Ode to the Fugue

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373959

O, beauty, are you not enough?

-Sara Teasdale

All his life Goethe passionately spoke up for the need to discover the universal laws of nature through which her special form, the human being, attempts to create—and does create—whenever and wherever possible. Regrettably, not all of these laws can actually be brought to life, but some of them have been perceived and instilled into the technique of artistic craft. This craft and the formative spirit, which has always lived in and bloomed through the artist, imposed order on the primeval chaos of sounds. The confused, unorganized acoustic ore ceased being senseless—it became message.

Once the border line was crossed, nothing could stay the same. The next step had to be made and was made: intellect elevated the regulated substance to the status of sacred rite, recast spirit into exalted matter and, exceeding its limits, soared into the unfathomable sphere of the transcendental.

For eons this idée-forcée had been searching for its consummation, until by the beginning of the seventeenth century it found its matrix: out of the throes of creation the first incipient fugues emerged. However immense may have been the contribution of a Froberger, a Pachelbel, or a Buxtehude to the contrapuntal art, it was a musician extolled by the exuberant Beethoven as "not the brook (Ger. Bach) his name is, but the sea," who brought the fugue to perfection. All German medieval ethos led to him, forged him, spoke through him. The noble climax of the Reformation, he it was in whom converged the artistic impulses, aspirations, wisdom, and visions of former generations, as well as his own. Upon this teeming legacy Bach erected a musical monument before which I stand in awe.

As Chopin much later called it, "pure logic in music," the fugue has always bewitched me with its wizardry of discursive reasoning, with its striking resurrection of the venerable art of disputation. There the fertile and regal theme—how proper-sounding is its Latin name, Dux!—runs through the austere integer of the form as if proving the whole by this very run. But no kinetic analysis itself could possibly reveal the intellectual glamour of the fugue. Its thesis—the mighty potential of the entire structure, a seed from which the fugue will grow—sends out the blazing arrows of thematic rays that penetrate the maelstrom of melodic currents with their radiance. The potential is fulfilled in the divine ecstasy of musicmaking.

Amid the raging fire of intense polyphonic soul-searching, the war of attrition—violent and intransigent—goes on between the centripetal and centrifugal forces. From this fire, like a fabulous phoenix, arises a new entity: an elastic, resilient mold, a dynamic formation, a comprehension and organization of motion. This entity is far from the elementary-school level notion of the fugue as a dead scheme into which composers more or less successfully squeeze their imagination. What appears from the still-hot lava of Gothic counterpoint is the muscular tissue of continuously interacting inflections, a marvelous product of incessantly interlocking intonations, lured by the crystalline profile of the arising form. Inspired by the cool, single passion for the strictest order, for the calculated discipline of Dutch linearity, these intonations, every time they interplay, sculpt a paradigm as unique as a fingerprint. Therefore at no time does the fugal form repeat itself, always springing up, like Venus from sea foam, anew.

A great total of excited tone progressions, shaped into a restive body, the fugue enters the enchanted country of art endowed with its own will to unfold in a singular way. In effect, a composer's talent expresses itself in an ability to perceive and foretell the hidden desires of the material and in an eager surrender to their tender power. Sometimes the musical text, tortured by a passion for ever greater domination, usurps—like Frankenstein's monster—an almost fatal control over the composer. This is the drama, magic, and beauty of the creative process. The sublime moment of its existence. Its raison d'être. Its vertex.

The law unto itself, the fugue, in its innermost longing for the spiritual, avidly responds to the pure, tormenting call of ascesis, for contrapuntal art crosses the boundaries of the immediately perceptible to penetrate the sphere where the soul of counterpoint unites with the divine. However strong is its burning thirst for compositional intricacies, the fugue in its true dialectics of freedom puts on the severe cassock of the Polyphonic Order, its fervent submission and obedience to which makes it free. Neither a parochial form, nor a generalization of a universal musical experience, the fugue, following its inner cosmopolitanism, like the laws of mathematics, belongs to the world.

At times flames overtake ice, espressivo seizes exact counterpoint, and for a few entranced moments the whole construction lights up with a crimson conflagration of ageless ardor; blaze consumes the whole design. As reverberations of the final cadence die away and a fugue floats into the deafening silence of postmusic, the life of the form continues in a different dimension. And it is music that returns to its primordial state, where the ancient dreams of the next world become real.

To the inexperienced, especially to those who introduce themselves to the fugue after close acquaintance with the flamboyant grandiloquence of Romanticism, the form may seem arrogantly cold and utterly estranged. To them it is the cerebral in the fugue that pacifies the music's Dionysian. To them the fugue, like a bitter pill, must be taken for good digestion and undisturbed sleep in the comfortable warmth of a feather-bed. To them, the happy-with-themselves burgers, the fugue is only a perfect antidote against the madness of art. But nothing could be further from the truth. What they see as frigidity is in fact an inmost need of fetters, of the highest control, of innate humility. In a word, like those monks of old who, dedicating themselves to God, knocked at the doors of the monasteries with the sternest canons, the fugue lays on itself that immutable contritio of art. There is nothing in the fugue to dazzle, to stagger, to blind; instead its harmony of freedom-within-law reflects the boundless world of Mind and immaculate Spirit—proud, chaste, and lonely in its exclusivity.

This region is so high above the quotidian life that in its rarefied air survive only those committed hearts that have pledged to music a fated and fateful conjugal vow. A complex organism such as the fugue, slowly built up over many lifetimes, reaches its towering point to become an intelligently articulated structure, a triumph and glory of rationality, the most exquisite achievement of European musical culture. It is this structure which through the mediation of Reason engages humankind into a direct contact with the Sacred. Thus the prae-matter of music, ennobled by the breath of the eternally creative and purified by its excitement and ethos, grows in the fugue into an indisputable ontological argument for its own existence.

Many a musical form secretly craves symphonic scope—the carnival magic of an orchestra—but not the fugue. Totally devoid of any traces of the theatrical, of any grandeur and affectation, it lives a vibrant life, when a shaft of light, given off by its postulate, penetrates its spare body, shaped by intense cognitive processes. This light grows in intensity with each flash until it ignites the form, and the whole construction flares up and disappears—for the glory of the whole—in the searing torrent of thematic auto-da-fé. This fiery sacrament of creation is a prophetic act, signifying a fugue being reborn.

Each time I am present or serve at the deified liturgy of the fugue I feel as if every step, every turn of history, immediately becomes all-meaningful and translucent in language and spirit. By the irresistible theurgy of art, the fugue reconstructs the universe in the symbols and formulas of musical scholarship, understood only by the initiated; it reveals the direct passage into the dark heart of the macrocosm, into unutterable knowledge, and eventually into the grim interior of the world's mystery, where dwells the cosmic essence wrapped in its transcendentalism. Acutely conscious of this great insight, the fugue suddenly reveals the imperial route to galaxies upon galaxies of the human self. Ultimately, the fugue's immodest ambition is to express all intellectual concepts and all artistic values that have ever been, as well as those still to come.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

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