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What is a Fugue?

A fugue is a complex musical composition where a single theme is introduced by one voice and successively taken up by others, creating an interwoven, harmonious structure. It's like a conversation in music, with each part both speaking and listening. Intrigued by how these melodies intertwine seamlessly? Let's unravel the beauty and intricacy of the fugue together.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Fugue is the name both of a genre of musical composition, as well as a technique that can form part of a larger composition with other techniques used as well. As a technique, it refers to the practice of repeating thematic material in each voice of the composition in turn, each one proclaiming it in turn, and with material developed by imitative counterpoint. It differs from a round in that each voice continues after stating the theme, going on to create accompanying material.

Key elements of the fugue include the exposition, in which the main material or subject is played in the tonic key by the first voice and the answer, which features the same material given by the second voice and transposed to the dominant or subdominant. Optionally, the first voice may introduce a counter-subject. A range of other developmental strategies are possible, but not required.

Fugue is a genre of musical composition, as well as a technique.
Fugue is a genre of musical composition, as well as a technique.

Although there were a number of composers of fugue who preceded him, the greatest is generally considered to be Johann Sebastian Bach, who developed the genre in his works Art of the Fugue, the Goldberg Variations, and the Well-tempered Clavier. Other well known composers in the early 18th century include George Frideric Handel and Johann Joseph Fux.

Beethoven's Missa solmnis uses a fugal finale.
Beethoven's Missa solmnis uses a fugal finale.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugues have been used in a number of movies. “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” has been used the most, including in the movies The Aviator, Sour Grapes, The Pest, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Electric Dreams, Speed, Rollerball, The Monkees in Paris, The Great Race, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Mysterious Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Sunset Boulevard, Fantasia, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other Bach fugues that have found a place in the movies include:

  • Code Name: The Cleaner — “Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F Sharp Major”;
  • Thank You for Smoking — “Little Organ Fugue”;
  • Harvard ManWell-tempered Clavier Book 1: “Prelude and Fugue No. 13”;
  • House of Games — Fugue from the “Toccata and Fugue in C minor”; and
  • The Godfather — “Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

Moving into the Classical period, fugue lessened in importance, while the sonata and symphony were developed. Nevertheless, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used fugal development in the final movement of his Jupiter Symphony, as well as in the overture to Die Zauberflöte — The Magic Flute in English. And Ludwig van Beethoven employed a fugal finale in Missa solemnis.

Using elements of fugue in larger works continued, with Richard Wagner using fugal counterpoint in his overture to Die Meistersinger — The Mastersinger in English, and Berlioz in La damnation de Faust — The Damnation of Faust in English. Alban Berg created an atonal fugue in his opera Wozzeck, and Igor Stravinsky included one in the second movement of the Symphony of Psalms. Gradually through the twentieth century, interest in the fugue came to be more connected with historical imitation than with new developments in compositional technique.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a fugue in music?

A fugue is a complex style of composition that belongs to the genre of Western classical music. It is characterized by the systematic repetition and development of a main musical theme, known as the "subject," which is introduced by one voice or instrument and then successively taken up and expanded by others. The fugue's intricate interweaving of melodic lines creates a rich tapestry of harmonies and counterpoints, showcasing the composer's skill in thematic development and variation.

How does a fugue differ from other musical forms?

Unlike simpler musical forms, a fugue is distinguished by its strict structure and the contrapuntal technique it employs. It starts with a single voice presenting the subject, followed by other voices that enter successively, each introducing the subject at different pitches. This is different from forms like the sonata or rondo, which may have more freedom in theme presentation and development. The fugue's rigorous format demands a high level of compositional craftsmanship to maintain coherence and interest throughout the piece.

What are the main components of a fugue?

The main components of a fugue include the subject, which is the primary theme; the answer, which is a transposed version of the subject; countersubjects, which are secondary themes that complement the subject; episodes, which are sections that provide relief from the strict fugal texture; and the final section, known as the stretto, where the subject is overlapped at closer intervals, heightening the tension before the conclusion. These elements work together to create the fugue's intricate and harmonious structure.

Who are some famous composers known for writing fugues?

Johann Sebastian Bach is perhaps the most renowned composer of fugues, with his "The Well-Tempered Clavier" and "Art of Fugue" being quintessential examples. Other notable composers who have contributed significantly to the development of the fugue include Ludwig van Beethoven, whose "Grosse Fuge" is highly esteemed, and Dmitri Shostakovich, who incorporated fugues into his "24 Preludes and Fugues." These composers have used the fugue to display their mastery of complex musical thought and expression.

Can fugues be found in modern music?

While the fugue is predominantly associated with the Baroque period, its influence extends into modern music across various genres. Contemporary classical composers sometimes employ fugal techniques in their works to evoke a sense of tradition or complexity. Additionally, elements of the fugue can be found in jazz improvisation and even some progressive rock compositions, demonstrating the form's versatility and enduring appeal in the exploration of thematic development and counterpoint.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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    • Fugue is a genre of musical composition, as well as a technique.
      By: kirvinic
      Fugue is a genre of musical composition, as well as a technique.
    • Beethoven's Missa solmnis uses a fugal finale.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Beethoven's Missa solmnis uses a fugal finale.