Brass Quintet: Fugue and Chorale

We are almost finished with the Brass Quintet (which I think will be named “Tango Townships” – an anagram of Washington Post that has a sort of Sousa Marchy Military kind of feel to me…).  This post will look at the two variations that surround the theme.  Whether or not I meant it in the planning stages (happy accident), these two variations (one of which is a fugue, the other is a chorale) both bring J.S. Bach to mind (even though they (mostly) sound nothing like him). This provides some sort of consistency going into and out of the theme, and helps hold the form together.

So what is a fugue and why did I choose one?   Well…the second question is easiest to answer – I have always had a deep affection for fugues (and counterpoint in general – you can see it all over this piece), and I enjoy adding them wherever I can.  A theme and variations seems like a fairly good place where a fugue-like structure (because it’s really only pretending to be a proper fugue) would not stick out due to the wide-ranging stylistic foundations.

The “what” is a slightly more difficult problem.  A fugue is a contrapuntal structure with a main theme (called the “Subject”) which is featured throughout.  At the beginning (the “exposition”), the subject is heard in each of the voices (alternating between the tonic and the dominant…long story), sometimes separated by little moments of counterpoint that are referred to as “episodes.”  Sometimes (and this is the case in my fugue-y section), there is a countersubject which is played at the same time as the subject (although not the first time).  It might be best to hear a fugue – this is one of my favorites…the “Little” Fugue in G-Minor, by Bach. (with neat visualization, but a synthesized organ) (no visualization, real organ)

You can hear how the piece starts off with the subject on its own – nothing to get in the way or confuse the listener.  Let’s break it down:

0:06 – Subject (times are based on the first link)

0:21 – Answer (subject in the dominant key) – the original voice (red) plays the countersubject.

0:35 – Episode – the two voices aren’t playing either the subject or the countersubject – they’re just spinning out to give the listener a chance to absorb.

0:40 – Subject (green) – back in the tonic.  The purple now has the countersubject.

0:55 – Answer (blue) – this will take us to the end of the exposition.  Afterwards things get complicated as people start to throw around words like “stretto” and “false entrance.”  I think we know all we need to.  If you want to learn a little more – check out this.

Ok – so we now know the basics of a fugue we can look at how I applied them.  This is the subject that I used:

Figure 1 – Subject

It incorporates two parts of the Sousa – the D-C# movement that will become crucial as we transition into the theme, and the beginning of the first strain (from the F-E-F) – the notes are the same (albeit transposed), but the rhythm isn’t.  This subject is first heard in the trombone (who I felt was being ignored and needed some TLC), and then passes to the horn (transposed up a 3rd instead of a 5th – scandalous!).  The trombone continues and plays the countersubject:

Figure 2 – Countersubject

This countersubject is a little more rhythmically diverse than the subject by design – it will be perceived more clearly as its own melodic voice that way.  It also has more chromatic motion (at the end) which ties this variation to the end of the theme and also to several of the variations that have come before.  There is a hint of the Sousa in the first to second bars.

The entrance of these voices takes us up to measure 125.  Even though the subject is basically in D-minor, the harmonic language is not really of the Baroque period.  I did not make a very big effort to avoid the things that Bach would have avoided (like parallel 5ths), and sometimes did what I thought was melodically appropriate instead of harmonically appropriate…this is counterpoint after all!

At 125, there is an episode that is intentionally cliche…you can hear it in any number of Baroque pieces.  It quickly dissolves, though, and becomes “weird.”  Don’t worry, though – all is put right by the third entrance – the tuba.  If this was a Bach fugue, this voice would be in the same key as the subject – that is, the home key.  Here, though, it is a 5th below the answer (or a major third below the subject)…very strange stuff.  The harmony on top of it is pretty normal, though.  I honestly can’t remember why I chose to put it in this key (it has been a couple of months now…) – I do like the way it sounds, though.

Next comes the second trumpet…again, not where it should be.  It is a (compound) minor third above the tuba entrance.  This at least is consistent with the opening, where the answer was a minor 3rd above the subject.  There is some method to this madness.

