Op 87 - No. 6 - B minor - Fugue
music || notes || words prelude


This is a magnificent fugue. Its facets stimulate so much reflection that it is difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately, the music speaks eloquently for itself. Shostakovich has crafted this fugue from three compelling parts, each supremely independent and full of character, together, a completely coherent masterpiece of counterpoint.

The fugue begins with the primary subject in two voices simultaneously. Because they are both subject entries, they play in unison, an octave apart, commonly called an octave doubling. This is also called a parallel subject entry. It is infrequently used for dramatic purpose towards the end of a fugue. This fugue is the only one among the 72 fugues of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Shostakovich's Op. 87 combined that begins with a parallel subject entry. Immediately, one senses that something quite different may be in store.

Shostakovich is certainly a bit more "relaxed" with his contrapuntal textures than Bach. Many of his fugues shift between pure counterpoint and a more homophonic texture featuring chords, figurations, and voice doublings such as the beginning of this fugue. It is not entirely clear (or perhaps important) if Shostakovich's parallel beginning is a matter of novelty or more one of "orchestration". The octave doubling adds strength an color to the subject as though it were simply one big voice. Thinking this way, the opening of the fugue is strong but not so unusual. So far. The character of the subject is worth highlighting: it is a simple melodic line moving primarily in quarter note pulses and it "ends" on the 5th degree of the scale, the dominant. (By the way, the penultimate subject entry involves all four voices is nearly complete homophony: chords, not counterpoint. Great harmony! Like the first subject entry in parallel voices, this nearly last is counted as a single subject entry for a total of 23).

After the parallel entry in two voices, one voice alone enters with a motive. The motive is deep, rhythmically charged and repeated in sequence. A martial drumbeat, a subterranean rumble of great import. It commands our attention with singular force. We follow it.

As this new, faster momentum carries our attention into what is now a compelling line, the initial subject enters again in one voice. No parallelism. Just two-part texture, the drumbeat and the subject. Wait. What is going on?

The sudden ambiguity of roles is somewhat unsettling and certainly provocative. Consider the "drumbeat" for a moment. It feels that one could experience this motive as four possible things: the continuation of the subject as a more elaborate phrase (there is no counterpoint and it is in fact the smooth continuation of the lowest voice on a note adjacent to where the subject left off), a brief codetta between the subject and its answer before a countersubject, the early beginning of the first countersubject itself, or the immediate exposure of a second subject (which might or might not end after the two-unit sequence).

The most likely choice is that the "drumbeat" is a motive that either precedes or is included in a compelling countersubject. But the remainder of the fugue leaves one blissfully unresolved. The prominence of the drumbeat is astonishing. First, it begins alone without counterpoint. Second, the full 7 measure line appears faithfully along with the subject so frequently that it is difficult to determine which is actually primary. Finally, the drumbeat motive and an interesting set of variants and extensions pervade the entire fugue including "episodes" where the first subject is absent. Perhaps it is the 2nd subject in a double fugue. Disregarding the opening parallel entry of the first subject, two subjects could be exposed simultaneously in a fashion which was well known in the Baroque era. Regardless, the drumbeat is rarely absent from the texture throughout the entire fugue. Particularly noteworthy are the wonderful sequences and canons that the motive enjoys including a subtle variant of the motive, slightly more busy, that accelerates the tension in the later half of the fugue.

The primary subject does of course enjoy first class treatment. First, the parallel entry, noteworthy for its strength if not its novelty. Later in the fugue, you will hear a wonderful section of stretto introduced by another parallel entry resulting in two or three voices in stretto depending on your perspective. The penultimate subject entry is a wonderful harmonic smear, a unification of voices much like the beginning. It is exciting no matter how we label or count, but it does leave a question unresolved: is the initial parallel entry part of a formal exposition? Perhaps it is just an introduction before the first "real" subject entry in a single voice. Perhaps it is "big voice" number one. It seems to function almost like the introductory "table of contents" Beethoven uses in his Grosse Fugue for string quartet.

Let's leave it alone, reverberating in its entertaining ambiguity. But Shostakovich is not yet done. Unimaginable as it seems, he adds a second countersubject that is quite steadfast throughout the fugue. It is lovely and long, much more complicated than the subject rhythmically, much more articulated. Running against the vivid drumbeat melody, this countersubject is cool and lyrical but so soft. Oddly, when your attention really holds it mindfully, it can almost feel like the "real" melody of the fugue, a soft and constant humming of an old song, quietly amidst the clamor of the erstwhile primary material. Who can say? It is so tempting to feel that this fugue is perhaps even a triple fugue.

The tail of the second countersubject/subject continues beyond the end of the subject it accompanies so that it stands out after the subject is quiet. In fact, it so perfectly captures your attention, with exact timing and melodic integrity, that it feels like a continuation of the subject itself: as if the subject were actually missing its own proper ending. Once you notice this, you will be pleased to notice how often you hear it. But since the countersubject is in a different voice than the subject, the two pieces of the larger hybrid subject are usually clearly separated by a jump or a break in non-contiguous "pitch" space. While the combination of both subject and its continuation in the countersubject feels like a single melody, it is also a conversation between two voices, a beautiful example of polyphonic call and response. Here is the hybrid melody:

Let's finally end this yammering speculation, these technical tongue-tiers, this excessive verbal non-music. But before returning to the music again, a brief summary from the beginning:

This is a magnificent fugue.