How to Learn A Fugue

07 May 2014

I’ve been learning the d-sharp-minor fugue from the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier for ages (definition of an amateur pianist: one who never finishes anything?). A few weeks ago I decided to try an experiment. Having marked up my score nearly to the point of illegibility:

Marked-up Dover score

I decided to re-transcribe it the way I want it.

Using Musescore, the (excellent) free open-source music notation software, I transcribed each of the three voices in the fugue on its own staff. Musescore has a steep learning curve, but once I grasped the mechanics of note name and duration entry, it went pretty quickly:


This version is useful for differentiating the voices, especially when, as in measures 45-56, they cross. Compare this:


To this:


So this is quite helpful in hearing and understanding what’s happening in the fugue. With Musescore’s mixer, you can even turn the voices on and off and adjust their volume and instrument. But it’s not so helpful at the keyboard, since you lose the indication of which hand should be playing what. I tried encoding this in the orientation of the stems, but this made for an awkward jumble in some passages unless the staves are very far apart.

So then I figured, why not just have both? I combined the three voices onto the two staves for the piano. This would serve as the primary focal point while playing. The independent voices still appear on their own smaller staffs above. At this point, I also placed all notes on their hand-appropriate staffs, according to my preference:


Finally, I used the isolated voices to find and mark all of the appearances of the theme, using a different marking for instances of inversion and augmentation:


I haven’t included my fingering, since it’s particularly tedious to notate in Musescore, but I’m still pleased with the results and will probably do this anytime I start learning new contrapuntal Bach.

And next time may be easier, if Robert Douglass’s Open Well-Tempered Clavier Kickstarter Project comes to fruition. For now, if you want to learn this fugue, feel free to use and adapt my score. You can also hear it here (Soprano: piano, Alto: harpsichord, Bass: bassoon):

J.S. Bach, Well Tempered Clavier Book I, Fugue 8 in D-sharp Minor by sjforman