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On-line Book Review


TITLE Analyzing Fugue: A Schenkerian Approach by William Renwick
PUBL. DETAILS Stuyvesant: Pendragon, 1995. 229p. US$58.
ISBN 0-945193-52-1
TO ORDER Pendragon Press, PO Box 190, 52 White Hill Lane, Hillsdale, NY 12529, USA.
DESCRIPTION Detailed and insightful discussion of Bach's fugues and his fugal writing techniques approaching from Schenkerian analysis.
WORKS COVERED BWV 17, 19, 21, 29, 50, 71, 105, 136, 172, 190, 198, 232-3, 241, 243, 278, 402, 526, 529, 531, 538, 542-4, 547-8, 552, 566, 571-2, 574, 578, 580, 582, 622, 625, 672, 772, 778-9, 781, 784, 792, 800, 803, 812, 846-59, 861-3, 865-7, 869-72, 875, 878-80, 882-3, 885-7, 889-992, 901, 903, 906-8, 910, 915-6, 945, 947, 949, 996, 1001, 1005, 1026, 1018, 1043, 1047, 1050, 1072, 1076, 1079-80
READERSHIP Scholars and postgraduate students engaged in analysis
Full application of Schenkerian analysis to Bach's fugues

There are numerous books and articles discussing Bach’s fugues, but unlike those taking the traditional approaches of Riemann and Prout, this book is quite different. Renwick’s study takes Schenkerian approach to examine various levels of Bach’s fugues and his fugal writing techniques. He gathers numerous examples from a very wide range of Bach’s works in addition to selected twenty-three composers from the early Baroque to early Classical era.

It may appear at first that the author is setting himself an enormous, if not impossible, task; fugue is a genre in which each part is based on the same melodic idea; thus there is no clear distinction between the melody and the bass that Schenkerian analysis needs to distinguish, and so it is not an ideal model to apply the Schenkerian method of analysis. (In fact, Schenker himself attempted only a few analyses on such easy fugues as the fugue in C minor from Book I).

Once start reading it, however, it becomes clear that the author has a host of fascinating ideas about analysing Bach’s fugues in this way. By zooming into various structural levels of fugue and by breaking them down into a harmonic skeleton, he often succeeds in demonstrating how Bach’s contrapuntal techniques functions tonally, and how the composer may have conceived these harmonically in the first place. Although there are also other places where he encounters analytical problems, his observations generally give fresh insight into the matters that are either not seriously challenged or taken for granted by the traditional approaches, e.g. discussion of the precise ending point of the subject, and the relationship of tonic and dominant notes in subject and answer to be viewed within a single harmony, and so on.

Renwick’s discussion is thorough and systematic. He starts with the historical background of fugal analysis, and quickly moves on to the exhaustive discussion on subject and answer, where he deals with nearly 300 works and classifies them as subject categories and paradigms. This is most impressive; the detailed discussion of each category means that he does away with the narrative drive that the monograph of this kind is usually expected to have. He then expounds the tonal principles in fugal expositions by using this method of analysis, and explores the relationship between imitative counterpoint and voice-leading in fugue.

Contents in brief

1. Approaches to Fugal Analysis
2. Subject and Answer
3. Invertible Counterpoint
4. Exposition
5. Sequence and Episode
6. Stretto and Other Devices
7. Complete Fugue
Index of Compositions

numerous music examples

My criticisms are all minor, some of which are perhaps inherent in this type of analytical discussion where ambiguities must remain. The premise in Schenkerian analysis that the fundamental melodic line has to be a conjunctive motion (normally descending) automatically restricts the way the discussions can be unfolded naturally. The fugue subject of BWV 892/2 is a case in point: how can we see that the first note of the line ‘must be inferred from the context of the initial arpeggiation’ (p.49)? Surely we cannot take into account a note that Bach did not write. Many fugue subjects start with an ascending motion, but somehow Renwick often excludes this element from the Urlinie; instead he calls it as ‘initial arpeggiation’ or ‘initial ascent’ (i.e. it is part of the area where tonic is established). It is unclear how he arrived at the shape of the fugue subjects of BWV 875/2 (as 5-4-3) and 538/2 (as 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1), for instance. There are an unusually large number of typographical errors, too. I have no idea where the variant readings of BWV 858/2, bars 32-33 (p. 213) originate. Despite such minor reservations, Renwick’s discussion is full of insightful ideas and observations, and certainly it is a welcome addition to the Bach literature on analysis.

Published online on 31 August 2000

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