How to Learn a Fugue

With their multiplicity of interweaving, interdependent voices perpetually reacting to one another, deceptively appearing in backwards guise, upside-down, rhythmically lengthened or shortened, migrating amongst unstable keys yet all the while forming a coherent harmonic unity, fugues are far and away the most complicated of musical structures. When we keyboard players think of the mental acrobatics involved in breathing life into each voice, effectively orchestrating a whole ensemble while playing each part… and when we fathom that Bach, that pinnacle of musical intelligence, could improvise a six-voiced fugue on the fly while observing a textbook of counterpoint rules, all while fitting his periwig and fathering twenty children, we only begin to comprehend the level of sheer facility involved.

Fugues strike fear into the hearts of keyboard students the world over, yet most have never actually learned how to learn a fugue. For that matter, most piano students are entirely unaware that there is a “how.” For years, I certainly was. I’d practice getting all the notes into my fingers and come performance time just cross my fingers (well…) and hope for the best. Like so many piano students, I was terrified of having to perform fugues for fear I’d lose my way. Most of the time I made it through unscathed, but I was never truly confident, and this lack of confidence meant that I couldn’t focus 100 percent on communicating the music, which after all is the very purpose of performing.

Yet it’s possible to learn a fugue securely if you only know how. Fortunately, the learning process itself is quite simple, although it demands great concentration. (Lazy musicians, please press the back button now! Otherwise, roll up your sleeves…)

First and foremost

The first and foremost principle is this: It is absolutely essential to know each voice all by itself. Each voice needs to be treated as though it were a separate instrument. Each instrument in a chamber music ensemble or orchestra needs to sound as expressive as possible, and each player therefore shapes his or her line as beautifully as they can. When you play any piano piece with multiple voices (which is practically every piece ever written for the instrument), you are in effect both the entire ensemble and the conductor. Only by shaping each line as if it were played by a single instrument will the end result be the most beautiful and most musical possible.

As opposed to a full orchestral score, in a fugue written for keyboard instrument – which is to say with all its voices condensed onto two staves – which voice is which is by no means always self-evident. Take this example from the C-sharp minor fugue of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier:

The alto voice actually crosses over the soprano (and stays above it for several measures). Here is the same passage with one voice per staff (soprano, alto, tenor, bass from the top down):

It is therefore essential to pay the utmost attention to each voice. This is the only way it is possible to understand a fugue and, ultimately, to play it with real meaning.

To familiarize yourself with the voices, sight sing (solfège) each voice in the order in which they enter. Give yourself the starting note and sing from there. I recommend using the fixed do method, although if you’re just starting out with sight singing you could also sing everything on la. (Movable do, while popular and useful for beginning ear training, is much less good in complicated music such as fugues.) Checking your pitch every once in a while by playing the note you’re trying to sing is acceptable; gradually you will learn to stay on pitch. If you’re adventurous you could even check your pitch with a digital tuner. I’m only an advocate for technology in music instruction in the few cases in which it is truly advantageous. Using a tuner to check your pitch is not strictly necessary, but it can give you valuable visual feedback which you can use to help fine-tune both your singing and your ear. It’s especially useful for visually-oriented students. (Even this seemingly objective method is not without its flaws, however, as it is generally limited to equal temperament. However, since practically all pianos are now tuned to equal temperament, the minor risks are effectively mitigated.) The more you are able to fix each note of each voice precisely in your ear before actually practicing with your fingers, the better you will ultimately know the fugue and, all else being equal, the more confident you will be when performing it.

As you do this exercise the entries of the subject and countersubject should be clear, and you should gradually come to understand the fugue’s construction and arrive at a bird’s-eye view of the composition, which will greatly ease your learning and strengthen your memory. (Fugal structure will be dealt with in a separate article.)

“Fingering it out for yourself”

Next, using the proper fingerings is essential. You’ll have to sight read the fugue in whole or in sections and experiment with which combination of fingers is most comfortable and natural and corresponds to the musical effect the composer is attempting to communicate. (That’s a loooooooong topic all by itself….) The learning process – that of making musical impressions in the memory – has already begun, and even this seemingly harmless sight reading work must be approached with care and caution. This is not a time to be careless and sloppy.

You need to become sufficiently familiar with the fugue that you are already forming a clear idea of how it should be played, how you wish to articulate the subject(s) and any countersubjects and other motives. It’s a very good idea to write in your articulations, at least the first time each such subject or motive appears in the fugue. The more complicated the fugue, the more necessary it is to write in this information explicitly. Otherwise, you’ll easily become overwhelmed and you’ll forget to articulate each voice individually according to your own parameters, and the result will be musically unclear.

Remember, fingering is intimately tied with articulation and expression. Change the fingering and you often automatically change the musical affect (with a short A as in “apple”). You’ll need to decide on how you wish to articulate the subject and any countersubjects before you decide on fingerings, since it is categorically impossible to separate one from the other. (The older Henle editions of Bach were terrible in that they assumed there was no articulation whatsoever! All the fingerings were designed such that the entire fugue could be played perfectly legato. This is pure nonsense in Baroque music, which survives on micro-articulations between motives. Fortunately, their new editions of the Well-Tempered Clavier offer fingerings by András Schiff, who is extremely well-schooled in Baroque articulation. Nevertheless, as he says himself, he inevitably devised his fingerings for his own hands, and the student is free to ignore them. Thus, the best editions are unfingered ones…. Finger it out for yourself!)

