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The Fugue According to Hermann Hesse


The following excerpt is from Hesse’s masterpiece, Das Glasperlenspiel, published in English as Magister Ludi [1943].

It describes the Music Master’s impromptu development of a fugue using only a short melody hoisted from another song:

He played a brief phrase, a fragment of the song’s melody. It sounded strange, cut out in that way, without head or tail. He played the theme once more, and this time he went on to the first entrance; the second entrance changed the interval of a fifth to a fourth; the third repeated the first an octave higher, as did the fourth with the second. The exposition concluded with a cadence in the key of the dominant. The second working-out modulated more freely to other keys; the third, tending toward the subdominant, ended with a cadence on the tonic.

Now I claim no knowledge of Music. Am I ashamed of this? No. I love music for its mystery. I don’t want to know why music works the way it does. It is already obvious to me that music has the power to control the masses, to make them march off to war or work. I have never taken a music theory class. I played piano when I was a boy. I was an expert recorder player. And I never sang rounds until just recently. I do know that the tonic is beautiful. The tonic is the home key. Returning to the tonic is the same as bliss. Music tends to define a tonic and then drift away, leaving the listener jonesing for a return, it’s a big tease, Mozart’s tease, and then… bliss. I love the tonic. I want to live my whole life in the tonic. But I know that’s unreasonable. There is such a thing as saccharine, or the too sweet. Living in the too sweet eventually produces cavities.

But what I want to know is: What is a fugue? Bach fathered the fugue, at least I think he did, and I also think it has something to do with counterpoint, but what exactly is counterpoint? And why is a fugue so special, so smart? Can someone create a fugue for me out of a melody of my choosing? If so, is this because there is a formula? Is a fugue formulaic, as in Hesse’s description?

January 31, 2010 4:20 am

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