3: Video, “Music Appreciation – The Fugue Explained,” featuring Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G minor.
The poem’s title, “Deathfugue” (“Todesfuge” in German), offers insight into its larger meaning. Using music and images, this video effectively illustrates what a musical fugue is and how it’s structured. Though Celan’s poem does not follow the structure of a musical fugue precisely, it is useful for students to understand what a fugue is, so that they can understand both why the poet alludes to this classical musical form and how the poem diverges from it.
Suggested Activity: Present students with this definition of a musical fugue from Merriam-Webster: “a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts.” After reviewing and clarifying the definition in class, play the video. Then, ask students to identify the following: What words and phrases does “Deathfugue” repeat? How does the poem interweave these repetitive elements or “voices”?
Continue with a discussion of the following questions: In what ways do the phrases and rhythms of “Deathfugue” parallel the introduction and repetition of musical themes in a fugue? What kind of counterpoint does the author establish between several contrasting voices and themes—the golden haired Margareta and the ashen haired Shulamith; the power of the Nazi master and the powerlessness of the Jewish speaker; the grave in the sky and the graves being dug? In what ways does the poem’s form differ from or fail to imitate a fugue?
If you have more time, ask students to write their own poems imitating Celan’s style. Ask them to use repetition and to interweave multiple voices to create a rhythmic, musical piece.
Source: chriswrightmusic, “Music Appreciation – The Fugue Explained,” Oct. 21 2011, video, 3:49, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95gLT7NzHAM.