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The Art of Fugue. Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715 –1750. Chapter 12.

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The Art of Fugue. Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715 –1750.
by Joseph Kerman


© 2005 by The Regents of the University of California, Open Access edition © 2015.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND license.


Chapter 12
English Suite no. 3 in G Minor


The characteristic Bach gigue can be considered (that is, heard) as a special type of fugue in a strictly prescribed, hypersym­metrical binary form—hypersymmetrical because these fugues come to a dead stop in the middle, allowing for an exact repe­tition of each of the two sections, or strains. Such gigues make very satisfying endings for about half of Bach’s keyboard suites, the English Suites, the French Suites, and the Partitas, which also include some terminal gigues of a different, nonfugal type.

All but one of the fugal gigues are written for three voices, though they often use the full texture for the subject entries and drop the third voice soon afterward. These are dance-music pieces, the last and fastest members of the suites they belong to—too fast to allow for much maneuvering with three contra­puntal voices. Even in works that keep the texture full through­out, the counterpoint is usually just a tad informal.

As to harmony, modulation is not a resource much drawn on, presumably because binary form imposes its own tonic-to-dominant-to-tonic axis so monolithically. As a rule these fugues present entries in no more than three different keys, only occa­sionally four.

First Strain: Bars 1–20

The subject of the Gigue from English Suite no. 3 stands out for its élan, even among the high-spirited company of gigues in Bach’s suites and those of his contemporaries. Its free fall through the interval of a twelfth is broken by sudden jerks, mak­ing for a humorous ending at a point where many fugue subjects lapse into convention.

The episodes are particularly imaginative in this gigue—past a couple of less than remarkable ones at the start [bars 5–6, 8–11]. The heavy half cadence after episode 2 bisects the first strain of the gigue, stressing the overall symmetry and high­lighting the one mid-strain subject entry [bars 12–13]. Episode 3 is a composite lasting for five bars (that is, for a quarter of the strain). Its first, sequential segment [bars 13–15] introduces a cross-rhythm that knocks the strong beat from note 1 of the 128 bars to note 7. Thus the episode’s second segment—built on a powerfully measured upward scale from low A in the left hand—comes in a displaced meter, which the rhythmicized step up from C♯ to D in the left hand confirms with an irre­sistible swing [bar 17]. The point of this new metrical arrange­ment is to reverse accents in the subject when Bach retrieves it for use at the central cadence, where it reaches the dominant key in the middle of bar 20, making this an effective downbeat. The effect is paradoxical—less like a witticism, perhaps, than a conjuring trick.

A common, almost a defining feature of pieces in binary form is the use of a highly characteristic cadential phrase for each of their strains, to hammer home the binary symmetry. (The Well-Tempered Clavier exemplifies this in a dozen preludes and even one fugue, B-flat Major in book 2.) Bach sometimes gener­ates these cadential phrases out of the opening material, modi­fied in some interesting way. Here the opening subject returns at the end of strain 1 newly invigorated, by means of note-against-note two-part counterpoint, and it performs its cadence on the newly established downbeat with the greatest of aplomb. There is a smell of burning rubber when the music stops.

Second Strain: Bars 21–44

The second strain of the G Minor Gigue tracks the first closely. (The main differences are the lack of a central half cadence and the presence of two mid-strain subject entries rather than one.) As in nearly all gigues, the second strain presents the subject in inversion, and as is often the case, this causes just a little awk­wardness in the melody, for when the inverted subject curls down to the third degree (B♭) in bar 22 it wants to keep moving down, not up to C. Bach does not shirk the problem but fixes it by modifying the subject so that it sails up to the fifth degree (G, in a subdominant entry) [bars 32–33]. The modified subject initiates a relatively spacious, even grand descent in episode 6 [33–34]. While this may be a hectic piece, it does have its checks and balances.

We can expect some of the episodes in strain 2 of the gigue to recapitulate matter from strain 1, transposed down a fifth, but the smaller episodes are new. Only the corresponding compos­ite episode 7 [bars 36–41] looks back to episode 3. Bypassing the disruptive beginning segment with the cross-accents, it extends that highly kinetic upward scale in the left hand beyond belief.

The original parade of quarter notes, A B | C♯ – – – D E | F G (A), now gets extra cohorts: G ↘| E F♯ G A | B♭ C marching up into D E | F♯ – – – G A | B♭ C D.

This unbelievably long climb has upset some listeners but exhilarated others, who hear it as a spectacular augmentation of the inverted subject, appreciate the interesting countermo­tion in the right hand, and find the hyperbolic linear energy a perfect match for the explosive contrapuntal energy in the gigue’s concluding salvo. For what now ensues is unusually bril­liant, even by Bach’s standards. When the subject (still inverted) turns up again to make the final cadence, it kicks off a new dou­ble stretto—with the original recto version of the subject [bars 41–43]. The recto entries are smartly tailored and unhampered by extra counterpoints. The afterbeat to the cadence clicks in punctually as a token of symmetry between the strains, but this has been symmetry with a difference.

(The idea of having the recto return in the second strain of a gigue to invade the inversion’s space and effect a sort of recapitulation—this plays out in one or two other Bach examples. Bach prepares for the return as early as episode 4 [bars 25–26], an episode so tiny one would hardly distinguish it from the gen­eral swirl if not for its inclusion of the characteristic upward-sixth leap taken from the subject’s recto version. By this time the episodes and everything else ought to be controlled by the inversion, not the recto, but the upward sixth picks up and dis­tills what is no doubt the most distinctive feature of the recto subject, its humorous ending. Then in episode 5, when a small turning figure slips down no fewer than nine steps in sequence, and bathos threatens, the presence of the sixth leap turns bathos into high comedy [bars 30–32]. The sixth-leap figure also starts off episode 7 [36–37].)

All this analysis: yet this is a fugue for performance and dis­play, not a fugue for contemplation or study. As the culmina­tion of English Suite no. 3—a suite that counts among its move­ments a brilliant concerto paraphrase calling for a two-manual harpsichord, a saraband with extravagant ornamentation, and a favorite gavotte that would steal the show if left to its own resources—this gigue has to dazzle and impress. Dance is of the essence here: jig, saltarello, tarantella, not counterpoint. Its hyperbinary form is arguably even more conducive to easy lis­tening than that of the other dances of the suite that precede it. It features the eighteenth-century equivalent of a conga line.

Bach can have it both ways.


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