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I am referring to playing fugues on the piano. I have been taught that I can roughly think of it in terms of SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), and also that the top voice should, in general, be emphasized a bit more (louder, noticeably sticking out, even if only subtly or a little bit so). Is this correct?

And what if, say, there are two voices in the treble clef, but the top voice “goes below”, i.e has notes lower in pitch than the bottom voice? Should one still emphasize the top voice so that it is still more clearly heard than the bottom voice? For example, in the example below (the piece is in Ab major I think), assuming the top voice is always denoted by stems pointing up and the bottom voice by stems pointing down, should I sound out the Db and the lower Bb so that they are heard more clearly than the higher Bb and G, respectively? (treble clef, second measure, second two 8th notes). enter image description here (Excerpt from the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110)

In general, should I play each note in a particular voice with equal force? I mean, barring when there are accidentals, accents, or obvious downbeats and such: let’s say it’s a smooth, uniform string of 16th notes going down the piano register, like a descending scale. I made a kinda crude example below. Again, assuming the stems pointing up are top voice and stems pointing down are bottom voice. If the 16th notes in the second measure are the top voice and the same 16th notes in the third measure in the bottom voice, should I play them subtly differently? (This is probably not the best example, sorry.) enter image description here Should the determination of the volume, or emphasis of phrasing, of notes in a fugue be more a function of the voice it is in (SATB) or the pitch (which octave/area it is on the piano register)? Does this even make sense? I’m sorry if this is a silly question.

  • Or is each voice "of equal importance", and what does that mean? – fioritura Aug 22 '16 at 16:57
  • "Or is each voice "of equal importance" - yes, but at any moment in time some voices may be more important than others. "What does that mean?" - well, which of the words "equal" and "importance" don't you understand? It means what it means in ordinary English. It's not some weird musical terminology! – user19146 Aug 22 '16 at 20:46
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What is most important in a fugue is that you first develop a phrasing and character for the theme, complete with musical accents. The theme(s) are a bit more prominent than the counterpoint(s), but the main consideration is the horizontal rather than the vertical coherence. Playing "each note in a particular voice with equal force" is what a Midi rendition from a typesetting program might do. That's a very mechanical rendition that you should not aim for. Instead, the goal is to play the theme in a self-consistent and satisfactory way doing expressive justice to its elements, and then doing (mostly) the same on each imitation.

When practicing, it is a good idea, once the basic performance is there, to follow one voice at a time actively with your attention while letting the others work "mechanically". That way you can figure out where your overall rendition falls flat by losing the horizontal connection within a voice and just swamping the separate lines into some semi-sequence of chords/simultaneous notes.

The end goal must be that whenever a listener wants to focus on one voice and hear only that, he will succeed and hear something that is, in itself, a consistent line with its own inherent dynamics and phrasing underscored by what the other voices are doing (assuming that the composer did not already drop the ball on that, of course).

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In a fugue, each voice is of equal importance. It is unlike a modern solo/accompaniment texture. I would suggest picking a phrasing for the fugue subject (and counter-subject, if there is one) and focusing on keeping that phrasing consistent, no matter what voice the subject appear in, or what else is going on at the time.

When I practice fugues, I begin by playing each voice individually and singing along, focusing on getting the phrasing to be consistent. Then I practice until I can play all the parts and sing along with one of the parts. So, I would practice a four-part fugue at least four times in a practice session: once while singing the topmost part, once while singing the second part, etc. Sometimes I work on singing one part while playing an adjacent part: I might sing the treble and play the alto, or vice versa, and do the same with alto/tenor, tenor/bass, etc.

It is a maddeningly slow kind of practice, but it develops the independence and horizontal nature of each part.

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the top voice should, in general, be emphasized a bit more (louder, noticeably sticking out, even if only subtly or a little bit so). Is this correct?

No. You have a great deal of flexibility in fugues. For example, it is often the theme that is of most interest wherever it is placed; in which case you may want to bring it out. In fact, you will probably mostly want to; however there are many extenuating circumstances, for example, a new counter-subject may be making its first appearance in another voice, and you may wish to bring attention to that. Or, it may be a double fugue, with another theme also making an entrance; etc.

should I sound out the Db and the lower Bb so that they are heard more clearly than the higher Bb and G, respectively?

