Learning a fugue – aged 56¾

The first time I learnt a fugue was around 40 years ago: the obligatory Bach, BWV 854, for my grade 8 piano exam. It’s not something I look back on with affection (as opposed, say, to learning German irregular verbs, which I enjoyed so much I did a PhD on them) and I hadn’t rushed to repeat the experience. Even when I resumed playing piano 4 years ago, I turned to Mozart, Poulenc, Janacek, and – for a Baroque option –  Scarlatti rather than Bach.

While I can appreciate a fugue as an object of abstract admiration, there’s something highly counterintuitive about actually playing one. For a start, they demand three-way coordination: between the eyes reading the notes, the brain analysing the structure, and the fingers trying to do what comes naturally. I’ve always preferred tackling pieces I could at least have a stab at sight-reading from the outset, and this was a non-starter with Bach fugues. So I preferred to stick with CDs of Angela Hewitt or Glenn Gould.

And then came Shostakovich. I played some of his 24 Preludes Op.34, and was so taken with these inventive miniatures – the quirky humour, sombre melancholy, lyricism and mordant dissonance – that I wanted to progress to longer, meatier repertoire. Given Shostakovich’s relatively limited output for piano solo, that meant grappling with his Op.87 – the 24 Preludes and Fugues.

I’ve started at the beginning, with no.1 in C major. While it has the typical fugue-like quality of never allowing a pause for breath, it isn’t too fast – no semiquavers – and is modal rather than chromatic. While it’s a step up from BWV 854 in having four rather than three voices, the passages where all four are ploughing their own furrows at once are quite limited.

In fact, at first glance it’s straightforward enough to be semi-sight-sightreadable, unlike any fugue I’d tried before. On my first attempt at playing Op.87 No.1 for my teacher, this proved to be my undoing. The beginning was passable, the end – where the fugal structure winds down – similarly, but the main body of the piece just didn’t hang together. The verdict: I hadn’t nailed it as a fugue (despite my diligent pencil marks for each voice entry!), and I was trying to glue it together with too much indiscriminate pedal (which would have been more obviously wrong if it had been Bach, but which I’d subconsciously told myself I could get away with for the 20th century).

So I needed to do some serious work, go through and “finger” it conscientiously, assuming no pedal except where I worked out it was absolutely necessary, and analyse the fugal structure more closely. A couple of weeks later, having been distracted by other things, I set about doing this at 4.30 one Sunday afternoon. Four hours later I’d still done not much more than a page! This was hard grind, but strangely satisfying, and I didn’t even feel an urge to break off and watch Andy Murray winning his gold medal …

My fingers then had to get to grips with the marks on the page. I played the results very slowly to my teacher today and we spent the lesson going over what I’d done. On the positive side he noticed a great improvement since the last attempt: it was now starting to sound like a fugue. I had done a thorough job, had found some great fingerings, and my musical insight was developing well.

The other side of the coin was familiar from the last four years of piano lessons as an adult: my personality at the piano is no different from my personality away from it, and piano lessons as a result often resemble life-coaching sessions. I had over-complicated both the task and the actual fingering – to the extent I sometimes had fingers changing not once but twice on a single note! And (how many times does my husband say this?) I’d been guilty of “over-thinking”. So I needed to go through it again, retaining a lot of the good work, but not aiming for perfection and, above all, simplifying.

A lesson for life, not just for fugues.

Probably a lesson for writing blogs too, but I’ve got to go and look at the fugue again so this will have to do as it is.


3 thoughts on “Learning a fugue – aged 56¾

  1. An insightful post on the pleasures and frustrations of learning music as an adult returning to the piano after an absence. I can sympathise having had a similar experience with a Bach Fugue myself some years ago (in fact the Toccata from the E minor Partita which has a 4-part fugue in the middle of it). When I learnt a few of the 48 Preludes and Fugues as a teenager, my then teacher carefully explained the structure of a fugue and I still have her notes in the front of my old ABRSM edition. When I learnt the E minor Toccata my (new) piano teacher asked me to colour code each part of the fugue (subject, answer, counter-subject etc) and to learn each element separately. I found this challenging (recalling my teenage piano studies) and very useful as it enabled me to learn the fugue really carefully and also appreciate Bach’s clever (but actually very simple) structures. Good luck with your piano playing Judith and I look forward to reading further bulletins here 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As someone who is currently fighting the Goldberg Variations (something I could once play fairly fluently); and who is roughly the same age; and has not played the piano for quite a few years… I am in deep awe. Bravo! Proof – as is Fran, above – that everything is possible (and that I need to be a bit more conscientious about practising). Good luck with the Shostakovich – wondrous pieces; but certainly tougher than they can look at first sight!


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