Ernst Toch: Geographical Fugue


Ernst Toch’s spoken chorus work Geographical Fugue has remained one of his most inspired pieces of music. Toch’s legacy lies in the 1920s when he lived in Berlin and began exploring the idea of using a spoken chorus. He composed a number of works to experiment with this kind of vocal group, with Geographical Fugue being the most popular. It premiered at the Neue Musik Berlin music festival in 1930 as part of the suite Gesprochene Musik (Spoken Music). 

The piece was originally in German, but after Toch reached the USA, John Cage asked permission for the fugue to be published in English. It turns out that at the Berlin premiere Cage was there and was completely taken by the work. Toch agreed, and the English version is now the more-performed of the two versions. 


The Lyrics

As the title suggests, the lyrics to Geographical Fugue are based on various landmarks. countries and cities. 



And the big Mississippi

and the town Honolulu

and the lake Titicaca,

the Popocatepetl is not in Canada,

rather in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico!

Canada, Málaga, Rimini, Brindisi

Canada, Málaga, Rimini, Brindisi

Yes, Tibet, Tibet, Tibet, Tibet,

Nagasaki! Yokohama!

Nagasaki! Yokohama!


The Music

Written in a strict fugal form, Geographical Fugue is composed for four voices, each of which speaking the various landmarks, cities and counties. The idea is that the chorus is recorded on a gramophone at 78rpm, and then performed in a concert setting by replaying the records at a much higher speed. Toch writes:


“Increasing the tempo [of Geographical Fugue], and the resulting pitch level created a type of instrumental music, which leads the listener to forget that it originated from speaking.”


As the piece picks up speed the contrapuntal lines become more and more intertwined. The layering of voices creates rich texture quickly with different affectations bouncing off of each other. Some words are said more aggressively than others, such as ‘Trinidad!’. It is true, by the end of the piece one forgets that this piece is a spoken word chorus. As the piece began, Geographical Fugue concludes with all the voices uniting on the word ‘Trinidad!’.

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Neil Clapp · 15th April 2021 at 4:09 pm

I remember going through this piece in class during my Berkee days in 1972. Part of it has been stuck in my brain and recently just re-emerged to the forefront. LOL. However I could not remember the whole thing, so I looked it up and was surprised at how many of the words I had forgotten. It’s a lot of fun; quite tongue twister and a brilliant piece; especially when performed as a fugue, wow!

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