A refuge of absolute technique

Glenn Gould’s introductory remarks before playing the last movement of Hindemith’s third piano sonata, in The Anatomy of Fugue, broadcast by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on March 4, 1963:

In more recent times one often notices that the most prolific fugue writers are the composers who have the greatest difficulty in being direct and lucid in a freer compositional style. One thinks of composers like Max Reger or the extraordinary Russian Nikolai Myaskovsky. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the artistic climate of the early years of this century was more hospitable to the concept of the stargazing composer who received lightning bolts of inspiration than to the image of the hardworking academic burning the midnight oil over his fugues and canons. And in such times those composers who for one reason or another find the philosophical liberties of free form frightening or embarrassing tend to use the fugue as a refuge of absolute technique: one can prove one’s mastery of the material more readily in a fugue than one can prove it in a less self-conscious form. There’s less room for arguments to whether or not one has been successful. One need only suggest certain fundamental propositions of aesthetic right and wrong, and one’s colleagues will have to agree that a particular fugal inspiration has been a happy one, or a successful one, or maybe a slightly too risky one. And so in generations in which fewer marks are given for ingenuity, for contrapuntal dexterity, than for vivid imagination, for dramatic flair, the invention of fugue has often attracted composers temperamentally unsuited to larger forms—composers perhaps of a particularly logical mind, who find it difficult to believe unquestioningly in their own subconscious impulses.

In our century, composers have continued writing fugues, particularly those whose style shows a neoclassic influence. But almost every idiom has seen its share of fugues. The Canadian composer Harry Summers has composed fugues in a style which uses the controversial twelve-tone technique. The brilliant American Lukas Foss has taught some of his colleagues to improvise on some fugues out of chart patterns which he draws on paper. And various jazz groups have attempted to improvise fugues, too. But most of these, because of one basic omission, have negated the main source of discipline inherent in the fugue. The harmonic criteria of most of the contemporary musical language shies away from tonality, and they’ve been unable to develop their linear designs into a system which would produce real demands of chord tension and relaxation. And because of this, fugal technique in their work is little more than a respectful bow to the past, really—it’s, it’s not a living tradition.

Paul Hindemith is one of the few composers of our own time who can undeniably be called a fuguist to the manner born. Hindemith has developed a very special language of his own, a language which is contemporary in the best sense of the word but which in its attempt to provide harmonic logic uses what you might call a substitute tonality. It neatly sidesteps the basic confrontations of tonic and dominant chords of conventional tonality, but it has nonetheless a very strong sense of relative tension. And so since he uses a language in which this structure of fugue can be helped along by the exchange of subject and answer at clearly related harmonic levels, Hindemith already has the edge on fugue writers in the tonal idiom. Besides which, he’s quite at home in an idiom which employs a minimum of what you could call textural irregularities: he’s quite able to continue a structure in three or four or five real voices over a period of some minutes’ duration. In fact for most of his career he’s been writing in a style which rather makes us think of an early Renaissance contrapuntal jamboree. The fugue I’m going to play now by Hindemith is actually the concluding movement of a piano sonata, and it doesn’t pretend to the highly romantic connection of Beethoven’s finale, where the concept of fugue is welded into the structure of the sonata, but it happily provides an assurance that the magic of fugue, however rare it may be nowadays, isn’t yet forgotten.