A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Episodes

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EPISODES are secondary portions of musical works, which stand in contrast to the more conspicuous and definite portions in which the principal subjects appear in their complete form, through the appearance in them of subordinate subjects, or short fragments only of the principal subjects.

Their function as an element of form is most easily distinguishable in the fugal type of movement. In the development of that form of art composers soon found that constant reiteration of the principal subject had a tendency to become wearisome, however ingenious the treatment might be; and consequently they often interspersed exposition and counter-exposition with independent passages, in which sometimes new ideas, and more often portions of a counter-subject, or of the principal subject, were used in a free and fanciful way. By this means they obtained change of character, and relief from the stricter aspect of those portions in which the complete subject and answer followed one another, in conformity with certain definite principles. In connection with fugue therefore, episode may be defined as any portion in which the principal subject does not appear in a complete form.

There are a certain number of fugues in which there are scarcely any traces of episode, but in the most musical and maturest kind episodes are an important feature. It is most common to find one beginning as soon as the last part which has to enter has concluded the principal subject, and therewith the exposition. Occasionally a codetta in the course of the exposition is developed to such dimensions as to have all the appearance of an episode, but the more familiar place for the first one is at the end of the exposition. As an example of the manner in which it is contrived and introduced, the Fugue in F minor, No. 12 of the first book of J. S. Bach's Wohltemperirte Clavier may be taken. Here the subject is clearly distinguishable at all times from the rest of the musical material by its slow and steadily moving crotchets. The counter-subject which at once follows the first statement of the subject, as an accompaniment to the first answer, introduces two new rhythmic figures which afford a marked contrast to the principal subject

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \key f \minor f16[ g] aes8[ aes16 bes] c'8 }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \key f \minor \partial 2 r16 b,[ c d] ees4 | r16 c d ees f4 r16 ees f g aes4 }

and out of these the various episodes of the movement are contrived. The manner in which it is done may be seen in the beginning of the first episode, which begins at bar 16, and into which the former of the two figures is closely woven.

The adoption of this little figure is especially happy, as the mind is led on from the successive expositions to the episodes by the same process as in the first statement of subject and counter-subject, and thereby the continuity becomes so much the closer.

As further examples in which the episodes are noticeable and distinct enough to be studied with ease, may be quoted the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 10th, and 24th of the first book of the Wohltemperirte Clavier, and the 1st, 3rd, 12th, and 20th of the second book. They are generally most noticeable and important in instrumental fugues which have a definite and characteristic or rhythmically marked subject.

It follows from the laws by which expositions are regulated, that episodes should be frequently used for modulation. While the exposition is going on, modulation is restricted; but directly it is over, the mind inclines to look for a change from the regular alternation of prescribed centres. Moreover, it is often desirable to introduce the principal subject in a new key, and the episode is happily situated and contrived for the process of getting there; in the same way that after transitions to foreign keys another episode is serviceable to get home again. In this light, moreover, episodes are very frequently characterized by sequences, which serve as a means of systematizing the steps of the progressions. Bach occasionally makes a very happy use of them, by repeating near the end a characteristic episode which made its appearance near the beginning, thereby adding a very effective element of form to the movement.

In a looser sense the term Episode may be applied to portions of fugues which stand out noticeably from the rest of the movement by reason of any striking peculiarity; as for instance the instrumental portion near the beginning of the Amen Chorus in the Messiah, or the central portions of certain very extensive fugues of J. S. Bach, in which totally new subjects are developed and worked, to be afterwards interwoven with the principal subjects.

In the purely harmonic forms of art the word is more loosely used than in the fugal order. It is sometimes used of portions of a binary movement in which subordinate or accessory subjects appear, and sometimes of the subordinate portions between one principal subject and another, in which modulation frequently takes place. It serves more usefully in relation to a movement in Aria or Rondo form; as the central portion in the former, and the alternative subjects or passages between each entry of the subject in the latter cannot conveniently be called 'second subjects.' In the old form of Rondo, such as Couperin's, the intermediate divisions were so very definite and so clearly marked off from the principal subject that they were conveniently described as Couplets. But in the mature form of Rondo to be met with in modern Sonatas and Symphonies the continuity is so much closer that it is more convenient to define the form as a regular alternation of principal subject with episodes. It sometimes happens in the most highly artistic Rondos that the first episode presents a regular second subject in a new key; that the second episode (following the first return of the principal subject) is a regular development or 'working out' portion, and the third episode is a recapitulation of the first transposed to the principal key. By this means a closer approximation to Binary form is arrived at. In operas and oratorios, and kindred forms of vocal art, the word is used in the same sense as it would be used in connection with literature.