Op 87 - No. 19 - E flat major - Fugue
music || notes || words prelude


Of all the fugues in Op. 87, this fugue is perhaps the most challenging. It is gnarled and thorny, difficult, cryptic. While some of the fugues in Op. 87 show Shostakovich to be a capable and brilliant imitator of the most lovely and accessible Bach, this fugue shows Shostakovich moving in a different direction: the most distant point of remove from Bach. But Shostakovich is generally brilliant and accessible on his own terms, coherent and compelling when expressing his own vivid musical personality. This fugue seems to be a distant point of remove even from this place. What, how and why was Shostakovich expressing? For us, it remains a mystery. In the end, this is the chief and haunting allure of this fugue.

The fugue has a time signature of 5/4, a time signature that Shostakovich has used four times in Op. 87, Bach, never. The subject of the fugue is almost bizarre. It is restricted to a range unusual for Shostakovich; it stays within a fifth. Within this narrow compass, it uses two accidentals, flatting the second and the third. It feels nothing like E-flat major (until the very end). The subject, the countersubjects and the recurrent episode motives all exhibit an extreme chromaticism as if this fugue were a study in the music of a new modality, a narrow but nuanced range of semi tones. While the subject uses the tonic note of E-flat several times, the departures by leaps and the chromatic approaches create a feel of uncertainty, a slippery indefiniteness. The subject ends in a most unresolved way: the flatted third slips to an unaccented second and stops (immediately interrupted by the next subject entry in the exposition). Uncertainty, incompleteness. This tension never relaxes throughout the entire fugue. It is only in the final measure that, almost as joke, the three voices settle on a perfectly normal major triad, a simple tonic E-flat major chord.

The rhythmic and motivic structure of the subject is similarly fascinating. It seems to divide into four segments, three of which are micro variations of the same motive, the first head motive. The head motive, inverted, becomes a constant aspect of the episodes along with a two-unit chromatic sequence that is likewise constant throughout the fugue.

Despite its challenging inscrutability, many aspects of this fugue fit the very traditional patterns of fugal composition and construction. The exposition provides three subject entries with a codetta between the second and third entries. The answer is tonal but very close to real, and it begins, as traditional, a fifth above the first subject entry. There are thirteen complete subject entries and one interesting false entry which begins as though it were an inversion. There is just a dash of stretto demonstrating that the subject works as counterpoint to itself (though I find it quite difficult to hear; while clear on the written page of musical notation, the second, overlapping subject entry seems quite buried in the listening experience). The fugue ends with a brief coda which introduces a bright, diatonic motive in the middle voice, with all voices converging on the final major triad. In a pleasingly logical sort of resolution, the lowest voice sounds the tail of the subject but modifies the final motive so that, instead of ending oddly on the second, it ends on the first (the tonic, E-flat), a long note that transforms the final motive so that, rhythmically, it matches the head motive.

What is the unifying force, the gestalt, the essence of this fugue? These reflections feel weak and incomplete. While one wants to penetrate music to find its underlying design and its "meaning", all perceptions and reactions outside of the pure musical mode are fundamentally tangential, possibly pointless, even misguided. This fugue stands enigmatically, as real as its notes on the page, as real as its sounds fill the space and sculpt the time of its experience. It is what it is. Perhaps, another time, its experience will yield something more. Until then, I rest mute, sincere and solitary, standing before its cloudy forehead.