January 2009

"Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578

by Johann Sebastian Bach

I thought I'd start this project with my most favorite piece of music of all time. This is the Fugue (pronounced "fewg", not "fewj" or "foogoo") in G Minor, also called the "Little" Fugue in G Minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach is also my favorite composer. He lived a very humble life in Germany from 1685 to 1750, and wasn't really discovered for his genius until long after his death.

Bach called this the "Little" fugue, because he also wrote another fugue in G minor, referred to as the "Great" fugue. The "Great" fugue is a longer piece. It would have been similar today to say that this piece is the "shorter" fugue.

This piece was originally written for pipe organ, and I have provided a recording performed by E. Power Biggs from the album "Bach: Great Organ Favorites" (a good album for those seeking recordings of more Bach works). A pipe organ is an instrument that usually has three or more keyboards (that look like piano keyboards). The keys are hooked up to a large assortment of pipes (some small, some huge). The when a key is pressed, air is allowed to flow through a certain pipe. When air flows through it, it makes a noise (much like blowing into a bottle). When the key is let go, the air is stopped, and the pipe is silent again. Smaller pipes make higher sounds, and larger pipes make lower sounds. Most pipe organs have a keyboard for the left hand, another keyboard for the right hand, and a large lower keyboard that is played with the feet. Some organs have more than two keyboards for the hands. This allows for playing different "sounding" pipes (say, pipes that sound more like a bell, etc.). In a way, this was the earliest "synthesizer" or electronic keyboard.

A fugue is a piece of music that establishes a melody or theme (a single line of music), and then plays a similar melody against the first. Each time the melody is played, it is called a "voice". The different voices play a version of the melody against each other in, what is called, "counterpoint." It almost sounds as if the voices are children playing with each other. Throughout the piece, though, you will hear the original melody pop up, so listen for it.

This fugue has four voices. It starts out with the first voice alone. Then, the second voice joins in for a while. Then, the third voice joins in, and the fourth voice joins in shortly after the third. After the fourth voice joins, they all pretty much stay in the piece doing different things. Every now and then you may hear a voice drop out for a little while, but it comes back.

This piece is in the key of G minor. Normally, "minor" keys make music sound sad or angry. I prefer to think of this piece as "reaching" or "striving". The very last chord is actually G major, sounding happy. This is called a "Picardy third", for music theory nerds out there. It's a very common trick in Bach's time (and even before).

My first exposure to this piece was a performance by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos on a record called "Walter Carlos by Request". I was probably 4 or 5 years old. Walter Carlos was unique in that he recorded several Bach pieces (and other classical pieces) using this new instrument called a "synthesizer". Walter was one of the pioneers of electronic music. I've included a copy of this recording as an extra credit listening.

Now, I loved Fugue in G Minor, but I was soon to also love computers. One of the things that makes Fugue in G Minor a great piece is that it's remarkably mathematic. It keeps a steady rhythm throughout the entire piece. This makes programming it on a computer very easy. I was known to program Fugue in G minor on several music programs for the TI, the Commodore 64, and the Mac.

In Junior High, I discovered that the Canadian Brass Quintet performed an arrangement of Fugue in G minor. A brass quintet consists of five musicians: two trumpeters, a French horn player, a trombone player, and a tuba player. Each of the instruments takes a "voice" in the fugue, and it's a beautiful rendition. I've included a recording of this for extra credit.


E. Power Briggs performing "Little" Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578 by Johann Sebastian Bach

Close your eyes and listen to this four-minute piece. Listen closely for when each voice comes in. Say something when you hear the main melody come back. How does the piece make you feel? What do you think about when you hear it?

Jon's Interpretation:

I tried long and hard to think about what it is that attracts me to this piece. I can remember hearing the Canadian Brass playing this piece live and actually getting tears in my eyes. To me, I think this piece represents our own mortal existence. We start out yearning in simplicity, but our lives get slowly more and more complicated. Sometimes it takes a happy turn. Sometimes it takes a more somber turn. But throughout the whole piece, it's always striving, always yearning for something. Until finally, at the very end, you reach the grand major chord. You've achieved perfection, exaltation, and so on.

I absolutely love the counterpoint in this piece. The different voices play and hand off to one another throughout. The left hand, the right hand, and the feet, play together so harmoniously. It's just beautiful to me.

Extra Credit:

For those who want to follow along, I discovered that the original score to this piece is available online for free:

Organ Score for "Little" Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

Also, the arrangement for brass quintet was also a free download:

Arrangement for Brass Quintet of "Little" Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

The Walter (Wendy) Carlos recording can be downloaded here:

From "Switched-on Bach II" - "Little" Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach as performed by Walter Carlos

The Canadian Brass recording can be downloaded here:

Canadian Brass perform "Little" Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

For this one, be sure to listen for when the trumpet comes in, when the French horn comes in, when the trombone comes in, and so on. The distinctive instruments really highlight the different voices in the fugue.