Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fugue State: Day 5

After having made it through four weeks of my summer fugue-writing project, I started to worry that I'd just keep writing the same fugue over and over. Not literally, of course, and in fact there would still be good use in having a set of same-sounding fugues based on distinct hymn tunes: even if they were to sound strangely similar, they're only intended to be heard one at a time, not as a set. Still, as I was facing down my third of five fugues that would begin with an ascending fourth, based on a tune that has some passing similarity to Amazing Grace (which I'd already fugued), I decided it was time to break free - not from the structure of fugues so much as from the structures of tonality itself.

To be honest, I'm not such a big fan of Azmon, best-known as O for a thousand tongues to sing. It is about as square as a tune in three can be, though I have a soft spot for it because of how Ives uses the hymn in the opening movement of his "Camp Meeting" symphony. In fact, I once used Ives' movement as source for a kind of very free, half-improvised prelude, which I wrote about towards the end of this blog post. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by Ives to imagine this tune being distorted by a musical funhouse mirror.

This fugue isn't really built on Azmon, but rather on a 12-tone row that borrows Azmon's rhythm and general melodic shape, while avoiding the repetition of pitches. (The fragment of the tune I've borrowed only uses six distinct pitches among its first twelve notes.) Strangely enough, the rhythm is quite close to that of the 12-tone theme*of my unfinished string quartet, which I wrote about here. (Creepy synth recording here.) So perhaps this whole O for a dozen tongues to sing result was inevitable.

I suppose I should say a little about my method, especially as I'm not necessarily a 12-tone true believer. However, I've always thought 12-tone rows (and their various permutations) work better for counterpoint, when their melodic/intervallic shapes can be perceived, than for building lots of vertical sonorities (chords). I understand that a well-constructed row can yield some interesting possibilities for chord combinations, but I'm not convinced...oh, who has time for this?

Anyway, this three-part fugue simply unfurls one permutation of the row after another in an imitative style that is definitely fugal. I actually played it as prelude (with O for a thousand tongues following as the opening hymn) and no one threw anything sharp at me. So there's that. I have really enjoyed playing it, and I think it does have a satisfying tone and structure, but your mileage may vary. Schoenberg supposedly imagined a future in which "grocers' boys would whistle serial [12-tone] music on their rounds." It's true that this hasn't happened yet, and we may be running out of grocers' boys, but maybe the problem is that these 12-tone tunes need to be brought to the people. So, we start with church and build from there...

* Interestingly, at least to me, I chose to repeat pitches in my string quartet theme. That theme was based on an abandoned choral setting of "When Jesus Wept," and I allowed the words 'Jesus' and 'falling' to be intoned as one-pitch units with articulated syllables. Like so:

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