In praise of fugue writing

My Father was a man who had many regrets about his college career. But one thing he never regretted was majoring in the Great Books program. I think of this program as akin to four years of Freshman Studies, and even my dad loves to talk about how useless the classes have been in real life. The caveat is that of course it is not actually useless, but the skills of analysis it develops are so difficult to quantify and detect, and the ways in which the degree shapes its students so subtle, that the degree qualifies for the useless label. Degrees such as Great Books — which I will use as an example because Lawrence has no Great Books program, and the aim of this article is not to insult any of Lawrence’s departments — are useless in that you will almost never in the course of your career be asked about anything covered in your courses. Your career will almost never be furthered by knowing the structure of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” But these courses, much like Freshman Studies, still have merit through their development of critical thinking. I am a big fan of Lawrence’s Freshman Studies courses. In fact, I do not think it goes far enough. There are two major improvements to be made to the course all Lawrentians know and love: cut “Honeybee Democracy,” and teach students how to write a fugue.

What is a fugue? A fugue is an idealized form of music in which the soul and intellect lay together in heavenly harmony. Or, it is something a Google Doodle can spit out in a few seconds. I believe both of these to be true. The fugue is probably most commonly associated with Bach and is created with a musical phrase, called a subject, tossed around between voices like a linen washer. These voices are playing at the same time and each are playing their own melodies. A fugue is written according to the laws of counterpoint. For those in the Conservatory who have gone through the music theory sequence, you are probably more than familiar with this. Counterpoint is an old method of writing music, commonly for four voices. For a long time, I thought all my fellow music majors had also done the counterpoint worksheets, even if they did not enjoy it as much as I did. But I have been shocked time and again by fellow majors who claim their theory classes never did counterpoint worksheets. Instead, these students only practice writing counterpoint if they elect to take a higher level composition class. This is an affront to my very core. Every music major should know the joys of part writing. In fact, this does not go far enough in my opinion. Every student at Lawrence should be forced to learn counterpoint. 

The beauty of counterpoint is that no musical experience is required. Counterpoint is more like a puzzle than anything. There are very strict rules governing what you can do and even more governing what you should do. Any student, regardless of musical background, can learn these rules just as easily as they can learn poetry analysis or game theory. And once they learn these rules, they are more than capable of writing a fugue. 

This brings us to the essential question, one that has stumped thinkers as lauded as Einstein; why is a fugue? Fugue writing is obviously never a critical part of a resume, and mentioning it could even be viewed in the same light as mentioning your frog juggling prowess. But make no mistake, a fugue is equally essential to the Freshman Studies curriculum as Plato. Showing that anyone can write a fugue tears down the mythic status fugues have accumulated through their association with overly lionized cousin-daters such as Bach, and also demonstrates that fugues are far from a stodgy old music form, but in fact a vibrant and creative genre. In fact, writing music in general is criminally underrepresented in education. The fact that almost no students arrive at college having been taught how to write music is disgusting. Fugue writing has all the stimulating benefits of sudoku or crosswords, but I can promise that your friends will be a lot more interested in seeing your newest fugue than your latest completed sudoku puzzle.

In conclusion, every student needs to leave college knowing three things: poetry analysis, Plato’s cave metaphor and how to write a fugue. This is why Lawrence University needs to add fugue writing to the Freshman Studies course. Teaching an entire generation of students to write fugues can only result in a creative explosion, and fugues will become as commonplace as Beach Bash posters. Fugues will be played outside dorm windows for crushes, will be passed around in the lunchroom and will be the featured event at parties. Fugues will be the new Barn. People, let’s make this happen.