2018 March 18: Do as I say and not as I do

March 18, 2018 22:30

Fugue No. 13 from ‘36 Fugues’ A. Reicha (1770-1836)

"Ah, Holy Jesus"


An ever popular exercise for people watchers is to compare what folks say with what they actually do. As true as that is for individuals, it’s also true for cultures. How they do Art, and specifically Music is an example to consider:

If you have multiple instruments/singers, there are broadly two ways to allocate them. You could be egalitarian — everybody gets a melodic/interesting part, and all the parts fit together to form a harmonious whole. Dixieland Jazz would be an example – multiple riots of melody forming a chaos of joy. This is called ‘polyphony’ – ‘multiple voices’.

The other approach is to assign one instrument the Leader role — ‘THE MELODY’, which demands all the listener’s attention — and the other players/singers get secondary and frequently boring parts. In other words, ‘Tune & Accompaniment’.

One simplified way of looking at Western History for the last millenium or so is that until about 1750 (the tipping point into the Enlightenment) the prevailing political model was a massive hierarchy: the Pope at the top, then the King, then the local Duke/Baron/whatever, and down the pecking order with most folks at the bottom of the food chain. Anything BUT ’egalitarian’. And what was the dominant style of music? Polyphony! All parts are equal!

Meanwhile, political power was slowly transfering from the Few at the top to the Many, with a tipping point roughly 1750. We see this in our own Constitution: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [people] are created equal." As egalitarian as you can get! Meanwhile, which musical style became dominant? ’Tune & accompaniment’ – the musical equivalent of ‘emperor & serfs’! One part is ‘queen’, all the others are peasants!


Anton Reicha was born in Prague, but apparently home life wasn’t so good after his father’s death, so at age 10 ‘on a sudden impulse’ he lept into a passing carriage in a wild attempt at a better life and found his way to his aunt and uncle in Bavaria (225 miles away). They took him in, undertook his musical education, and moved to Bonn. Reicha played violin and second flute in the equivalent of the ‘Bonn High School Orchestra’ with his classmate Ludwig Beethoven in the viola section. They became life-long friends.

In 1801 Reicha moved to Vienna (as did Ludwig) and his musical career was blossoming until Napoleon upset everyone’s plans with his darned Napoleonic Wars. Reicha moved to Leipzig and then back to Vienna trying to outmaneuver Napoleon (as far as his personal life was concerned), but by 1806 he ’surrendered’ and moved to Paris where he lived for the rest of his life.

Thereafter, Reicha stopped performing. And publishing interested him little, so great quantities of his music have been lost. He was, however, very interested in teaching – among his students can be counted Liszt, Berlioz, Gounod and Franck. His prowess as a teacher was such that he was appointed professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Paris Conservatoire with the support of Louis XVIII, a post he held until his death.

The fugue is an iconic example of polyphonic writing in which everyone gets equal time with the ‘fugue subject’ — the melodic idea on which the fugue is built and which introduces the piece. Being ’Herr Professor of Fugue’ he was a big fan of using them as composition exercises and wrote many examples. He thought that many of the ’fugue rules’ from Bach’s day could be relaxed to give the form more flexibility. This didn’t sit well with many: “We’ve never done it that way before!” Even his old friend Beethoven criticized Reicha’s fugues for being lax — and then turned around and wrote fugues that broke far more rules than Reicha had ever imagined. An example, I suppose, of Ludwig and "Do as I say and not as I do!"

Hmm, I think I’ve been guilty of that myself, in matters far worse than my fugue writing. Sigh.

(P.S. This Music Box could be considered an example of a ’fugal’ essay. Something to think about...)

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