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."




MP3 files of Fugues:

If you check back later this month, I may have this part finished.

g minor  Fugue
from W.T.C. I

vital stats
number of voices: 3
length of subject: 11 notes
number of subject areas:3+
mood: quite serious

Many of us may think of Fugue as a rather unfriendly, severe form of composition. While this isn't true much of the time, the short fugue above probably caters to this description pretty well. The subject is short, which gives Mr. Bach the opportunity to try it in different environments, particularly the friendlier B-flat major subject area (0:34), and, near the end, a 'stretto' section (1:23) where the fugue entries pile on top of each other

St. Anne Fugue

vital stats
number of voices: 5
length of subject: 6 notes
number of subject areas:
mood: grandiose, joyous

Some fugues can be very impressive. In this 5-voice fugue whose subject resembles the hymn tune "St. Anne", Bach builds up quite a wall of sound in the first part. But he isn't finished. Two more sections follow, a playful volley of running eighth notes (2:04), and a triple-time jig (3:44).

"Jig" Fugue

this makes a great "starter" fugue for listening

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, :40, :54

one very short subject area, in which Bach introduces the subject in only one voice before wandering off into another episode. (1:17)

after this, there is another short (one voice) subject area (1:44) followed by another episode, and finally another four-voice subject area (2:04)

mood: too much fun

If you promise not to listen too closely, I'll let you treat your ears to this rambunctious, athletic fugue that sounds like Bach was having a pretty good time. (So was I, but I also had to get ready for my oral exams the next week and was quite out of practice; actually, that pretty much goes for every recording on here!)

Goldberg variation 10 (fugato)

vital stats
number of voices: 4
length of subject: about 13 notes
number of subject areas: 1
mood: pretentious fun

This isn't really a fugue, but Bach pretends it is one. The voices enter the way they are supposed to, but afterward, they have to follow the preconceived harmonic plan of the theme of this massive set of variations.

Fugue from Eroica Variations (Beethoven)

vital stats
number of voices:
length of subject:
number of subject areas:

Beethoven had to show he could command this difficult sort of writing, so, at the end of his lengthy set of variations, as if he hadn't put it through enough mutations, he turns the theme into an actual fugue (for real, this time), and, for good measure, turns the theme upside down and tries it again.

Liszt Sonata fugato

vital stats
number of voices:
length of subject:
number of subject areas:

Franz Liszt had to show that the diabolical theme from his mammoth piano sonata also had fugal possibilities--for about 45 seconds. This isn't an actual fugue either, and after the equivalent of one subject area and one episode wanders back into more Lisztian territory.


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 just has to line up well because the degree of musical detail is so much greater.

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 are usually 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. 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 composer 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, 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.

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 above). 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:


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 sections 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, this particular fugue 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!

Fugue may sound awfully intellectual, and academic, 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. Some may sound passionate, other dramatic, some humorous, or grandiose: despite the 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.


2006 Michael Hammer