Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Top Five Greatest Fugues Ever Written

There is a widespread misconception that fugues are by their nature academic, stodgy, and soulless. Although there certainly are a lot of insipid fugues out there, many fugal masterpieces exist and deserve more attention. Here are some of my favorites in no particular order:

5. “So You Want to Write a Fugue?” – Glenn Gould

Fugues have a (possibly deserved) reputation for being dry, so this fugue is striking from the get-go for its playfulness and humor. But the greatness of this work extends far beyond that; the lyrics themselves are very clever, highlighting contrapuntal techniques that Gould employs and commenting on quotes from other composers. A version in Japanese is available as well!

4. Falstaff: Finale – Verdi

The comedy Falstaff is Verdi’s final opera – and the finale is a very fitting conclusion. Here, the entire cast proclaims the folly of the world, and they do so in the manner of a fugue. Fugues in opera are already uncommon, but a light-hearted ten-voice fugue like this one may be unique to Verdi.

3. Große Fuge B-Dur Op. 133 – Beethoven

Beethoven’s late works are characterized by a few attributes: weird, hodge-podge structure and form; lots of trills; and complicated fugues. This piece was originally the final movement of another string quartet, but it now stands as a testament to Beethoven’s counterpoint-writing skills. It’s a massive, challenging piece, analogous in some respects to his “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata and even the final movement of his famous Ninth Symphony.

2. Requiem: Kyrie – Mozart

It is truly regrettable that Mozart did not live long enough to finish his Requiem, which contains a lively double fugue in its Kyrie. (There is another amazing fugue in the Domine Jesu movement.) Although it is unlikely that the composer would have reused this fugue, Franz Süssmayr, who completed the work after Mozart’s death, used it as the basis for the concluding movement. Some who may be disparaging of Süssmayr’s talents may suggest that this is because he was unable to write an ending that could be more awesome.

1. Pretty much any fugue J.S. Bach wrote

Obviously cheating, but Bach wrote so many great fugues that it’s impossible to discern which one is the best. What’s your favorite Bach fugue?

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