Op 87 - No. 8 - F sharp minor - Fugue
music || notes || words prelude

Reflections

This is a dark fugue. Indefinite, ambiguous, ponderous. The nuances inspire a long sequence of adjectives that try but fail to properly capture the mood: dour, difficult, chilly, lonely, eerie, disturbed. The contrast between this and the previous fugue could not be greater. Op. 87 is a wonderful study of juxtaposition.

There are a number of different elements that make this otherwise quiet fugue almost spooky.

The subject is constructed of two motives. The first is repeated three times without modification. Between the second and third instance, the second motive appears, likewise sounding three times. The first two statements are alarming in their use of an odd accidental. The third statement relaxes some of this tension. The subject finishes with the first motive again, unmodified. There is something chillingly static about this: the first motive feels robotic, transfixed, unaware of its disturbing interruption by the second motive. Unresolved tension lingers.

Let's look a bit more closely at these motives.

The first motive is curiously bright given the key signature of F sharp minor. There is not enough of the scale nor the use of crucial tones to establish a strong sense of F sharp minor. The tonality is ambiguous. If anything, it seems to project the feel of a major key such as D major or the relative major of F sharp minor, A major. The sense of A major is programmatic: because Shostakovich arranged his fugues around the circle of fifths rather than the chromatic scale like Bach, the previous fugue was the in the relative major of this fugue's minor, A major. Recall that it was a study in basic major chords, a supremely diatonic fugue staunchly in a major key. Are we still there? This tonal ambiguity with a kind of faux brightness suffuses the entire fugue with a sense of uneasiness, false appearances, as if there were something someone is not saying.

The second motive is unambiguous, unambiguously disturbing. It begins just as the first motive, with two 16th notes sounding A. The third note aborts the similarity and stops the motion on a relatively long note, an accidental, E flat. The interval between A and E flat is called an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth. It is also called a tritone, because it is equal to the distance of three whole tones. Until the harmonic and tonal advances of 20th century music, the tritone was considered basically unacceptable. It was considered maximally dissonant, to be avoided at all costs. In Medieval times, it was called Diabolus in musica, the devil of music, the most dangerous interval. This fugue revels in the tritone.

There are two consistent countersubjects in this fugue. Just like the subject, both of them use the tritone. The subject has two occurrences of the tritone. The first countersubject presents the tritone interval directly, three times. The second countersubject is a bit more subtle; it approaches one tritone with step wise motion four times, then drops directly into a fifth instance of the tritone interval, falling downward in motion contrary to the presentation in the subject and the first countersubject. The combined three-part counterpoint delivers one or more tritone for several consecutive measures.

There are two noteworthy subject variations. Twice, the lowest voice modifies the last note of the very first motive. It is this very note that gives the subject that mesmerizing, unresolved quality of ambiguous tonality. In the two modified subject entries toward the end of the fugue, this note is changed, dropped surprising low. In the first case, its relationship to the first note changes from minor third to octave. In the second case, to a perfect fourth, dropping very low from C-sharp to F-sharp, from dominant to tonic in the expected key of F-sharp-minor. This is the penultimate subject entry. From there, the lowest voice walks a subterranean chromatic line from C-sharp down to the very same deep pedal-point F-sharp, were the fugue slows and ends every so quietly. Here is resolution at last, a very powerful release of long and carefully cultivated tension.

Shostakovich's music is famous for its almost immediate appeal in conjunction with his distinctively modern sound. He is at once familiar and exotic, melodic but tart, lyrical, yet darkly so. It is not always easy to sense whether his music is influenced by the modalities of Eastern folk music, the broader vocabulary of modernism, or a keen sense of traditional music artfully applied to purposely disturbing effect. Does he mean to invoke Diabolus in musica here? Or did it sound differently to him, the devils of the past banished as the phantoms of historical parochialism? How does it sound to you?