Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fugue In the Monastery

 Kate Davies


Nicolay Rimsky Korsakov’s In the Monastery is a double fugue that exhibits an interesting combination of formal structures.  This fugue utilizes dialectic subject construction, partial entry groups, subject group patterns, and episodes to create a conversational form.


Rimsky-Korsakov composed the fugue In the Monastery in 1878.  It is the fourth movement of a string quartet based on Russian themes.  This fourth movement is based on the church theme, Reverend Father, pray to God for us.  Rimsky-Korsakov stated in The Chronicle that he found many shortcomings in the fugue, yet later reworked it into other compositions.1  He integrated the primary subject into his opera Sadko, and arranged the fugue for piano four hands with the new title In the Church. 


This fugue is best approached from the standpoint that it is situated in the modal B minor, however one can be swayed to perceive much of the piece in the relative, D major.  This ambiguity exists primarily because of Rimsky-Korsakov’s use of a pre-existing modal chant.  This fugue presents two different subjects separately, which later combine as a consecutive statement, reflecting dialectic form. 


Ambiguity is also created by the emphasis on the third of the minor key.  Similar to the fugue from the Tombeau de Couperin, analyzed in this journal by Tim Smith, the first pitch is the third of the minor key.  This ambiguity creates diversity and resurfaces at different points in the fugue.  Diversity is also present in the use of two subjects and two countersubjects.  These subjects, combined with clever dynamic use, subject grouping statements, episodic passages, ascending sequential patterns, pedal point, partial entry groups, and stretto, to reach climactic points creating a conversational narrative.  This narrative based on subject combinations unfolds in a three part form.  The three parts that form the fugue are the opening section, the central development section and the closing section.  Evidence of dialectic form is present in each of the three sections, and supports the conversational narrative in this fugue. 

Opening Section


The opening section, presents the two subjects and two countersubjects.  The alternating presentation of Subject 1 (S1) and Subject 2 (S2) in each voice reflects a traditional fugal exposition where the subject and answer are alternately presented.  Much like S1 and S2, Counter Subject 1 (CS1) is presented in all four voices, whereas Counter Subject 2 (CS2) is only presented in the viola.  Therefore, CS2 does not receive balanced treatment in terms of a symmetrical plan of entries, however CS2 does perform an important role in the fugue.  CS2 is presented four times throughout the fugue, each time combined with other subjects, identified as a subject group, which adds a sense of continuity though repetition.


The fugue begins softly with S1 stated in viola with a largely eighth note rhythm.  S1 continues until the end of m. 3, where S2 enters in violin II, separated by a fourth.  This might seem unusual in comparison to many fugues, where entries are separated by a 5th, however the modal nature of the church theme is what brings this about.  In fact, S1 serves as the thesis and S2 as the antithesis, which contrast each other and later play consecutively forming a synthesis.  The largely quarter note rhythm of S2 contrasts the eighth note rhythm of S1.  This rhythmic contrast supports the dialectic in this fugue.


The viola is an important voice in this fugue, as introduces the first entries of S1, CS1 and CS2.  The only subject material to be introduced in another voice is S2, because if it too were introduced in viola, it would follow the entry of S1 and create a synthesis of S1 and S2 at the beginning of the piece.

Fig. 1, m. 1-6, showing S1, S2, CS1




Rhythmic similarities are present along with rhythmic contrasts, creating a sense of balance.  The largely eighth note rhythm of S1 is reflected in the eighth note CS1 rhythm that enters in the viola in measure 5.  Likewise, the largely quarter note rhythm of S2 is similar to the quarter note rhythm of CS2 that enters in m. 13 in the viola.  Therefore, rhythmic similarities can be drawn between S1 and CS1, and between S2 and CS2.  This gesture of similar rhythmic structures between corresponding subjects and countersubjects supplies balance in the subject use in the fugue. 


As seen below in Example 1, both S1 and S2 are presented in all four voices in the exposition.  This balanced presentation of subject material is also balanced in terms of entry pitches and instrumentation.  Both subjects enter on the pitch D when stated by violin 1 and viola, whereas both subjects stated by violin II and cello enter on the pitch G. 


Ex. 1, subject entries (pitches) in the opening section



S1 on D

S1 (aug) on C#

S2 on D


S2 on G

S1 on G

CS1 on B

S1 on D

CS1 on D

S2 on G

CS2 on E

S2 on D

CS1 on A

S1 on G



At m. 13, CS2 enters in the viola and is marked by an accelerando, which initiates momentum.  It enters in counterpoint with CS1 and an augmented version of S1.  As discussed, CS2 is not stated by all four voices in the exposition, rather it is part of a recurring combination of subject material.  I refer to this combination as subject group 1. 


