Contrapuntal Playing: The Art Of Disentanglement

On my shelves, I have several copies of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, ranging from modern Urtexts to some dodgy editions by luminaries of yesteryear, with fancy performance directions, dynamics and phrasings, and even corrections to the text. It can be interesting to try out some of the performing solutions offered by these various editors, many of the ideas are good ones. Even though I always prefer the Urtext, I am fond of my old Tovey edition in particular – it is familiar, not loaded with graffiti, and Tovey’s observations and commentaries always shed light.

I remember to this day my frustration with the first fugue I ever studied, as I struggled to manage the counterpoint – one finger needed to stay down while others lifted up around it but my hands would not cooperate. This would have been easier had I practised some preliminary exercises in finger independence – I suggest the first few from Dohnanyi’s Essential Finger Exercises to prepare the hand for contrapuntal playing. I have since devised my own little contraptions, where the one hand has to deal with a cross rhythm in two voices, played legato. I am particular that keys are released very precisely in each voice, with no overhang and with no gaps. After some dexterity has been achieved, we play these exercises using two dynamic levels, and then using different touches within the hand. Playing a number of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions (Sinfonias) of Bach prepares us beautifully for fugal playing, since these pieces teach us to think and listen in lines.

Strands Separately – Not Hands 

I’m a stickler for practising fugues one voice at a time, and in all possible combinations and permutations of voices, not just in the first stages but long after the piece has been mastered. It can take a bit of work deciphering the meanderings of the various different voices in a piano score printed on two staves, where all is a bit of a mess visually. Editors attempt to aid the eye by using stems that go up for the soprano in the treble stave and tenor in the bass stave, and stems that go down for the alto and bass, but the lines will still take a bit of disentangling.

Useful Resource

It is extremely useful to have an edition of the fugues in open score, with each voice on its own stave. This is a helpful supplement to a standard score, and can be used for practice purposes, especially if fingering is written in. I suggest writing in more fingering than might be necessary in the standard treble/bass score, since when we practise each voice alone – and then the voices in combinations – we need to make absolutely sure we stick to the fingering we are actually going to use when we play the whole thing together. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Here is an extract of the C minor fugue from Book 1 in conventional treble and bass stave layout:

Fugue in C minor, Book 1 (extract)

And here it is in open score, with added fingering:

Fugue in C minor, Book 1 (extract), in open score

Here is my stepladder approach for practising fugues:

  • Divide the fugue into sections
  • Practise each voice alone with the fingering and the articulation you will end up using
  • Put together quite extraordinarily slowly in all combinations of two voices
  • (For a three-voice fugue – SA, SB, AB)
  • (For a four-voice fugue – SA, ST, SB, AT, AB, TB; and in combinations of three voices – SAT, SAB, STB, ATB)
  • Play one voice forte, the other(s) piano
  • Vice versa, etc.
For more advanced players, it is great practice to mime one voice while playing the others out (touching the surface of the keys, or partially depressing the keys without sounding the notes). Again, exhaust the possibilities. Play through the section as many times as there are voices, each time bringing out an assigned voice and putting the others in the background. You may also omit one voice, and instead of playing it, sing it (while playing the other voices). Listen to how Helmut Walcha practised and taught Bach (from 1:20).

Open score editions of fugues are invaluable not only as practice and study aids, but these are also great for duet playing and developing score reading skills. If you have two pianos in your studio, the  teacher can take all but one voice, and the student plays the remaining one. Or the other way round, of course. The student can fully experience each voice independently but within the context of the whole.  An open score edition can also be used for chamber groups – Bach’s music works fine with any instrumental ensemble. Here is a lovely example, the Two-Part Invention in F played on a glass harmonica.

Good open score editions have been hard to find, but I am happy to say that there are two I can recommend. Kendall Durelle Briggs, Professor of Music at the Juilliard School, has made beautiful and scholarly editions not only of the fugues from both books of the ’48’, but also a handful of the Preludes that lend themselves to this treatment. Here is the link to Book 1, and to Book 2. The quality of the layout, design and paper is of the highest, and these editions would be an asset to every serious pianist and teacher. Prof. Briggs has also made open score editions of the Inventions and Sinfonias, and the Goldberg Variations.

There is also another open score edition of the fugues from the ’48’ without any editorial tamperings, by Laurette Goldberg. While the spiral binding makes it easy to use, the print quality and layout are not as high as they could be, but I can certainly recommend it nonetheless. Music Sources also publish an open score edition of the Sinfonias.

I will leave you with Andras Schiff, discussing the recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

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