Michael Talbot – Fugue Forum

Why I write fugues

As a teenager in the 1950s, if not earlier, I fancied myself as a composer. Since I was already keen on early music and as a pianist had studied one or two fugues, I composed one or two simple fugues for keyboard. I remember being engaged in writing one on a train journey while holidaying with my parents in Germany, much to the amazement of the ticket inspector. I have not kept these compositions and would not be proud of them today.

As a school, conservatoire and university student I learned more about the mechanisms of fugue. Later (from 1968), as a university teacher of music and musicology (the two tend to be taught and studied in association with one another in Britain). I had to teach about fugue and even, to a very few students, to give instruction in the writing of fugues. In my work as a musicologist studying in depth, for example, Albinoni and Vivaldi, I deepened my knowledge of the subject. But at this stage I composed no fugues, nor anything else worth mentioning.

The stimulus to begin writing fugues again, which very soon blossomed into an obsessive passion, was external. My good friend, the Italian recorder player and musical director (and many other thing besides) Federico Maria Sardelli, in latish 2005 sent me as a surprise a marvellous little fugue of his composition in Vivaldian style. I decided to respond in kind and discovered to my surprise that writing a fugue was for me both easy and satisfying. Like tennis players in a long rally sending the ball in both directions over the net (or – to choose perhaps rather too elevated a parallel – like Brahms and Joachim exchanging canons) our fugal dialogue continued, as it has right up to the present day. Later, we started to exchange compositions also in non-fugal forms – but that is another story, and some of its products can be viewed and heard in the main section of the flauto-dolce web site.

My interest in writing fugues, by the way, has also prompted me to work a little in the same area as a musicologist. My most recent book, entitled Vivaldi and Fugue, will be published in English by Olschki (Florence) in 2009, and I am currently toying with the idea of writing a Lexicon of Fugue.

There is little more to say, except that the more fugues I write (I have completed over 100 for keyboard alone), the greater the struggle becomes to express something new. But I do not think that I have reached an absolute saturation point just yet.

The style I employ in the fugues is eclectic: I do not set out merely to imitate a single composer of the past in any composition, even though strong traces of several of my favourite composers of the later baroque – Buxtehude, Purcell, J. S. Bach, Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi, D. Scarlatti, Leclair et al. – are evident, and the influence of Classical and Romantic composers is by no means absent. I do not hesitate to introduce any feature into a composition provided that it “works in context”, regardless of whether I can recall having seen or heard it before.

Finally, to make one thing absolutely clear: these compositions are not intended to “make a statement” about classical music of today. If I could write convincing fugues like those of Hindemith or Shostakovich or ones in an even more “modern” idiom, I would do so for preference. But I cannot, and so I write in a style that is familiar and attractive to me and which I find easy to handle. In the first instance, these pieces are for my private enjoyment, but I am glad to share them with anyone who can spare the time to listen to them, read them and (even) play them.

Michael Talbot
Liverpool, October 2008

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Fuga solenne for five voices, for keyboard added by Michael Talbot

The pdf and midi files of this piece may be downloaded HERE

Five-voice fugues are uncommon, with good reason. In the ‘48’ of Bach there are only two, both in Book I. There is, first, a degree of difficulty in the part writing. Even students very well trained in four-part writing (based on Bach chorales, Haydn quartets etc.) can encounter difficulty in avoiding forbidden parallel intervals or in keeping the lines shapely once the extra voice is added. To some extent, the problem can be mitigated by introducing frequent rests so that the “effective” number of parts is less than five – and this one should do anyway for the sake of variety and to make new entries of the subject(s) stand out. Second, there is a difficulty for the listener in identifying individual parts. Is the highest part sounding at a given moment the soprano or the alto (the soprano pausing)? In reality, the problem is not so serious, however, since in any keyboard fugue the parts are “virtual” rather than “real”. Third, there is a difficulty in reading five-part music from short score on two staves (no wonder Bach chose open score for the six-part Ricercar in his Musical Offering, even though this seems intended as keyboard music!). There are only two directions for the stems of notes to go – up and down – and to have three parts sharing a stave, as simple arithmetic makes inevitable, is visually and typographically awkward. Most serious of all, however, is the technical problem. A player has only twice as many fingers as there are parts, so the writing has to be kept simple. No wonder that five-part keyboard fugues tend to be, as here, in slow tempo.

My Fuga solenne is a double fugue: “double” not in the sense of being based on two subjects introduced simultaneously at the start, but in that of being based on two subjects introduced consecutively in separate expositions and then brought together in the third, final phase of the movement. In my fugue, the exposition based on the first subject (in D major) occupies bars 1–9, that based on the second subject (in B minor) bars 10–23, that based on their combination (back in D major) bars 24–35. Bars 36 to the end comprise a stretto maestrale of the first subject and a leisurely final cadence. There are no real episodes – a fact that links this fugue to seventeenth- rather than eighteenth-century models, although the harmony and dissonance treatment are definitely post-1700 in character.

Not surprisingly, I had to do a little preliminary sketching to be sure that the two subjects would fit together well – despite being, apparently in different modes. The stretto maestrale, I remember, just arrived, unplanned, from nowhere.

There is a certain “churchly”, almost stile antico, feel about this fugue, which reminds me of the fourth movement of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony.

The pdf and midi files of this piece may be downloaded HERE

16 October 2008

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