Weekend Repertoire: Teaching Fugues

For this week’s Weekend Repertoire feature I’d like to discuss teaching (and learning!) fugues! Fugues can be some of the most beautiful and rewarding pieces to learn as a pianist, but are also some of the most challenging to learn and to perform well. A pianist who is able to learn a fugue well is a pianist who is a careful and efficient practicer and a musician who has trained their ears well to listen to the sounds and dynamics coming out of the piano. One must possess good independence of hands and fingers to play a fugue well. All of these more advanced skills are difficult to learn, but are so important to the development of a fine pianist. I’d like to share a few tips on how to teach (and to learn!) fugues; hopefully some of them will come in handy, and hopefully others will have tips of their own to share!

First of all, what are some good, easier fugues to start out with? Although not necessarily fugues, the Bach Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Inventions are excellent to start with! Because many fugues have four or five parts, it is great to begin with only two parts to keep track of. I started learning inventions in junior high – I’d say they are probably late-intermediate (depending on the invention!). Some collections of Bach’s Inventions:

J.S. Bach - Two-Part Inventions (Hal Leonard Piano Library)Bach 2 & 3 Part InventionsBach: Two- and Three-Part Inventions for the Piano, Vol. 16 (Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics)Two-Part Inventions (Alfred Masterwork Edition)J.S.Bach - Inventions and Sinfonias: Two- and Three-Part Inventions (Alfred Masterwork Edition)

Listen: Bach’s Two-Part Invention No. 1, performed by Glenn Gould

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is an excellent collection of preludes and fugues that every pianist should be familiar with. I would say that a good one to begin with would be either Fugue No. 2 in C minor (Book 1) or Fugue No. 21 in B-flat Major (Book 1). Of course there are many other fugues out there by Bach and other composers.

The Well-Tempered Clavier: Books I and II, CompleteThe Well-Tempered Clavier, Complete: Schirmer Library of Musical Classics, Volume 2057 (Schirmer's Library of Musical Classics)J. S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. 1THE Well-tempered Clavier - Revised Edition Part I, BWV 846-869 (Henle Music Folios)

Tips for Learning a Fugue

  • Analyze – find the theme and mark it whenever it appears in any voice with a colored pencil or highlighter. You may also want to mark any thematic material that is similar to the theme, but not the theme exactly. Since there are so many different voices going on at once, it is imperative that you know which voice to bring out at any time. You want to be able to hear the theme whenever it appears, not just the top voice in the right hand.
  • Listen to recordings – I always find this helpful when just starting out learning a fugue. I like to listen to a good recording while following along in the music and marking different voices and statements of the theme.
  • Write in the fingerings! – I like to go through the piece and decide from the very beginning which fingerings to use. There will be so much going on during the piece that you want to have solid fingerings right from the beginning. This will help you to learn the fugue so much faster and more efficiently. Always use the same fingerings, each time you practice!
  • Start learning the fugue! – Oh yes, did I mention that it is good to have all of these things done and written in before you actually start to practice the piece? With a fugue especially, it’s good to have a solid plan before getting started.
  • Learn in very small sections – this will help you to learn correct notes, fingerings, rhythms, and phrasing as you go. A fugue can be a little daunting to learn, but if you take it in very small bites it is very doable!
Analyzing a Fugue

So, for the purpose of this post, I made a copy of Bach’s Fugue No. 2 in C minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1) and pretended like I was about to learn it (I actually learned it years ago…). Here is what I might do if I were to start learning this today. Here are the first two pages for your enjoyment 🙂 Oh and my analysis is, of course, very technical (not!) – but I basically just wanted to give you some ideas.

First, I have highlighted the themeevery time it occurs in its full form, in yellow. I want to bring that out so you can hear it in each voice.

Next, I bracketed or highlighted other thematic material in blue. Sorry it’s a little hard to see – there is some on the last line of page 1, some on line 2 of page 2, and other random bits of it scattered throughout. These are sections that are very close to the theme, but that vary a bit.

Then I discovered this little secondary theme made up of eighth notes in a pattern of three notes slurred and one note staccato (know that this articulation will vary a LOT depending on your edition or on the pianist who made the recording you listen to!), and marked it with a purple star whenever that occurred. Although secondary to the main theme, this stuff is also important and should come out a bit, especially if there is no theme going on as well.

And lastly, there is a bunch of other stuff going on, such as long sections of sixteenth note material, which I marked with a brown bracket. At a lot of these sections, I would probably bring these sixteenth note phrases out with some graded dynamics and nice phrasing of some sort.

Anyway, you get the general idea! I would listen to several recordings of this to hear different interpretations, because they will vary so much depending on the pianist.

What fugue-learning-tips-o-awesomeness do you have to add to the list? 🙂

Jennifer Boster

11 Responses to “Weekend Repertoire: Teaching Fugues

  • I add only that this in an AWESOME post. I'm gonna learn me some fugues this summer! You have inspired me!

  • Thanks for the nice comment Jenny! I still remember that awesome fugue you played in college (part of that Brahms variations you played)! I have been playing through some Shostakovich fugues lately and might just have to learn one!

  • Great post! Here is how I teach youngsters polyphonic pieces. I like the little "inventions" given in the Grade 1 and 2 books of Celebration Perspectives repertoire–they are usually just 8 or 16 measures but are a good challenge for kids to start hearing music "horizontally" and develop independent phrasing between the hands. I always insist that they learn these pieces hands separately first in order to understand the phrasing for each hand. When starting to put a piece HT, we use the "brick method". I tell the kids that it is like building a brick wall, overlapping brick by brick. Say we are playing a canon- 2 measure phrases with entrances overlapped by one measure. I would have the child play RH phrase 1 and LH phrase 1, but without the next RH entrance. (Just two bricks overlapped). The we practice LH phrase 1 with RH phrase 2 coming in, but without LH phrase 2 starting. Then we would link those bits together: RH phrase 1, LH phrase 1 and RH phrase 2…And so on and so forth. I find this really helps kids hear the two lines of music and take care of phrase endings, particularly in the left hand.

  • Luba – great comment! I love your brick method! And thanks for the recommendation of easier counterpoint pieces to teach our more beginning students!

  • Thanks for this post! I'm working on one of Bach's preludes and fugues for my Grade 10 RCM exam. I'm doing the one in A flat major, and have found it essential to practice hands separately for weeks until the hands are so independent that when I put it together it fits right away. I like Luba's comment about the phrasing and linking the entrances- those usually are the trouble spots!
    When I first chose the prelude and fugue, I thought I wasn't going to like it as much as my other repertoire, but it turns out that I feel really good when I play it- it's becoming one of my favorites!

  • Even more important than Hands Separate practice is Part Separate practice (just the top line, then just the middle line(s), then just the bass line). Fingering is CRITICAL, especially for the middle voice(s) that go back and forth between the two hands.

  • I am learning the fugue from Bach's g minor Toccata right now and I just have to say, I LOVE fugues! That's all. 🙂

  • For me, slow practice with the metronome is the secret. I like to work at a ridiculously slow tempo and I've learned to trust that it pays off.

  • I need to get practicing!! Thanks for this awesome post…I feel inspired to complete Bach's partita in B Flat major I've left off for a while:)

  • ddman
    6 years ago

    Why are all the posts made by women? I've studied fugues for 20 years and have only met a handful of women who like fugues. Now I know where you all whet – here!

    I love you all!

  • haha, thanks ddman!