Posted in Instrumental Counterpoint

Canons and Fugues in the 20th Century

The 20th century art music saw a renewed interest in counterpoint, with largely canons and fugues being the ones to enjoy a new kind of popularity among the post-tonal composers. (Kostka, 2016: 136-137) In this blog post, I will list those I’ve listened to.

Anton Webern – Five Canons on the Latin text, Op. 16 (1924)

Initially I wanted to group this piece under the vocal polyphony section of the listening log, since the piece features soprano, and may be considered to be a vocal composition with instrumental accompaniment – Bb and bass clarinets. However, I realized that in terms of the polyphonic framework, it is not the combination of the voices that creates the polyphony – what I would define as vocal polyphony, as there is only a lone high soprano; but instead, it is the instrumentalization of the high soprano together with the Bb and bass clarinet that creates the counterpoint. Despite that the voice carries the text, musically and melodically, all three participate equally as the instrumetalization in the polyphonic discourse, which is why in my opinion, this example leans more towards being a composition of instrumental polyphony. If it was reversed, in other words, if we had several vocals creating the polyphony with a sole instrument participating in the counterpoint, in my opinion, it would lean more towards being a vocal polyphonic piece. Though, I realize that these type of mixtures are really hard to define, and that some would disagree. Perhaps there should be a special category of such pieces

Paul Hindemith – Ludus Tonalis (1942)

There were several 20th-century neo-classical responses to Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach, and Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis is one of them. It contains eleven interludes and twelve fugues in all keys, framed by a three-part Praeludium, reminiscent of Bach’s toccatas, and a Postludium – a retrograde inversion of the Praeludium. Generally, what is interesting about these 20th-century fugue collections is how they connect the eighteenth-century fugue forms with the twentieth-century harmonic theory. Hindemith for example demonstrates his own theory that the twelve tones of the equally tempered scale all relate to a single one of them – tonic or keynote. Hindemith described these ideas in The Craft of Musical Composition, which Ludus Tonalis introduced me to, and I plan to do more research about his system in the future.

Back to the fugues, their order follows the lessening relationship of the tones to the central keynote C – C G F A E Eb Ab D Bb Db B F#. (Cowell, 1989) As points out though, the tonality is a purely external element for Hindemith, since he excludes the concept of major-minor duality and modulation. The interludes are also different from Bach’s preludes, drawing the inspiration from secular genres – pastoral, scherzo, march, waltz and other. I find the use of different time signatures interesting as well.

While I read that some think of Ludus Tonalis as portraying dryness and academism, I quite enjoyed it and found it refreshing. From the esthetic point, the fugues I was the most inclined to were the second, impressionist sounding G major fugue and the expressive twelfth fugue in F# major, although honestly I liked them all for different reasons, including the interludes. Still, nothing beats the idea of the Postludium being the mirror-image of the Preludium, especially knowing that he had to modulate from F# tonal center back to the most distant C. It was also curious how he reversed the voices as well – for example the Praeludium ends with the deep ostinato in the bass, while Postludium starts with the ostinato in the high register in the upper voice. It’s a true ingenuity of musical construction to me. In general, I’d love to analyze Ludus Tonalis more and compare its technical aspects to Bach.

Dmitri Shostakovich – Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 (1950-51)

Unlike Hindemith, Shostakovich grouped his set of preludes and fugues around the circle of fifths proceeding in relative major/minor pairs. This is the standard practice, which we see many composers have used when grouping their preludes, such as Hummel’s Preludes, Op 67, Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28, as well as Shostakovich’s own 24 Preludes, Op. 34. Most of the fugues contain three or four voices, however No. 9 is written for two, while No. 13 for five.

Another difference comparing to Hindemith is that the tonality isn’t utilized as an external component. As such, the preludes and fugues are mostly tonally clear. The subjects also return to the tonic key in their final section. Comparing to Bach though, the subjects are generally longer.

Stylistically, I find this cycle to be incredibly interesting. It creates a type of a musical arch, displaying a “… harmonic and compositional palette which progresses from a simple, yet extended, tonal vocabulary, climaxing in a densely chromatic style, and subsiding into an extended tonal vocabulary, reminiscent of the first more robustly romantic in style.”  (Jackson, 2007: 11)

Another interesting thing is the use of Jewish and Russian elements. For example, the fugue subject for Fugue No. 8 in F-sharp minor uses the shape and repeated notes of a weekday morning service chant, while Prelude No. 5 in D uses the strummed balalaika effects, and the low range of Prelude No. 24 in D minor may suggest the low male voices in Russian choruses. (Kroetsch, 1996: 15-18)

While I enjoyed all of them, esthetically I was quite impressed with No. 7 in A major, while structurally I think No. 24 is very amusing, as the fugue develops into a combination of etude and sonata-like form.



Kostka, Stefan M. (2016) Materials and Techniques of Post Tonal Music. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis

Cowell, (1989)

Jackson (2007)