Earlier this summer, we began to look at the Art of the Fugue through the music of J.S. Bach.

A fugue, in a nutshell, involves the presentation of a subject (theme), after which other voices imitate the subject at various intervals, backwards, forwards, in mirror image, etc.  If you are not currently sitting in the church waiting for worship to start, check out these recordings of pop culture inspired fugues, in which one can hear the layers of increasing complexity as each voice enters:

Harry Potter Fugue

The Fugal Countdown

Whether written by J.S. Bach or a modern-day composer on a lark, fugues are complex music.  One may wonder why complex, polyphonic (many-voiced) music should have a place in our worship services alongside our much simpler, homophonic hymnody.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and musician executed by the Nazis, gave us an eloquent answer in his analogy of the “polyphony of life”:

“God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts, not in such a way as to injure or weaken earthly life, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint… Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 303)

Our music this week was chosen to help illustrate Bonhoeffer’s analogy.  If you are unfamiliar with the terms polyphony, counterpoint, and cantus firmus, consider this over-simplification of the development of the fugue:  A single line of chant, or monody, or monophony, (Middle Ages) became several voices, polyphony, entering in canon (Renaissance).  The melody that formed the basis of these polyphonic compositions is called the cantus firmus.  These cantus firmi began to move in different directions according to set rules in order to imitate one another (counterpoint), et voilà!  The fugue was born (late Renaissance and Baroque).  Our prelude features a cantus firmus written by St. Ambrose in the 4th Century and set in canon during the late Renaissance by Tomas Luis de Victoria.  At the Offertory, the well-known Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel gives us a clear bass line that stays consistent throughout the Canon (not quite a cantus firmus, but simpler, repetitive, and easier for the untrained ear to hear as distinct from the polyphonic motion above).  Our Postlude features a full-blown fugue, one in a series, the Eight Little Preludes and Fugues attributed to J.S. Bach but likely composed by one or another of his students.

In listening, consider Bonhoeffer’s analogy:  God is the cantus firmus, the melody that forms the foundation for own voices.  “Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain,” our lives and relationships form a counterpoint to that melody as they develop and intertwine in complex and beautiful ways.

The Polyphony of Life

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *