Fugue

well tempered clavier

In music, a fugue [fyoog] is a compositional technique (in classical music) in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.

In other words, a fugue is a piece of music written for a certain number of parts (voices). The word ‘fugue’ comes from the Italian ‘fuga’ meaning ‘flight.’

A fugue is based on one particular tune. This tune is called the subject. Each part has an equal share in playing the subject. When we talk about the ‘parts’ in a fugue we do not mean the ‘sections’ of the piece but the number of voices needed to sing it or instruments to play it. A ‘3 part fugue’ means a fugue written for three voices or instruments. If it is for the piano there will always be three, and no more than three, notes being played, unless one or two of the voices have rests at that moment.

Fugues can be in 2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6 parts. The more parts there are the harder it is to write a fugue because each part has to sound interesting by itself, but together they must also make sense. 3, 4 and 5 part fugues are usual.

A fugue always starts with just one part playing the subject. Then the other parts come in one at a time until they are all playing. When the second part, called the answer, comes in it will always be half an octave higher or lower than the beginning (musicians say: ‘on the dominant,’ meaning that it starts on the 5th note of the scale instead of the ‘tonic’ or 1st note). The third part to come in will be the subject (in the tonic once again) and the fourth part will be another answer, etc.

If the answer is an exact transposition of the subject (i.e. exactly the same but in the dominant key) it is called a real answer. Sometimes one or two notes have to be changed so that the music sounds right. This is called a tonal answer.

When the second part comes in with the answer the first part will have to play something else, called a countersubject. If this ‘something else’ is used every time in the piece to accompany the answer then it is called a regular countersubject. The countersubject should sound nice, and be grammatically correct, whether it is on top or below the subject. This is called ‘invertible counterpoint.’

If a part is not playing a countersubject it may just be playing a ‘free part.’

The fugue became a very popular form of music in the Baroque period. It was often played after a prelude (a short piece of music). The most famous composer of fugues was Johann Sebastian Bach. He wrote two books, each with 24 Preludes and Fugues, called the ‘Das Wohltemperiertes Klavier’ (‘Well-tempered keyboard’). He also wrote many Preludes and Fugues for organ, sometimes writing a passacaglia, fantasia or toccata instead of the prelude. Bach’s fugues became models for future generations. Composers from later periods all studied Bach’s fugues in order to learn how to write them.

Fugues can be very dramatic and exciting as each part comes in one at a time and the music builds up. This is why many composers have ended long works with a fugue. It helps to build up the tension towards the end of the work. Even if it is not a strict fugue it might be ‘fugal’ i.e. it might start off as a fugue and then become freer (adding extra parts etc). Beethoven uses fugues a lot in the last movement of his late piano sonatas.

Fugue is the most complex of contrapuntal forms. In Austrian musicologist Erwin Ratz’s words, ‘fugal technique significantly burdens the shaping of musical ideas, and it was given only to the greatest geniuses, such as Bach and Beethoven, to breathe life into such an unwieldy form and make it the bearer of the highest thoughts.’ An indication of this is that in the 19th century Simon Sechter composed over 5,000 fugues, but none of them are in today’s concert repertoire, while another is the enduring success of the organ fugues of Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms.

In presenting Bach’s fugues as among the greatest of contrapuntal works, Peter Kivy points out that ‘counterpoint itself, since time out of mind, has been associated in the thinking of musicians with the profound and the serious’ and argues that ‘there seems to be some rational justification for their doing so.’ Because of the way fugue is often taught, the form can be seen as dry and filled with laborious technical exercises. The term ‘school fugue’ is used for a very strict form of the fugue that was created to facilitate teaching.

Others, such as Alfred Mann, argued that fugue writing, by focusing the compositional process actually improves or disciplines the composer towards musical ideas. This is related to the idea that restrictions create freedom for the composer, by directing their efforts. He also points out that fugue writing has its roots in improvisation, and was, during the Renaissance, practiced as an improvisatory art. Writing in 1555, Nicola Vicentino, for example, suggests that, ‘the composer, having completed the initial imitative entrances, take the passage which has served as accompaniment to the theme and make it the basis for new imitative treatment, so that ‘he will always have material with which to compose without having to stop and reflect.’

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