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"Composers tend to assume that everyone loves music. Surprisingly enough, everyone doesn't."

--Aaron Copland
New York Times Magazine
February 16, 1964

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MP3 files of Fugues
Michael Hammer, organ

J. S. Bach: Fugue in G
Bwv 577, "Jig"

this makes a great "starter" fugue

vital stats
number of voices: 4
length of subject: stopped counting    
              after 45 notes. very long!
number of subject areas: 4

one very long  subject area in which the four voices enter at the follow times: :01, :13, :42, :56 (this last in the feet, which is where the fugue gets its nickname--verily, there is much dancing involved)

episode: 1:07

one very short subject area, (1:20) in which Bach introduces the subject in only one voice before wandering off into another episode.(1:30) in which there are lots of fun echo effects.

after this, there is another short (one voice) subject area (1:39) followed by another episode (1:59), and finally another three-voice subject area (entrances at 2:11,2:25,3:00--for the final entrance I've thrown on the 'trombone' stops in the pedals)

mood: too much fun

Bach: Fugue in g minor
Bwv 578, "little"

If you like your fugues short and hummable, this one's for you. Not only is the fugue subject among the most tuneful in the literature, the episodes between the subject areas are pretty toe-tapping as well, and the whole thing bubbles along in just a few short minutes. Woops, it's over already.

Buxtehude: Fugue section from Preludium in g minor
 BuxWV 163

What would you get if you wrote a fugue that was one long subject area, say if the voices kept entering one after another at predictable intervals and once they were all in they simply took turns repeating that fugue subject in different keys?  There would be no episodes to give us a break from listening to that same subject being repeated over and over in the various voices. Every so often, after a build-up of sound the texture would thin out again and we would start with only two voices and gradually build in complexity again. What would that sound like?

We don't need to theorize, Mr. Buxtehude has provided us with an example. The downside is it can get pretty boring after a while because there is little variety. The upside is that your ear has something to hang on to because somewhere in the thicket of sounds there is always, repeat always, the fugue subject going in one of the voices. With none of those pesky episodes to worry about the subject of the fugue never goes away entirely for more than a couple of beats. A few times the entrances of the subject overlap but otherwise, from a technical point of view this is as plain vanilla as they come, one voice carrying the subject at a time. And while the effect may be more stereotypically austere, it still has a sense of buoyancy and the rush of purpose. An exciting thing to listen to even if it has a stern look on its face!


Telemann: Little Fugues
title  /  # of notes in subject
Fuga 2  /  4 notes
Fuga 3 
/  7 notes
   Fuga 6  
/  24 notes
Fuga 12
 /  16 notes

Telemann, a contemporary of Bach, was much more popular with his audience, probably because he shared their view that some types of music (:cough: Fugues) were too complicated. The ones here hardly qualify. Two of them (#s  6 and 12) violate the rule that the opening subject should be sounded alone before the second voice comes in to imitate it. The subject areas are very short (usually around 10 seconds) with only 2 or three voices entering. Then an even shorter episode which offers a complete contrast (usually just some arpeggios or something) before the next group of subjects enters. All of these pieces last only a minute and a half or so. They provide a nice opportunity to listen to the subject being tossed around between voices, and to the variety of moods that different fugues can evoke. And if you are going to get bored you'd better hurry up about it.

From the Interwebs:

How to Write a Fugue
By Daniel Pi
Hint: This is intended to be funny. It is not really a good place to go to learn how to write fugues, or if you are humor-challenged. But if you already know something about the subject it's very funny.

Or, for amusement, you could check out Glenn Gould's "So You Want to Write a Fugue"

What's in a Name....


"A fugue is a piece of music in which the voices come in one after another and the audience go out one after another."



I always did have a habit of chasing after the impractical. In this first installment of "what's in a name," a series dedicated to hunting down and killing with words of explanation some of those musical buzzwords that stand between great artists and the average not-so-sure-I-want-to-be-a-concertgoers, we're going to tackle one of the most forbidding types of music around, the Fugue.

