The fugues for piano

Peter Hill

Double fugue in E flat (1924)
Prelude and fugue in C minor (1924)
Prelude and fugue in D minor/major (1924)

Piano music forms only a tiny proportion of Brian’s output. Yet, within this handful of works is one of his most ambitious compositions in any medium – the Double fugue in Eb – together with two substantial Preludes and Fugues (in C minor and D minor/major) 1. The unusual choice (for Brian) of piano, together with the presence of a number of impractical passages (particularly in the Double Fugue) in which the lines are allowed to diverge well beyond the stretch of normal hands, suggest that these fugues were "paper" compositions, essays in contrapuntal technique for which the piano was used merely for convenience. This view is endorsed by Brian’s own explanation that these fugues, along with several small choral pieces in strictly canonic style 2 were originally conceived without a specific instrument in mind and that they were written "with many similar works (since destroyed) as preliminary studies to my writing the finale of my Gothic Symphony" 3.

As Malcolm MacDonald has pointed out, Brian’s explanation is curious for two reasons. The Te Deum finale of The Gothic does indeed contain a number of strict a capella canonic passages, but no substantial fugal writing as such, unless one counts the imitative treatment of In te, Domine speravi, which may best be described as a double fugue exposition. Moreover it is far from clear why Brian should have felt the need for preliminary exercises given the small but significant part which fugal style plays in works written before The Gothic 4.

Whatever their workshop origin, there is nothing remotely academic or tentative about the feel of these fugues. Brian’s approach to fugue is fervently dramatic, and although the common devices of fugal writing — stretto, inversion, augmentation, etc — are used with assurance and vitality, their role is always subservient to a formal idea which owes nothing to traditional fugal design and which Brian pursues with characteristic single-mindedness.

The individuality of Brian’s approach is illustrated by the way he handles his fugue subjects. Instead of building his form around a series of middle entries, he prefers to explore the subject through various kinds of development, often twisting its basic shape and altering its mood almost beyond recognition. The subject is not a source of stability but rather of purposeful insecurity, undergoing during the course of the fugue a transformation which adds to its personality and stature. The triumphant entries which conclude the D major and C minor fugues avoid any sense of bombast because they provide a genuine climax to the subject’s progress.

This sort of architecture is seen at its clearest in the D major fugue which moves by degrees from clarity and restraint towards an extravagant climax. At first the mood and tonality of the subject and answer remain calm, unfolding undisturbed against a harmonious tracery of counterpoints. The two sections that follow, each marked by an increase in tempo, become progressively more hard-edged and turbulent, the subject distorted in rhythm and finally almost overwhelmed by the accumulating tensions, significantly the fugue ends not with a return to the mood of the opening nor with a comfortable re-affirmation but with a blaring Grandioso which underlines the subject’s newly acquired character at the same time as restoring its original shape.

The C minor fugue makes an interesting comparison. Once again the overall movement is from a quiet opening to a vast climax. Here, however, the progression is less obviously linear, the intervening stages being filled out not by a cumulative development of material but by a series of episodes which give an oddly static impression.

As with the D major fugue, the exposition itself gives no hint of the violence to follow, unfolding with quiet authority into an "orthodox"-sounding, four-part texture. Neither mood nor texture have any future however; rising chromaticisms lead swiftly to a series of wrenching shifts of tonality and the music judders towards a crisis. The tensions of this passage are reflected in the following episodes which test out the subject in various guises, juxtaposing straightforward diatonic versions with weird distortions which blur the subject’s tonal solidity. For all their sharp dissonances, and the vehemence of the expression marks, these episodes strike one as curiously clinical in effect.

It is difficult to know whether their lack of direction was a deliberate feature of Brian’s design, or whether he was simply uncertain how to explore the middle ground between the extremes of contrast in the opening statement. The music finally establishes a momentum as the two forces — diatonic and disruptively chromatic — collide in a stretto of searing intensity which convincingly "earns" the huge climactic entry of the subject. In contrast to the D major fugue, Brian ends by softening the severity of his design, allowing the music to die away with a gentle reminiscence of the subject.

Taking the fugue as a whole, it is difficult to say how well this fragmented structure works; certainly there is a temptation for the pianist to impose a sense of forward motion which I am not convinced was intended. Whatever its problems, however, they pale beside those of the Double Fugue which makes enormous demands on the player not only in terms of virtuosity and stamina, but also in the sheer difficulty of making its enormous proportions cohere. At first sight, the work bristles with inconsistencies — expositions unaccountably cut short, stretti that lose their way, apparently unmotivated switches of tonality, and in general passages of unmistakable authority alongside much that appears inconsequential.

Once again it is Brian’s attitude to his subjects which is the key to the architecture. As before, Brian is at his most conventional and least characteristic in the exposition, a particularly tame affair in the Double Fugue. No sooner has the fourth voice entered, however, than Brian kicks over the music’s confines — its narrow range of interval and harmony — as if to make fun of the exposition’s timid orthodoxy. A subsequent attempt at a "triumphant" clinching of the subject is likewise instantly deflated.

The second subject fares no better. It has hardly been stated before Brian seizes on its potential for imitative development and the music slithers towards a stridently cacophonous version with the subject, in fortissimo octaves, in stretto and augmentation. A tiny flashback to its original form, mistico e più lento, slyly underlines the joke.

Thus far, the piece is not so much a fugue as an anti-fugue, more anarchic than constructive. This instability finds a balance, however, at the centre of the work in the two lengthy slow sections in which the music achieves a seamless, beautifully sustained continuity and a mood of profound and passionate seriousness. The link between this music and the outer sections is easier to feel than to define, although one can hear specific similarities in melodic and rhythmic contour. More concrete connections are made by the appearance of the two subjects, combined and inverted, which, chameleon-like, take on the melancholy colour of their surroundings.

With the return of the Allegro tempo it is clear that a transformation of the fugue’s subjects is taking place. The final development of the first subject takes the form of a thrilling series of stretti, a far cry from the note-spinning of some of its earlier manifestations. The end is brilliantly resourceful. Brian avoids either bombast or cliché, rapidly juggling the two subjects through a series of clashing tonalities in a final exuberant display.

What makes Brian’s brief flirtation with fugue so fascinating is that one can sense the tensions arising from the self-imposed discipline of fugal composition. Conventionally, fugue suggests qualities of economy and close-knit logic largely alien to Brian’s musical personality, with its great virtues of explosive energy and an almost wastefully fertile imagination. In view of this, it is characteristic that Brian’s response to the challenge of fugue should have been so uncompromisingly original, and typical that the most interesting and rewarding of the three works — the Double Fugue — should also be the most problematical 5. It is a provoking, perverse sort of piece, always likely to convince some listeners more than others; but whatever its failings, it remains something a great deal more valuable than a mere curiosity.

  1. All these works were published by Augener in 1948 and carry the inscription "Moulescombe Sussex 1924". ↩︎

  2. The surviving pieces from this group are an Introit setting of the word "Amen", three canons to words by the 18th century poetess and playwright Hannah Moore, and a setting of Alexander Pope’s "The Dying Christian to his Soul" to which Brian gave a title from the poem’s first line, Vital Spark of Heavenly Flame. All are strict four-voice canons.
    The first of the Hannah Moore canons was published as a musical supplement in The Musical Times, June 1969. The remaining works are published-by Musica Viva. Although more limited in expression, their closeness to the fugues in time and intent is underlined by the extensive use of canon in the Double Fugue↩︎

  3. Letter to Robert Keys, 28 January 1946. ↩︎

  4. See, for example, the early Psalm 23 and By the Waters of Babylon (both for chorus and orchestra), the fugal middle-section of the Festal Dance for orchestra (1908), the fugal coda of Doctor Her heart (1912) and, especially impressive, the opening and closing sections of the "symphonic dance" Gargoyles from the opera The Tigers (1917-29). ↩︎

  5. Malcolm MacDonald has conjectured that the dedication of the Double Fugue to Elfreda Brian, the composer’s youngest and favourite daughter, may well indicate that Brian had a particular affection and regard for the piece. ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 34