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Piano Instruction: Can we over-analyze a Bach fugue?

One of my Europe-based students bestowed the gift of J.S. Bach Fugue in C, BWV 952. He regarded it as a good springboard to learn the Baroque form. (The composition was not from the Well-Tempered Clavier, but it was one of the composer’s “LITTLE FUGUES.”)

For purposes of I.D., here’s Glenn Gould’s performance:

I had come to this FUGUE in a state of ignorance, though I’d been previously saturated with an excellent ONLINE analysis of WTC’s BWV 847 in C minor. (Jose Rodriguez Alvira)

And naturally, I expected to find an equivalent nit-picking probe of BWV 952 through a Google-driven search.

To my pleasant surprise, I found one produced by “Lance Walton,” an admitted “amateur,” that devoted a complete page to piecing out the Fugue, and in addition, had a PDF score link that led in scope to Alvira’s undertaking.

Only the standard FUGUE “vocabulary,” as I knew it, was modified, in places. (“Double Exposition” was a NEW term of art) And I didn’t see Counter-subject 1 and 2, or indications of Inversion, Augmentation etc. Well maybe they didn’t apply here. I was not prepared for any form departures.

Here’s the website and direct link to the PDF analysis.

The first three pages of six in living color:

Bach 942 revised p 1

bach 952 revised p 2

revised bwv952 p 3

I sent this Analysis to Jan Karman, a LINKED IN BACH GROUP member/composer/harpsichordist, for his response:

“Shirley, analysis is always arbitrary, and at any rate after the creation.

“The analysis is rarely the way a piece was composed.
One could carefully strip the theme from passing and changing notes and see
what remains.

“It’s also interesting to look at what types of changing note patterns Bach
is using, depending on which note the next accent would fall.

“In this rather simple fugue you may easily find the occurrences of the theme,
but also the sentences and even the motives, the latter of which Bach made
frequent use. E.g. there’s no mirrored or inverted theme, or complicated
modulations – the occurrences of the theme are mostly in neighboring keys.

“I think, as you stated in your previous mail, the flow in accordance
with the view and feeling of the performer, is very important, if not the only one
to hang on.”

Jan’s note was a wake up call. Though I knew myself to be obsessively preoccupied with form and structure as they applied to all the masterworks, and perhaps having been knee deep in BWV 847, I was looking for the same frame of reference in BWV 952: i.e. SUBJECT, COUNTER-SUBJECT 1 and 2, Inversions of, Augmentation, Diminution, and the rest.

To be initially immersed in a NEW landscape, without a specific mapping before I had embarked upon my journey with LITTLE FUGUE in C made me feel like I was walking in the wilderness. (Ridiculous, of course, since I’d been previously primed in my exploration of BWV 847 in C minor, WTC I)

Lance Walton’s own comments harmonized with Karman’s:

“Part of what this and other analyses have taught me is that Bach’s idea of a fugue was much richer than the textbooks. But that is always the case. We see the same attempts to systematize sonata form by theorists after the composers have been developing the ideas for a hundred years. I think it’s precisely the deviations from the theoretical standard that give us an insight into the thoughts of the masters.”

Elaine Comparone, world famous harpsichordist, chimed in:

“This kind of paper analysis may be useful for a “school fugue” but JS Bach fugues’ do not always fit into that kind of analysis. Basically, you want to HEAR the play of lines.” She’d made it a point to applaud Karman and Walton’s responses.

Here’s my second day READ of the Little Fugue in C with analytical commentary.

And what I had initially scribbled in the score: (excuse the illegible entries on page 1)

bwv952 fugue p 1

Bach bwv952 p2


When all is said and done, analyzing a Bach Fugue to the end of the earth is insufficient to render an aesthetically beautiful performance, though, not to be underestimated, are insights about how a composition is put together. A baby-step learning journey inevitably winds its way to a spiritual awakening through a sensitive process that has many creative ingredients.

Above all, we owe it to our students to be PREPARED to teach a composition if we expect our contributions to be of educational value.

LINKS: (as apply to Fugue in C minor BWV 847)




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