it works.
And please send us more of your questions, and you can do this easily by subscribing to our blog at www.organduo.lt and replying to any of our messages, we'll be glad to help you out.
This was Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And remember, when you practice -
Ausra: Miracles happen.
PS Our first e-book "Is It Possible to Learn to Play the Organ When You Are 56 Years Old" is available here for a low introductory price of $2.99 until August 9. If you have already read it, please leave a rating and review.
By Vidas Pinkevicius
There are folks who think that fugue is boring. They are terrified of the wonders that polyphony offers.
They prefer to play and listen to flashy toccatas. Loud and fast is their motto.
Which is fine with me. But the fugue has something in it that no other genre has. It only requires a certain state of mind to appreciate. A willingness to analyze intellectually.
The best way to appreciate a fugue is to count the number that subjects appear. Noting which voice it is played in is worth too. If you're advanced enough theoretically, you can note the keys of the subjects also.
My friend Jan Karman has spent the last 8 years writing fugues on the melodies of the Genevan psalter. He's just released the first 30 fugues in a separate collection. I spoke with him last summer on the podcast about his passion in writing fugues where he takes us behind the scenes of his method of composition.
Jan's relentless efforts to perfect his craft remind me a certain professor of Fugue at the Paris Conservatory who started his every day by writing a fugue for more than 20 years.
What do you do every day before breakfast?
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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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