So You Want to Write a Fugue

So you want to write a fugue.
You got the urge to write a fugue.
You got the nerve to write a fugue.
So go ahead, so go ahead and write a fugue.
Go ahead and write a fugue that we can sing.

Pay no heed, Pay no mind.
Pay no heed to what we tell you,
Pay no mind to what we tell you.
Cast away all that you were told
And the theory that you read.
As we said come and write one,
Oh do come and write one,
Write a fugue that we can sing.

Now the only way to write one
Is to plunge right in and write one.
Just forget the rules and write one,
Just ignore the rules and try.

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.

Never be clever
for the sake of being clever,
for the sake of showing off.

For a canon in inversion is a dangerous diversion,
And a bit of augmentation is a serious temptation,
While a stretto diminution is an obvious allusion.

For to try to write a fugue that we can sing.

And when you finish writing it
I think you will find a great joy in it.

or so...
Nothing ventured, nothing gained they say
But still it is rather hard to start.

Well let us try right now.
Now we are going to write a fugue.
We are going to write a good one.
We are going to write a fugue ... right now.

Its a fun song. Gould recorded the first nine of fifteen fugues from Bach's great treatise on fugue composition, The Art of the Fugue in 1962 on the organ of All Saints's Church at Kingsway, Toronto which established him as somewhat of an expert in this area. So You Want To Write a Fugue was conceived as the finale to a 1963 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation televison show entitled "The Anatomy of Fugue." The following year the standard version was recorded and appeared in the form of a flexible film record in a special edition devoted to Baroque music in the magazine Hi-Fi Stereo Review. (That would be a nice piece of Gouldinailia.) It was published in 1964 by G. Schirmer in New York for piano or string accompaniment. The song was reissued on The Glenn Gould Silver Jubilee Album of 1980.

Bach composed The Art of the Fugue during the last two years of his life and died before completing it 1750. The Art of the Fugue tries to teach by example some of the basic precepts of fugal composition. The organ was somewhat an uncharacteristic instrument for Gould although he studied it since his childhood. His recording of The Art of the Fugue using and organ, and his composition of this song using fugue motifs highlights an on-going academic question about whether or not Bach's Art of the Fugue was developed with keyboard instruments in mind or whether it was more general than that.

The song is in the form of a fugue and uses fugue devices in its composition. The theme on which the fugue is constructed, in this case "So you want to write a fugue" is the subject. The fugal answer, where the subject is repeated with different emphasis, is the imperative "So write a fugue that we can sing." The counter-answer, the continuation of the original subject are heard in new stanza's sung behind the answer.

Four traditional devices for composers to add interest to a fugue are mentioned in it. Inversion refers to a device where the composer repeats a phrase in the fugue, but inverts the notes - where the listener expects a note to go up two tones, it goes down two tones and so on for each note in the phrase. The rhythm stays the same. The result is a theme which is unfamiliar but familiar. Diminution is doubling the playing speed of a section while augmentation is halving the speed of a section. Stretto means to start the answer before the subject is finished, that is, to begin the echoing response of the original fugue theme or subject, before that subject is finished.

So You Want to Write a Fugue is sung in a madrigal-type round with four singers all repeating small variations of the base lyrics. The careful listener of the polyphony can likely pick out variants to the above lyrics as the singers repeat and repeat again their lyrics. Its another example of his multiple layered "voiced-over" pieces where the listener is expected to follow two or three lines of sound at once.

The singers on the original version were Elizabeth Benson-Guy, Sopranon; Anita Darian, Mezzo-Soprano; Charles Bressler, Tenor; Donald Gramm, Baritone; The Juliard Quartet played the instrumental background. Robert Mann, First Violin; Isidore Cohen, Second Violin; Raphael Hillyer, Viola; Claus Adam, Cello; Vladimir Golschmann, Conductor.

This song is on the Glenn Gould - The Composer CD from Sony Classical rerecorded with different singers.

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[Last updated June 13, 1996]

Les Tres Belle Heures - Septembre