What can be said for sure, is that you should NOT bring out the top note SATB style if different voices are alternating who has the top note. That is guaranteed to muddy the texture. You probably want to sound out the lower notes you are describing. Or you may want to highlight the other voice. But it is definitely one or the other.

In general, should I play each note in a particular voice with equal force?

No!

Should the determination of the volume, or emphasis of phrasing, of notes in a fugue be more a function of the voice it is in (SATB) or the pitch (which octave/area it is on the piano register)?

Complicated stuff. It's worth remembering that harpsichords of all ages, and any keyboard right up through at least the mid 19th century, had a much lighter bass. So to thunder out a voice in the low register will never sound quite like the composer intended. You may want to do it anyway and have a modern effect, like Busoni doubling the low octaves and adding pedal in his Bach arrangements. More pleasing to the modern ear, though, is probably to give low presentations of the theme a slight emphasis, without overwhelming the timbre of the upper voices.

  • So would you say, in my 2nd example, that I should sound out the dotted quarter note C's (all four of them) and play the 16th notes about equally? – fioritura Aug 22 '16 at 16:59
  • " It's worth remembering that harpsichords of all ages, and any keyboard right up through at least the mid 19th century, had a much lighter bass." If you are playing a modern piano, you can't make it sound like a 200-year-old piano or a harpsichord whatever you do. Harpsichords and baroque organs are ideal instruments for the contrapuntal music that was written for them, because you can hear 4 or even more independent "parts" clearly without the player having to jump through hoops to make that possible. On a piano, you just have to make the best of the (inappropriate) instrument you have. – user19146 Aug 22 '16 at 20:50
  • Ha that's a good question! I would have to think about that passage for a while and experiment with it. I don't know whether the repeated notes or the passagework would strike me as foreground or background. Certainly the echo of the middle Cs up high is probably a point of compositional interest and worth bringing out. – barnhillec Aug 23 '16 at 8:45
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To answer the specific question rather than talking about fugue-playing in general:

Think about the "big picture" of how your snippet of Op 110 fits into the complete fugue. The fugue starts with a conventional Exposition section, where the three voices convenently enter in order from bass to treble. You don't have to do anything special for the listener to hear the three entries of the subject, because each one is the "top line" of the music.

Next there is a short episode where Beethoven repeats the second half of the subject twice in the top voice in a descending sequence, and then continues downwards for a bar and a half, ending with the trill at the start of your music example.

The event after that is the first entry of the subject after the exposition. The subject is in the bass, doubled in octaves, and marked "forte". That's the most important thing for the listener to hear at this point.

The fact that the two upper parts cross over each other is not very important. The two upper parts come together on a unison (middle C) and the listener has no way of knowing (or caring) whether the "top notes" after that are really the treble or the alto part.

Don't lose sight of the basics: this music is meant to be understood by listening to it, not by picking the score apart note by note. But the performer may have to pick the score apart note by note, to figure out what the listener needs to hear!

When the subject has entered in the bass, the second most important thing going on is the dotted quarter notes - the Ab in your snippet, followed by G and Bb in the next bar. They have the same rhythm as the subject, and they sound vaguely like some contrapuntal variation of it, even though they are not exactly a canon, an inversion, or anything else. But they are a signpost as to what sort of counterpoint the listener might expect to hear later on - so make sure they get noticed, and be thankful Beethoven put them at the top of the counterpoint rather than in the middle, which makes it easier for them to be noticed!

Continuing at this level of detail bar by bar would take too long - but that's the sort of "analysis" you need to think about before playing this.

  • +1, because this is pretty much how fugue-playing in general works. The voices are not all of equal importance - that changes as the fugue progresses, and the changes can take place in very close succession - but, if the composer is up to snuff, you don't have to do much to bring out the important voices. Beethoven might have been up to snuff, d'ya think? ;) – user16935 Aug 23 '16 at 0:02
  • Thanks. I am not really ready to attempt this difficult piece, but I just really like it so sometimes I try a little... xD @Patrx2 yes! All his sonatas are fantastic, and I particularly love the fugal parts. – fioritura Aug 23 '16 at 2:38

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