Katharine Towers on ‘The Art of Fugue’

20 October 2010

Katharine Towers shares some of the ideas behind a poem from her collection The Floating Man.

by Katherine Towers

The Art of Fugue

The violins pronounce their notes with care,
as if they are a question. 
The flutes concur and answer in shy voices.

This is a beautiful subject. It bears repeating
by more solemn instruments, which yawn 
and clamber to their feet: yes, they suppose they feel the same.

There's a sudden clamour of delight 
that things could be so simple:
the clean white sail of a tune making everything good.

If they could find a way to make an end, 
they would do it now, using their own words.

From The Floating Man © Katharine Towers 2010, published by Picador

I wrote the poem at a time when I had been listening to and reading about Glenn Gould, the extraordinary and eccentric Canadian pianist who recorded lots of Bach, including some of 'The Art of Fugue' on the organ. I was struck by his quotation about the way that a fugue seems not to want to end, and started to think about how it might feel to be trapped inside as one of the instruments playing the notes.

At the back of my mind I probably also had the quotation that forms the book's epigraph - Mendelssohn's idea that the language of music is uniquely precise and articulate. Somehow, the two quotations came together to lead me to the poem's closing thought - that the entrapped instruments could only escape via a language other than music. 

I love the moment that happens quite often in fugues when the various melodic strands come together briefly. I've no idea why it makes me think of a sailing boat catching the wind, but it does.

 

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