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There has been talk about a potential fugue / polyphony contest, and since I didn't even know the definition of a fugue until recently, I thought I should prep for the contest by writing a practice piece in fugue style. So here's my (attempt at) fugue. I probably did a whole bunch of things wrong, so I'd appreciate if people could point out all the flaws

Specific issues that I'm aware of include:

- Too many crossing parts that obscure the voices: what to do? Or is the subject I chose a poor candidate for a fugue?

- There are probably a bunch of discordant notes / unresolved leading tones / parallel voices, etc., that should be fixed.

- The ending seems rather abrupt. Any ideas how to improve it?

Thanks!

(P.S. I'm not submitting this to the upcoming contest; this is just a practice piece.)

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Teoh,

Would you mind uploading the .xml file?

Mariza

Sorry Teoh,

I remember now that your program doesn't produce .xml files.

I wanted to hear the voices separately (hence the request for .xml) but it's hard

for me to play the viola voice on the keyboard because it's written in bass clef.

I'll try to provide some feedback (for what it's worth) given a little time.

I liked the theme for sure!

Mariza

Mariza Costa-Cabral said:

Teoh,

Would you mind uploading the .xml file?

Mariza

This is a good start for a fugue but as a beginner trying to learn the art of a fugue I would probably stick closer to how a fugue is done. The beginning was very solid, though not clear as if it was a three voice or four voice fugue, the first violin entrance didnt seem to match the subject or any the answer. 

After the exposition, I didnt hear a very strong sense of an episode. Typically episodes are where you modulate to another key using sequences. I heard only one moment of a sequence. I also didnt hear very strong restatements. The subject seemed to get lost a lot of time and I never heard the dialogue between subjects and answers again in the piece very prominently. 

This might have also been due to the fact that the subject was very rhythmically monotonous. Your countersubjects seemed to be more rhythmically interesting and my hear caught those more often than the subject. 

One big thing that stuck out at me were the use of key signatures. Typically you do not change the key signature even when modulating. Key signature changes are often use to indicate major shifts in the music and are typically used for larger pieces. In a fugue, when you modulate you just use accidentals. On the topic of modulation, you briefly modulate to C minor. If we are sticking to very traditional rules on fugues, in the key of A minor, one wouldn't normally modulate to C minor. The keys you can modulate to, and are often encouraged to hit all of, are C major, E minor, F major, D minor and G major. The key C minor is a little too distant from A minor. 

I didnt take a look at the part writing just yet, but these were some of the things I noticed thus far. 

In my last post I meant to write "alto clef".

Hi Mariza,

Here are the parts for this piece, with viola in treble clef for your ease of reading. :-)  (A real violist will kill me if I gave him such a part, though!)

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Hi Tyler,

Thanks for taking the time to respond.  You're right, this particular subject is probably not the best one for a fugue, because the rhythm doesn't stand out enough to be noticed easily. It also spans two octaves, which causes a lot of crossing parts that make it even harder to pick out the voices.

The first violin entry is supposed to be the subject in D minor; is that a strange key to use for an exposition entry? Or maybe the texture was already too thick by that point and the crossing parts make it hard to identify the 1st violin as another entry?

You're right that I didn't use too much in the way of episodes. In this piece I was mainly experimenting with canonic devices, so maybe it's more canon-like than fugue-like.

After the exposition I had an entry in C major, and then a long section where I had all the voices gradually enter in inversion; basically the entire passage from mm.13-20 is a complete inversion of the entire exposition (with some extra fillers in the first few measures where the exposition had silent voices, in order to maintain the thickness of the contrapuntal texture). Aside from a few notes that I adjusted for euphonic purposes, every interval is replicated in every voice in inversion. That was probably a totally crazy thing to do, though. :-P

After that is a modulating episode based on a modification of the subject where I went a bit wild with the modulation (going from C minor to F minor to Bb minor to Eb minor). In mm.27-28 I pitted the subject against its inversion simultaneously... but unfortunately it probably didn't come through clearly because of the voice-crossing.

Then there's a cadential bridge (mm.29-30) and the final entry back in A minor. The final entry is admittedly somewhat weak because the countersubjects on top of it seems to have obscured it significantly.

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the root of the problem here is the fugue subject, which is probably not a good subject for fugal treatment (or at least, it's beyond my current skill level to put in a fugue effectively). There were a number of fugal devices I wanted to try but couldn't, because of the way the subject is written.

Pretty good effort.

I will be glad if a contest takes a liberal view of what a fugue is otherwise I will never pass the "Tyler Test".

My only suggestion would be to replace the first group of semis with a crotchet A tied to the first semi of the second group just to make the start of the theme more recognisable.

A tip to writing more rhythmically diverse subject; try setting a line of text to music. The natural rhythms in text create very diverse rhythmic patterns, and text make really good subjects. 

H. S. Teoh said:

Hi Tyler,

Thanks for taking the time to respond.  You're right, this particular subject is probably not the best one for a fugue, because the rhythm doesn't stand out enough to be noticed easily. It also spans two octaves, which causes a lot of crossing parts that make it even harder to pick out the voices.

The first violin entry is supposed to be the subject in D minor; is that a strange key to use for an exposition entry? Or maybe the texture was already too thick by that point and the crossing parts make it hard to identify the 1st violin as another entry?

You're right that I didn't use too much in the way of episodes. In this piece I was mainly experimenting with canonic devices, so maybe it's more canon-like than fugue-like.

After the exposition I had an entry in C major, and then a long section where I had all the voices gradually enter in inversion; basically the entire passage from mm.13-20 is a complete inversion of the entire exposition (with some extra fillers in the first few measures where the exposition had silent voices, in order to maintain the thickness of the contrapuntal texture). Aside from a few notes that I adjusted for euphonic purposes, every interval is replicated in every voice in inversion. That was probably a totally crazy thing to do, though. :-P

After that is a modulating episode based on a modification of the subject where I went a bit wild with the modulation (going from C minor to F minor to Bb minor to Eb minor). In mm.27-28 I pitted the subject against its inversion simultaneously... but unfortunately it probably didn't come through clearly because of the voice-crossing.

Then there's a cadential bridge (mm.29-30) and the final entry back in A minor. The final entry is admittedly somewhat weak because the countersubjects on top of it seems to have obscured it significantly.

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the root of the problem here is the fugue subject, which is probably not a good subject for fugal treatment (or at least, it's beyond my current skill level to put in a fugue effectively). There were a number of fugal devices I wanted to try but couldn't, because of the way the subject is written.

@Michael: yeah, probably should adopt Ondib's idea of a "polyphonic contest" instead. We can still have a "fugue meter", a "fun" category for people to rate entries according to how close they consider it to being a "real" fugue, but not have it affect the overall rating.

@Tyler: that's an excellent idea; in retrospect I should have thought of that. Thanks for the tip!

Hi Teoh,

Thank you so much for writing all the parts in treble clef.  That made it much easier.

Here is my opinion, for what is worth, which may not be much!  I think your opening theme is beautiful, very powerful and ambitious.  I say "ambitious" because am under the impression that the theme establishes the complexity of the fugue, although I could be wrong about that.

However, I only really like the first 2 and 1/2 bars of the theme.  I think the theme lost its logic after that.  I'll try to explain what I mean below.  My main comment is that you are not demanding that each voice make logical sense independently from the others. You think in terms of harmony, and IMO that is not sufficient, because you might just end up with something that doesn't clash, no dissonance, but no real logical discourse ieither for the listener to hold on to.

Tyler's suggestion of thinking in terms of texts is a fantastic one.  I had never actually thought about it, but now I think I'm going to use that suggestion all the time.  Starting now.  If I think of your theme as a discourse, and I play it in isolation from the other voices, the first 2 and 1/2 bars are great, but aftet that it seems rambling and incoherent to me.  Not like a logical sentence or sequence of sentences.

Taking your first 2 and 1/2 bars, which I like, I completed the theme differently -- please see the attached files. I think they are singing these lyrics (please try to sing this with your opening theme's first 2 and 1/2 bars):

"I went on running up the hill, until I reached the very top, and that is when I saw it!" 

I feel that the phrase "and that is when I saw it!" needs to be repeated, though with slightly lower notes.

Meanwhile, the other voice, who is listening to your account of what happened comes in and repeats:

"He went on running up the hill, until he reached the very top, and that is when he saw it! And that is when he saw it!"

Speaking on top of them, you ask expressively:

"And what do you think I saw there?  I think you'd like to know it!"

Not sure this will make sense to you, but I hope so.   I attach the (highly incomplete -- just the initial sketch) of what this would look like, and the corresponding sound file (with the same gaps).  If you play these notes, you can sing the above text to them.

This is just a very incomplete start of a piece, which is a different piece than yours, but whose theme is the same as the beginning of your theme.

Theo, please forgive me and I hope you won't feel hurt.  You have provided so much insight and useful feedback on my pieces, I hate to feel like I am not supportive of your effort, but I have to be honest in that I think you need to re-write it, and Tyler's suggestion of thinking of the music as musical text I think is a great aid to the musical mind.  Each individual voice needs to stand on its own independently and capture the mind with a logical discourse.

Mariza

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Hi Mariza,

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!  Since you have a better sense of melody than I do, maybe you should take what you have here and finish it.  I'd love to see where you go with this variation on my theme. :-)  I also agree that setting text is probably the best way to come up with good fugue subjects.

However, I think the main weakness of my theme is actually in the first half rather than the second half.  The second half was actually revised many times before I settled on the current version; the primary consideration was that it had to be rhythmically distinct from the first half (as well as the other countersubjects that follow it) so that when the counterpoint really gets going, it doesn't get lost in the texture.  This is really hard to do in a fugal texture, due to immense complexity of both rhythmic, harmonic, and voice-leading considerations.  The first half, as Tyler said, is rhythmically rather indistinct -- while the melody itself is easy to recognize on its own, its indistinct rhythm makes it almost unnoticeable when it appears in the middle of a complex contrapuntal texture.  This is bad news for a fugue, because the whole point of a fugue is for the subject to be easily recognized as it appears in various contexts and even modifications throughout the piece.  This weakness is evident at the end of m.16 when the subject enters in inversion: due to its bland rhythm, I'll bet that probably nobody so far has noticed that it's actually the subject in inversion. :-)  Had it had an instantly-recognizable rhythm instead, the listener would have immediately picked it up.

Another weakness of this subject is the fact that it spans 2 octaves -- again, in its first half.  This greatly constrains the contrapuntal possibilities in the other voices, because I either have to leave a 2-octave gap between voices any time the subject is playing (an onerous requirement in a fugue because that forces any other subjects / countersubjects to have to contort or go to extreme registers), or I have to allow the crossing of voices.  I choose the latter option, and in retrospect, it's obvious that it only obscured the already-indistinct subject even more, for example in m.27 where I intended to have a grand self-harmonization of the subject with its inversion, only to have the two cross each other -- unless the listener is well-versed with the subject, he would probably not recognize it as the subject at all. (And again, the lack of easily identified rhythm does not help here.)

And finally, one of the main reasons the countersubjects are rather uninspired, as you pointed out, is because the pitches used in the subject impose a lot of limitations on what can harmonize with it. Since this is supposed to be a 4-part fugue, and I wanted to explore canonical devices in it, that means the subject and all 3 countersubjects must work together as 4-part harmony. That greatly hampers creative variations on the countersubjects, because while it's relatively easy to find a second voice that harmonizes with the subject, as you have done, it's not so easy to find a second voice that does not also impose onerous restrictions on the two other voices that must also participate in the counterpoint in 4-part harmony.  Well, either that, or I just suck at writing 4-part harmony. :-P

Perhaps for the fugue/polyphonic contest I'll have to stick with 2- or 3-part fugues instead. Four-part fugues are really hard!  Well, that, and next time I'll know to be more careful in choosing my fugue subject. :-)

Teoh,

Thank you for not taking my comments the wrong way and being so open minded. I would actually really enjoy doing as you suggest -- proceeding with developing this piece, but that cannot be called "finish it", because that term suggests that a small fraction of the work is left to do. When in fact, 95% of the work is left to do.

It is tempting for me to take a stab at this piece, but my daily reality is I have almost no free time at all. I don't even have the time to learn to play my existing pieces on the keyboard. So I don't see how I could ever do this. Also, I haven't yet read about what defines a fugue, and that takes time, too.

Anyhow, it sounds as though you learned a couple of lessons by writing this practice fugue and uploading it. And I did, too! That idea of using text, almost like turning a piece of music into a theatre play (kind of) is pretty powerful in my mind right now. Thanks, Tyler. Is that something a lot of people learn when they study music?

One last thing, Theo -- my skills at providing feedback are really really limited. You're at the top of that spectrum and I at bottom. It makes me feel bad that I am not able to give back to you any of the kind of input you've given to me.

Mariza

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