Sometimes two voices in separate hands play the same note, and you need to decide which hand should play it. Generally, if one of those voices is the subject, then the hand that plays the subject should also play that voice.

Write down your fingerings

Once you’ve arrived at the best fingerings for your hands, write them down. I first learned this technique from the great Austrian pianist Jörg Demus, who has the most phenomenal musical memory I’ve ever borne witness to. Even in his eighties, Demus can play any work of Bach, and most works of other major composers, flawlessly by memory. Clearly there is a natural facility involved, but Demus told me that the fundamental component of developing his memory is writing down his fingerings. He has many editions of the Well-Tempered Clavier for instance, and in each one he bothered to write down every single fingering in order to achieve absolute clarity and certainty. He said he learns the fingerings so well that when he reads the music while practicing, which he does continually to reinforce his visual memory, he almost only sees the fingering numbers. Many will dismiss this practice as only for beginning pianists – the know-it-alls will assume they know better – but this simple method works. I used to think like that as well… until one day it dawned on me that Demus has the most extraordinary musical memory I’ve ever encountered, he freely tells anyone who’s willing to listen how he arrived at this great facility, and despite being one of the world’s foremost pianists for many decades he doesn’t consider himself “too good” to write in his fingerings. Indeed the true masters are masters of fundamentals. During that light bulb moment I decided that what works for him might very well work for me, and sure enough it does.

Writing down your fingerings is imperative: Do not assume that you “just know” them. Actually writing them forces your mind to focus automatically on consciously thinking each finger and each note, and it thereby reinforces and deepens your knowledge of the piece. Anything that digs deeper mental grooves in any aspect of musical memory will be of benefit, as a deeply ingrained and clear mention impression of our repertoire is our very goal.

Write your fingerings large and clearly so that they are easily legible. Sometimes I even write out the entire fugue anew, one voice to a staff. Johann Jakob Froberger (1616–1667) and Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643) wrote out their strictly contrapuntal music in this manner with one voice to a staff. With this full score, I write in all fingerings exactly, and then use this edition to learn the fugue. It’s more of a “conductor’s score” than a pianistic one, and it’s an effective tool for really understanding the composition of the fugue as well as for learning. If you’re new to solfège you can also write in the solfège syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si/ti.

Working methods

You’ll need to practice the fugue in two fundamental ways: hands separately and voices separately. It won’t always be the case that each hand plays a distinct voice. In a fugue of any complexity, one or more voices invariably will be shared between the hands. It’s important to practice hands separately to reinforce your kinaesthetic as well as aural memory of each hand. When you do so, some notes will be missing from certain voices because these notes are played with the other hand. In such cases, make absolutely certain you don’t confuse your mind with false musical impressions, assuming that the voices are different merely because you’re not playing some notes. Instead, it is crucial that you hear the unplayed notes in your mind’s ear.

Similarly, it’s essential to practice the voices separately in order to reinforce your understanding of the piece and to ensure that you’re indeed listening to every note of every voice. I assume you already sang each voice using the proper solfège syllables, listed above as the first step in learning a fugue. Next, practice each voice separately using the fingerings you wrote in. Do not deviate from these fingerings! (It will be necessary periodically to alter a fingering as you get to know a piece: You might find that another fingering provides for better articulation, or that your original fingering doesn’t work effectively at performance tempo. However, strive to keep retroactive fingering changes to an absolute minimum. As you gain experience you’ll become skilled at arriving at effective fingerings from the start.) There is an exception to this rule, however. Particularly if one hand plays two voices, it is useful to practice these voices with both hands. This method will allow you to shape each voice more easily and it will abstract from mere finger memory.

Now that you know each voice separately, it’s time to start combining them. Be methodical. Work in the order in which the voices enter. First play two at a time, and follow these two voices through to the end of the piece. Now do the same for the second and third voices. If there are four voices, you can practice any permutations: voices one and two, one and three, one and four, two and three, two and four, and three and four, then one, two and three, one, two and four, and finally two, three and four. What is essential is that you come to know each voice alone and in relation to the others. It may not be strictly necessary to go through every last permutation, as it risks making your work mechanical. To keep your work fresh, it is a good idea to try a different combination or two at each practice session.

Saving the best for last

The next exercise is the most difficult of all. I hope you’ve been practicing your sight singing. Start singing the first voice that enters (remember, the voices of a fugue can enter in any order). When the next entry arrives, play it on the piano (or harpsichord or organ) using the same fingerings you notated. The first several times you attempt this exercise you will almost certainly find it overwhelming. If that’s the case, simply go back and practice singing the voices until you’re sufficiently familiar with them, and likewise play the voices using the proper fingerings. A very useful practice method is to solfège one voice as you play it, either alone or together with other voices. This keeps your mind active and focused on each voice in turn. Sing through each voice in this manner, singing and playing simultaneously (with or without playing the voice you sing). You should get to the point where you can play two or three voices and sing the other. (I would be very surprised if you could sing two voices at once, although I once had a student who could sing and whistle two different lines at the same time!)

This type of work requires great concentration and discipline, yet the rewards far outweigh the mental work involved. By working in this manner you’ll help to overcome the many hurdles that make for anxiety-ridden performances. Most importantly, you’ll create deep rather than superficial musical impressions in your memory, involving multiple faculties and their synergistic synthesis. You’ll be free to perform with genuine confidence and musical understanding.

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