You Want To Write A What?

soyouwanttowriteafugue350x200"And the fun of it will get you.
And the joy of it will fetch you.
Its a pleasure that is bound to satisfy.
When you decide that John Sebastian
must have been a very personable guy."

Glenn Gould

You want to write a what? A fugue eh? It’s been done before. Just ask Glenn :-)




1 Musica contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.

Source: definition of fugue from Oxford Dictionaries Online

Gould’s "So You Want To Write A Fugue?" always leaves me smiling and shaking my head in wonder at his learning and mastery of his craft. I’ve posted two performances of it in the playlist below — the original, and a new performance by the immensely talented Moscow based vocal group "Intrada".  It’s a great piece of fun and I hope you’ll enjoy the performances as much as I do.

The story behind "So You Want To Write A Fugue?" is soon told:  Gould had recorded the first eight of fifteen fugues from Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue) on the organ at All Saints Church, Kingsway, Toronto a feat which earned him a deserved reputation for expertise on the topic. In 1963 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were broadcasting a TV series on music called "Festival", the episode for the series that was broadcast on March 4th 1963 dealt with and was entitled "The Anatomy of Fugue". (This was the first showing, the show that’s become the standard was recorded the following year (see Endnotes below). To conclude the show Gould’s composition "So You Want To Write A Fugue?" was broadcast.

It’s a fun and enjoyable piece of music that wears its learning lightly, Gould wanted to leave the listener smiling and succeeds brilliantly. But he was a master of his craft and the piece makes high demands upon its singers each of whom has to sing (repeat) variations of the lyrics and to do so sufficiently clearly that  listeners can easily follow the different lines that comprise the resultant polyphony. Gould’s writing of "So You Want To Write A Fugue?"  makes heavy use of fugal motifs, it’s in fugue form, and uses the musical tricks and devices you’d expect to find in a fugue. Its subject (the theme on which it’s constructed) is "So you want to write a fugue". The fugal answer is "Go ahead and write a fugue that we can sing". Like Bach before him Gould uses all the tricks of the fugue writer’s art. The subject gets repeated with different empases, while the counter-answer (the continuation of the original subject) gets repeated in the stanzas sung as a "backing track" to the answer. He uses other tricks as well one of them being note inversion – he repeats musical phrases in the fugue but instead of behaving as expected and going up a tone or two he goes down. Now the rythmn stays the same while he’s doing this so what you wind up hearing is a strange mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar.  Gould also engages both in diminuition (doubling the speed of a particular section) and in augmentation (halving it). Just to round things off he begins the echoing response before the original subject (or theme) is finished – the technique called "stretto".

The playlist below has two performances. The first is a very early performance of it. Not the original (see notes below) but one that was recorded shortly afterwards. Don’t let its age put you off, it’s very well sung, the sound quality is more than acceptable and it’s being performed exactly as Gould wanted it performed.  The second video in the playlist is of a performance in Moscow in January last year of "So You Want To Write A Fugue?" by the Intrada vocal group. This group and their singing is new to me but having listened to this and some other performances of theirs on their YouTube channel I’m now defintely counted as one of their fans. Their performance of "So You Want To Write A Fugue?"  is perhaps a bit more formal than the original, but it’s none the worse for that. I enjoyed their singing and think you will too, I thought that Ekaterina Antonenko conducted the ensemble well, allowing them to play (and sing) to their strenghts. Of the two performances I think that this is the one I prefer. Have a listen and see what you think. Enjoy :-)


How to use the playlist: Clicking either of the small thumbnails below will load that performance into the player on top which you use exactly the same as you use YouTube’s player.

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The performers for the original CBC performance were:

Singers — Elizabeth Benson-Guy, Anita Darian, Charles Bressler, Donald Gramm, Robert Mann.  Juliard Quartet (instrumental background): First Violin; Isidore Cohen, Second Violin; Raphael Hillyer, Viola; Claus Adam, Cello; Conductor: Vladimir Golschmann .

The perfpormers for the first performance in the playlist above are:

Singers — Elizabeth Benson-Guy, Patricia Ridout, Gordon Wry, Edgar Murdoch accompanied by the Canadian String Quartet.

The performers in Intada’s performance were:

Singers: : Nadiya Zelyankova, Andrey Nemzer, Vyacheslav Zikov, Dmitriy Volkov. Instrumental background: Roman Minz, Arthur Chermonov (violins), Sergey Poltavskiy (viola), Evgeniy Tonkha (cello) Conductor: Ekaterina Antonenko.

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