Although histories of Western music tend to emphasize a sharp division in musical style about 1600, the history of fugal techniques in instrumental music cuts across this divide. A direct and continuous line of development can be traced from the ricercares of Segni’s Musica nova of 1540 to the fugues of Das wohltemperirte Clavier. Surprisingly, this development has been less well mapped out than one might expect. Perhaps the most troublesome of the several difficulties inherent in the study is the issue of genre and terminology. Very few of these pieces written before 1700 were designated as fugues, and other designations abound. The best way to approach this body of music and to tie all the compositions together is to consider fugue in its guise as a compositional technique.
From its inception the imitative ricercare seems to have carried connotations of learnedness – that is, it served either as compositional study or, in Newcomb’s phrase, as ‘intellectual chamber music’. Michael Praetorius, writing at the beginning of the next century, described its function as follows (his use of ‘fugue’ is discussed below, §4(i)):
Fugues are nothing more than … repeated echoes of the same theme on different degrees [of the scale], succeeding each other through the use of rests… In Italy they are called ricercars. RICERCARE is the same thing as ‘to investigate’, ‘to look for’, ‘to seek out’, ‘to research diligently’ and ‘to examine thoroughly’. For in constructing a good fugue one must with special diligence and careful thought seek to bring together as many ways as possible in which the same [material] can be combined with itself, interwoven, duplicated, [used] in direct and contrary motion; [in short,] brought together in an orderly, artistic and graceful way and carried through to the end.
Because some collections were published in partbooks, some in open score, and a few in keyboard score, earlier scholars (e.g. Apel) attempted to uncover a stylist distinction between those collections intended for instrumental ensemble performance (i.e. in partbooks) and those intended for keyboard (in score or keyboard notation). More recently, Newcomb has argued against such a distinction and has noted instead consistency of style and purpose that cuts across the differences of format. Interest in the later classic fugue has also led scholars frequently to overemphasize the presence of monothematicism in these works. The 16th-century ricercare makes much better sense if understood as the instrumental counterpart to the motet in both seriousness of purpose and severity of contrapuntal style; indeed, it represents the first genre of purely instrumental music to challenge the sophistication of Flemish vocal polyphony.
Furthermore, because it had no text, the instrumental ricercare escaped the humanistic criticism levelled at vocal fugue, and composers felt free to embrace the genre and to continue to explore new possibilities. Most 16th-century ricercares proceed, like the imitative motet, as a series of points of imitation, each based on its own theme. Also reminiscent of the motet in these cases is a frequent emphasis on the opening point as the longest and most systematic. The two genres differ in several respects, however. To compensate for the ricercare’s lack of text, composers sought out a more purely musical solution to the problem of continuity and structural logic, for which they turned to techniques of thematic manipulation. A point may be quite long in comparison to its vocal counterpart, therefore, with many more thematic statements. A much less tidy compartmentalization of themes each to its own point is found, and considerably greater and more systematic use of the contrapuntal devices of augmentation, diminution, inversion and stretto is to be expected.
Adding to the impression of these ricercares as systematic pieces for study or the display of compositional skill is their frequent publication in collections devoted to the genre, usually by a single composer, and often organized with exactly one ricercare in each mode. Towards the end of the 20th century several such collections of 16th-century ricercares once thought lost were rediscovered, and a re-evaluation of the genre was undertaken by Newcomb, who identified two distinct ‘schools’ of ricercare composition in the 16th and early 17th centuries, the first centred in Venice, the second in Ferrara and, later, Naples. The most important composers in the first group are Willaert, Girolamo Cavazzoni, Buus, Padovano, Merulo and Andrea Gabrieli; the second includes Luzzaschi, Jacques Brunel, Macque, Mayone and Frescobaldi. Although these works differ in significant respects from the classic fugue of the 18th century, they certainly represent the oldest instrumental works to merit detailed study in a history of fugue.
4. 17th century.
During the first half of the 17th century, fugue as a compositional technique might have seemed to many musicians to be well on its way to the historical scrap-heap as the most pre-eminent composers focussed increasingly on opera, cantata and oratorio. And yet Monteverdi had staked his defence of modern music on the premise that the old style and its technical basis remained valid and worthy of attention. Certainly the ricercare’s role as compositional study, and its absence of text, made it well suited for continued cultivation of the stile antico. In addition to its museum-piece status, however, fugue continued to evolve, especially in the hands of organists and violinists. By around mid-century most of the characteristics of the classic fugue as we recognize it today were in place, and as the century progressed to its conclusion they gradually reintegrated themselves into most genres of music and most parts of Europe.