Fig. 2, Mm. 13-15, showing CS2, subject group 1




Subject Groups


Four subject groups appear in this fugue, all of which occur in stretto with various arrangements of the same subject components.  The subject components involved in each of the subject groups are S1 in augmentation, CS1 and CS2.  This repeated presentation of S1 in augmentation at its original transposition reinforces S1 as the prominent subject, through confirmation.  Coupled with a crescendo, this augmented subject creates a feeling of growth and direction.  The remaining portion of the first section includes the presentation of S1, S2 and CS1 in the remaining voices and ending on a perfect authentic cadence in B minor in measure 27 thus bringing the first section to a close.  


Ex. 2, subject group patterns

S1 (aug) mm.13-18

S1 (aug) mm 66-69 CS2 mm. 104-105

S1 (aug) mm.40-43
CS2 mm. 66-73

CS2 mm.13-16
CS2 mm.40-43

S1 (aug) mm. 102-105
CS1 mm. 13-16
CS1 mm.40-44
CS2 mm.69-73
CS1 mm. 102-107



The beginning of the development is evident not only by the cadence marking the end of the first section, but a change in texture, articulation, and rhythm.  M. 28 marks the beginning of the development section, and presents the first instance where three voices play a homophonic rhythm of eighth notes.  The homophonic rhythm is highlighted by the homophonic staccato pattern which adds a sense of unity, accenting the presentation of S1 in violin I.

This development section of the fugue uses pedal point, ascending sequential patterns, subject groups, partial entry groups, and stretto to imply a variety of tonal centres, serving as a change from the modal B minor.    


Ascending Sequential Patterns


In this fugue, Rimsky-Korsakov uses an ascending sequential pattern supported by subject material to build anticipation and initiate subject confirmation.  These ascending sequential patterns emerge three times in the fugue, each time with subject material stated in the cello.  Pattern 1 presents S1, Pattern 2 presents S2, and the final ascending sequential pattern presents a culmination of S1 and S2 played consecutively.  Essentially, these patterns serve as confirmation of both S1 and S2 as the subjects are presented in their original transpositions.  Each of the subjects presented as part of the ascending sequential patterns occur in the cello voice.  This continuity of range highlights the final joining of the two subjects in conversational agreement supplies unity to the piece, and reflects a conversational agreement.


The positioning of these patterns in terms of structural layout unveils a measured balance.  The S1 pattern occurs about 30 measures from the beginning.  The S2 pattern occurs about 30 measures after the S1 pattern, and the combined S1, S2 pattern occurs about 60 measures later.  This balanced plan of entries of ascending sequential patterns creates an overall structural unity. 


In addition to providing unity, these patterns create momentum, and are expertly positioned preceding an important event in each case.  For example, pattern 1 leads into an ascending episode that prepares the listener for subject group 2.  Pattern 2 leads into subject group 3, and pattern 3 leads into the final combined statement of S1 and S2 in the final section.  Therefore, the ascending sequential patterns provide confirmation, structural unity, and serve as preparation for important events.

Fig. 3, ascending sequential pattern 1




Ex. 3, ascending sequential patterns

Pattern 1 Pattern 2 Pattern 3
Mm. 31 – 35 Mm. 58-62 mm. 118-129
S1 on D S2 on G
S1 on D, S2 on G
Leads to ascending episode, followed by Subject Group 2 Leads to Subject Group 3
Leads to final combined statement of S1 and S2


Pedal Point             


Pedal point occurs four times in the fugue, all of which occur in the cello, during the development section.  Pedal point occurs twice supporting episodes and twice supporting groups of partial subject entries.  The pedal pitches occur in the order of D, A, G, and D, shifting the tonality during the development.  Rimsky-Korsakov uses pedal point in the lowest voice, cello, to create a dense texture.  Fugues often make use the dominant pedal to mark the end of the development section, however Rimsky-Korsakov omits the F# dominant pedal in modal B minor, creating ambiguity.    



Rimsky-Korsakov plays with ideas of extension and dynamic climax during the episodic passages of the development.  The two episodes briefly relieve the listener from subject material and are accompanied by pedals in the cello.  In both cases, the episodes serve a dramatic “palette cleansing” role, as they occur loudly, in contrast to the following subtle presentations of the subject group.  Rimsky-Korsakov therefore uses the episodic material to create a climax on non-subject material followed by subject material at a reduced dynamic. 


Fig. 4, Mm. 36-39, episode 1




Episode 1 begins at m. 36, where Rimsky-Korsakov introduces a four-note ascending figure in the viola that he repeats in the next measure, extended by one note to form a five-note figure.  He transfers this two measure figure to violin I, creating a four-measure episode.  Highlighting this section is the D pedal point in the cello, which creates anticipation, preparing subject group 2 at m. 40.  Episode 1 prepares the listener for subject group 2, while episode 2 prepares the listener for subject group 4 in a similar manner. 