I'll start by pronouncing it for you. Music is sound, after all. Notice how, in spite of the apparent symmetry of the word on the page, and the fact that we arrive at the g when the written word is merely half over, "fugue" is only one syllable. "fugu" on the other hand, which is two, is a potentially poisonous Japanese fish, and not a very musical one at that.

A fugue is possibly the most difficult kind of piece to write, and, unfortunately, not always much easier to listen to. This is because there are so many things happening at the same time. That, in fact, is the point. For centuries, composers have been trying to show their mastery at setting several independent parts to sound together, harmoniously and effectively. In some respects, it is like a musical sodoku challenge gone amok. Or three-dimensional chess. Or the Sunday crossword puzzle in the New York Times. Just about anybody can write a tune and put a few chords with it, but it is a real intellectual challenge to write a piece in which, what is happening from moment to moment has to line up well so that is makes a pleasant harmony, and yet, at the same time every single part has to make an interesting melody of its own. In other words, it has to work vertically (all the stuff happening at the same time conveniently lines up vertically on a page of music) as well as horizontally (a line of written music flows forward in the same direction as the English language).

At first, the idea of having several voices singing their own individual parts probably happened naturally. This might be hard to explain to a modern musician who thinks in terms of chords--that is, blocks of sound, in which three or four notes make up what we think of as a single harmony. But the history of western music suggests that at first, everybody sang the same tune together. When composers started adding other parts to the mix, they were still thinking of melodies that moved through time from beginning to end. Anything that happened to line up was simply a product of the collision of melody lines, not a preordained harmony. At that time, there were no organs or pianos where you can plunk down a fistful of notes at once and call it a chord. There were no 100-piece orchestras. For a while, most of the music that was written down was for the voice, and, unless you are a Tuvan throat singer, you have a hard time singing several notes at once. Because of this natural bias against hearing several things happening at once as part of something larger, (like a chord) composers just didn't think that way. When composers started writing music for instruments, they still treated them like individual voices (which is why, in the column at the left, and in any technical discussion of fugue, the different "melody" lines are referred to as "voices" even though they are not sung. They behave the same way, and that is what counts). Sometimes the instruments merely played along with the voice parts, and the organ music from the time sounds like it could easily be sung by a choir because the way it is written is identical to the way in which the choir music of the time was written. Usually, in fact, the music was written on several different staves, the same way it was written for choir. Each part was on its own staff. A manual on how to compose music for the time actually suggests writing the entire tenor part from beginning to end and then doing the same with each additional part. It does not seem very concerned with how the parts will sound together at any point in time (yikes).

What I've just described is the historical birth of counterpoint (the art of putting note against note). Almost everything that was written down during the Renaissance (1400-1600 AD) is contrapuntal (the secular songs, too, in some cases). During the Baroque era (1600-1750), things started to change. People were already complaining that music had gotten too complicated, and some of those people were musicians themselves. They started writing in a new way, with tunes that were filled out by other parts that were there only for support. This was a real innovation, and lots of ink was dedicated to the idea.

It is, then, a bit ironic, that the universally acknowledged master of counterpoint lived during the Baroque period. His name, of course, was J. S. Bach.

Bach was a master of all things contrapuntal. He rarely wrote music that wasn't, and he is particularly known for the most difficult type of piece in the contrapuntal family--the fugue.

I need to pause here because I have often heard people refer to anything that sounds complicated, with two or more things going on at once, as a fugue. This is not the case. A fugue is a very specific (and advanced) type of aural adventure. It is really the king of complexity, and has a series of special rules, or procedures, that must be followed in order for it to actually qualify as a fugue, rather than simply a piece with a lot of stuff going on at once. Generally, people's ears are not practiced in sorting out many different strands of melody, so they tend to lump it all in the same category: can't sort it all out, must be a fugue. But after reading this article, you'll have a better idea.