Finally, the first trumpet comes in and (horror) it is major instead of minor (and a major 3rd above where the last entrance happened).  The irony here is that after all of this key jumping, the final entrance is the relative major to the opening subject.  This leads into an episode which, again, starts off a little cliched and becomes harmonically more dense towards the end.

Why did I choose all these strange keys instead of following the standard tonic-dominant relationship of the Baroque fugue?  I didn’t want it to sound like a Baroque fugue because, with my de-emphasis of some of the core voice-leading rules, it would have just sounded like a bad fugue instead of a modern re-interpretation.  This makes it fit better in a theme and variation structure (and who wants to hear a bad fugue?).

Episodes continue throughout the development-like section.  The first (at 140) pits fast, fanfare-like lines in the trumpets (that are derived from the subject) against slower, slightly more polyrhythmic material in the other brass (where the subject is started in the tuba each time).  The chromatic material is explored more as the sense of fugue-ness breaks down towards the bottom of the third page, and, when it seems like I’ve moved on to something else, the subject comes back in again.  In the trombone.  In the tonic key.  Hooray!

The other instruments are not inclined to move away from the D-C#-D chromatic material, however, and that dominates, eventually becoming the main feature while the horn, trombone, and tuba pick up the rhythm of the Sousa.  With a crazy V-I (the first in the piece, I think), the theme (of the Theme and Variations) begins.

So maybe you understand why I chose to label the variation “Fugue-y” – it does have a lot of things in common with a fugue – subject, countersubject, staggered entrance of voice – but it’s missing many more (especially in the developmental and recapitulation sections).  It serves its purpose, though, which is to really hammer home the D-C#-D, and, in a large-scale way, to serve as a kind of dominant to the G-Major of the theme (schenker graph to follow…..not really).

Brass Quintet – Fugue – PDF

      Brass Quintet - Fugue
 – MP3

The chorale that comes after the theme seems much simpler in content and execution.  It takes its melodic shape from the Sousa strain (that shouldn’t be much of a surprise by this point), but with all rhythmic implications removed.  The first trumpet carries this melody and I contend that while you can hear it clearly at the beginning, the line becomes obscured by the other instruments which slowly develop melodic lines out of their harmonies as the variation progresses.

You can see the beginning of that in measure 206, where the second trumpet breaks away rhythmically from the rest, followed by the tuba, then trombone, and finally horn.  The transition from one harmony every measure to shifting harmonies each beat (and sometimes on eighth notes) allows for a subtle movement towards counterpoint (again) and allows for some nice suspensions and other dissonances to pop out of the music.  I think the part that sticks out for me the most is the trombone line from measures 216-218 – that really serves as the climax of this section.

Another way that independent lines are achieved in this variation is through dynamics.  Just take a look to see how I applied them to this variation – there is a concrete system to how I decide who gets loud when…

Brass Quintet – Chorale – PDF

      Brass Quintet - Chorale
 – MP3

The dynamics are governed by whether the instrument’s melodic trajectory is up or down.  If it is going up, the dynamics increase.  If down, they decrease (simplicity breeds complexity).  As I was composing this section, the knowledge that I was planning to use this to bring certain instruments out of the texture at certain times, plus the need to keep an interesting tension/release pattern for the harmony, made every choice crucial.  Even though this is a fairly short (in bars) variation, I spent as much time (or possibly more) on it as the fugue variation.  I’m still not 100% sure that I have it just right…that’s what revisions are for, though!

After the chorale is done, with a simple transition from the tuba we find ourselves back at the beginning (or a re-imagining of the beginning).  I had originally thought to end the piece as I began, with that mysterious aura, but, after writing it decided that that wasn’t “fun” enough.  So there is one more variation, entitled “Grooved,” that I will discuss next time.

Any questions?  Think you have a solution to the problem of the slightly not-right-yet chorale (or think that it is, in fact, just right)?  Leave me a comment!

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