Ex. 4, episodes


Episode 1
Episode 2
mm. 36-39, pedal D
mm. 98-101, pedal G
Leads to subject group 2
Leads to subject group 4

Partial Entry Groups and Stretto

M. 74 brings a five-bar section of partial entries of S1 alternating in the three upper voices.  The cello plays a pedal point A, which builds tension between the pedal and the quick succession of partial entries. 


Ex. 5, partial entry groups

S1 partial entry-group 1
S1 partial entry-group 2
mm. 74-79, pedal A
mm. 110-115, pedal D
Leads to stretto entry 1 in m.80
Leads to combined S1, S2 statement


This pedal A moves the tonality away from the B minor mode, and the tension is released with the feeling of renewal that arrives with the reduced texture at measure 80.  Measure 80 is an important moment in the fugue, as it marks the middle of the development section, and S1 and S2 enter in stretto for the first of two instances in the fugue.  The forte dynamic helps shape this climatic point in the fugue. 


Stretto occurs again in measures 91-94, this time in the top two voices.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s pairing of upper and lower instruments to present these stretto entries displays the stretto clearly to the listener and prepares for the ultimate union of S1 and S2 as a consecutive statement. 


M. 110 follows with a cello pedal D, again supporting the tonal ambiguity of use of the 3rd of the minor, and presents partial S1 entries, one bar after another for six bars.  Again, Rimsky-Korsakov is playing with the idea of extension.  The previous subject group is followed by five bars of S1 partial entries, while this time it is extended to six bars.  This promotes growth and direction, leading to the final climactic point in the work. 


M. 120 brings this climax with an exciting presentation of S1 and S2 in the cello.  For the first of two instances in the fugue, S1and S2 are played consecutively, connected in the same voice.  The two subjects are revealed in the lowest voice, creating a sense of strength and continuity, and are harmonized by the remaining voices.  This is the moment the listener has been waiting for after hearing S1 and S2 presented separately until this point in the fugue.  The development section then closes with a perfect authentic cadence in modal B minor in measure 129, supplying a sense of closure to the section.

Closing Section

The return of subject entries in the modal B minor at a much slower tempo marks the beginning of the closing section at m. 130.  It also brings the second consecutive statement of S1 and S2, this time in violin I.  This lends a sense of balance to the entries, considering the cello held the pattern the first time, and now the highest voice reveals both subjects.  During this second presentation, the remaining three voices play homophonic rhythms with violin 1, highlighting the subject in modal B minor.  This homophonic presentation reflects a conversational agreement amongst the voices, creating unity.

Fig. 5, Mm. 130-135, S1 and S2 with homophonic rhythms




The reduced tempo and softened dynamics display the consecutive S1 and S2 statement in a reserved fashion.  This contrast in intensity between consecutive statement 1 in cello and statement 2 in violin I, exhibits a contrast in the sections, thus helping define the structural form.  Statement 1 in the development is fortissimo, and presents S1 and S2 in the lowest voice with ascending sequences building anticipation.  Statement 2 in the closing section presents S1 and S2 in the highest voice combined with homophonic rhythms, reduced dynamic and reduced tempo creating contrast, which again helps define the sections.  The presentation of S1 and S2 joined together as one combined statement creates relief, like a conversational understanding with the other voices effectively giving a nod in agreement, as reflected in the homophonic rhythms.


The closing section brings a contrast to the development in terms of slower rhythmic movement and full statements of subject material in all voices.  Compared to the development, the dynamic nature of the final section is very subdued, bringing the fugue to a restful close with the final statement of S1 in the same voice as the beginning of the piece, in a reserved dynamic range, with a ritardando and final notes sounding with a fermata.


After a plagal cadence at m. 140, m. 144 brings back S1 in violin 2, followed by the other three voices entering with the S1 partial entries, in the following three bars.  M. 149 brings back S2 in a similar manner, with each voice presenting a partial entry, each one bar apart.  These statements serve as confirmation of S1 material adding unity and leading to m. 156, where all four voices present S1 homophonically and end on B minor.  This final homophonic presentation of S1 confirms its stature in the fugue while creating resolution tonally and dynamically.


Overall, Rimsky-Korsakov’s fugue In the Monastery, is structured around ideas of growth through subject use.  As we have seen, his use of dynamics, rhythm, articulations, tempo, register, pedals, episodes, and subject groups combine to form a narrative path of conversation including climactic points and restful passages.

One of the challenges in analyzing this fugue was obtaining a recording.  It was difficult to find a copy of, however there is a recorded version of In the Monastery distributed by Meridian Records.  As the story goes, Rimsky-Korsakov himself only heard the fugue played once at a quartet rehearsal, and its rarity seems to continue today.


1[Back]Rimsky-Korsakov. The Complete Works of Rimsky-Korsakov (New York: Belwin Mills Publishing Corp., 1983), [iv].


Copyright 2003 by Kate Davies