So, what makes a fugue a fugue? Interestingly enough, the next best thing to a dead giveaway that you are listening to a fugue will be the way it starts--with only one single note at a time! The other parts will join it, one at a time (as our cynical correspondent notes in the quotation heading this article). When they do, they will be imitating the first voice, at least for a while. This is because every fugue has what is known as a "subject." The first notes you hear will in fact, be that subject. For example:

[listen] to the subject from Bach's Fugue in G, Well-Tempered Clavier book two

In a few seconds, this voice will be joined by a second voice, imitating it, at what we call a fifth higher (five notes up if you count the first note as 1). Now, it is one of the secrets of fugue writing that you have to know the best way to bring in that second voice--exactly as the first, or by "fudging" it a little. There are rules for that, too. Then, after a brief bit of "connective tissue" we arrive back in the original key, and a third voice enters, again with the subject. If there are four, or five, voices (Bach once wrote one with six!) the same thing happens with their entrances, alternating between the original notes and five notes up from the first. This whole section is called the subject area. During the arrival of the additional voices, the old ones keep on "singing" but they do not have to keep to any particular tunes, because the newly arrived ones are not going to keep imitating them. It is only the subject that is important--although there are some fugues which also contain something called a countersubject,  just as there are double fugues and lots of other interesting things. I'm assuming you don't really want to know all that much about a fugue at the moment; if you do, there are entire textbooks written about them because it is indeed a large subject (sorry).

When all the voice entrancing has been accomplished, they all begin to dance around according to the inspiration of the composer. This more optional section is usually referred to as an episode, as in "I'm having an episode, and if you don't go away I may have another one."

The chances of this happening are quite good, because, if the composer is smooth enough, he has just moved you into a new key during the episode, in which you can often hear short bits of music which seem to be repeating themselves a bit higher or a bit lower (technical term: sequence). When he is ready, he will launch into another subject area, in which you will hear the subject make several more appearances. This may be followed by another episode, and another subject area, if and until the composer feels like you've had enough.

Which is one of the difficulties with fugues. The fugue is different from some other forbidding sounding pieces like Sonata, or Symphony, or Rondo. In those, if you are one of those people who spend a good portion of the piece looking at their watch wondering when it is going to be over, reading what I have to say about how they are put together will at the very least give you an idea of how long you can expect until they are over. They are like plots in literature or movies. After the bad guy dies, it is a pretty safe bet there is only about five minutes left until they roll the credits. In a fugue, there is no particular plot that the composer must follow. He can continue bringing the subject into all the voices one by one, and then letting it disappear altogether for a while in endless alterations between a subject area and an episode, subject area and episode, until he is convinced that you acknowledge him the lord fugue-master of the universe. Although, as it happens, the fugue below is rather short. It contains only one subject area, and the rest (beginning at about :22) is all free episode. As it happens, the episode is built on the first portion of the fugue subject, so it will not sound very different.

Fugue in G

If you are one of those people who absolutely must have a phrase you can drop into conversation at a cocktail party (what else is classical music good for, you know?), here is one: "fugue is a procedure, not a form." This is another way of saying we're not exactly sure when it will end, although the typical fugue is not in excess of five minutes, so I wouldn't worry about it too much.

Since listening to a fugue is a lot like trying to speed-read a novel, in terms of sheer amount of stuff happening, your ears could easily glaze over. Or you could spend your time listening to that fugue subject keep bursting in on you like fireworks, now in the high voice, now in the low, now in the middle. A composer can have a lot of fun trying to hide it from you, by slowing it down (augmentation) or speeding it up (diminution), playing it upside down (AND slower!) or having the different voices interrupt each other, bringing in the subject in the next voice before it is finished in the first (stretto). Don't let him! (hide it from you, that is)

Fugue may sound awfully intellectual, and academic, which for many people means it must be boring, and monotonous. As if all these fugues are going to basically sound the same: one big dull procession. But one of the reasons Bach is so often admired as a writer of these things is that he was able to put a great deal of variety into them. And if aesthetic beauty and a logical stream of notes doesn't excite you, you may find a great deal of emotional range in them as well. Some may strike you as passionate, others dramatic, some humorous, or grandiose: despite the apparently rather restrictive set of rules, with a creative fugue composer, you never know exactly what you are going to get.

Which is, perhaps, one reason people keep on writing them, even, occasionally, into the 21st century. On the left are some examples of fugue, in some cases written well after Bach. Sometimes you can hear the stiff pedantry in them, but just as often, the sheer exuberance of showers of simultaneous melody, and a composer exulting in what he can do with his mind--and his heart.