The Fugue Across the Arts


Fugue (1914) by the synaesthetic Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky.

The English Romantic writer Thomas De Quincey (most famous for Confessions of an Opium-Eater) wrote an essay in 1849 entitled “Dream Fugue,” which he deliberately structured in the form of a fugue. Here is an excerpt (it begins with a musical “marking,” tumultuosissimamente, i.e. extremely tumultuously):

Tumultuosissimamente.Passion of Sudden Death! that once in youth I read and interpreted by the shadows of thy averted signs!* Rapture of panic taking the shape which amongst tombs in churches I have seen, of woman bursting her sepulchral bonds—of woman’s ionic form bending forward from the ruins of her grave with arching foot, with eyes upraised, with clasped adoring hands—waiting, watching, trembling, praying, for the trumpet’s call to rise from dust for ever!—Ah, vision too fearful of shuddering humanity on the brink of abysses!

*Note: “Averted signs:”—I read the course and changes of the lady’s agony in the succession of her involuntary gestures; but it must be remembered that I read all this from the rear, never once catching the lady’s full face, and even her profile imperfectly.

vision that didst start back—that didst reel away—like a shrivelling scroll from before the wrath of fire racing on the wings of the wind! Epilepsy so brief of horror—wherefore is it that thou canst not die? Passing so suddenly into darkness, wherefore is it that still thou sheddest thy sad funeral blights upon the gorgeous mosaics of dreams? Fragment of music too stern, heard once and heard no more, what aileth thee that thy deep rolling chords come up at intervals through all the worlds of sleep, and after thirty years have lost no element of horror?

James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), structures one of his chapters, “Sirens,” in the form of a fugue. Here is the chapter read by the soprano Cathy Berberian, a great performer of 20th-century music (for whom John Cage wrote his Aria):

How does this painting by the German artist Josef Albers echo the fugal structure of Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G minor?


And here is “Fugue for Tinhorns,” the first number in the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser. What makes it a fugue?

A poem by Rosanna Warren about the great harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe playing a fugue.

Fugue, Harpsichord

Rosanna Warren
For Sylvia Marlowe

Out of her left hand fled
the stream, from her right the rain
puckered the surface, drop by drop, the current

splayed in a downward daze until it hit
the waterfall, churned twigs
and leaves, smashed foam over stone:

from her fingers slid
eddies, bubbles rose, the fugue
heaved up against itself, against its own

falling: digressed in curlicues
under shadowed banks, around root tangles and
beaver-gnawed sticks. She had the face

of a pike, the thrusting lower jaw and silvered
eye, pure drive. The form
fulfilled itself

through widowhood, her skin
mottled with shingles, hands crooked, a pain
I fled. Now

that tempered tumult moves
my time into her timing. Far
beyond her dying, my

tinnitus, I am still
through the thrum of voices
trying to hear.

And here is Sylvia Marlowe, playing a fugue:



, , ,




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: