The Baroque Fugue: History and Characteristics

Title page of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1, 1722)
Title page of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier, The Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 1, 1722). By Rezonansowy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fugue is a type of polyphonic composition or compositional technique based on a principal theme (subject) and melodic lines (counterpoint) that imitate the principal theme. The fugue is believed to have developed from the canon which appeared during the 13th century. The canon is a type of composition wherein the parts or voices have the same melody, each beginning at a different time. The fugue also has its roots from the ensemble chansons of the 16th century as well as the ricercari of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Fugue Has Several Different Elements

  • Exposition - The first section of the fugue wherein the subject is stated.
  • Subject - The principal theme or main idea; the first statement of the subject is usually by a single voice.
  • Answer - The second statement of the subject transposed to the dominant key; it may either be a real answer or a tonal answer. The answer is usually accompanied by counterpoint in a different voice.
  • Countersubject - Counterpoint that accompanies the subject constantly.
  • Episode - Transitional section or passages in between the restatement of the subject. The episode may contain material that is similar to or different from the subject or countersubject.
  • Pedal-point - A tone that is held as the other voices produce different harmonies.

Composers Use Different Techniques to Vary the Subject

  • Stretto - When the subject and answer overlaps or when the subject is imitated before it is completed.
  • Augmentation - Lengthening the rhythmic value of a subject.
  • Diminution - Shortening the rhythmic value of a subject.
  • Inversion - Reversing the intervals of the subject.

A fugue may sometimes be confused as a round, however, these two are very different. In a fugue, a voice presents the main subject and then may proceed to different material, while in a round there is an exact imitation of the subject. Also, the melody of a fugue is in different scales, whereas in a round the melody is in the same pitches.

Fugues are introduced by preludes. "The Well-Tempered Clavier" by Johann Sebastian Bach is the best example of a fugue. "The Well-Tempered Clavier" is divided into two parts; each part consists of 24 preludes and fugues in all of the major and minor keys. Other composers who composed fugues include:

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - "Fugue in C Minor for two pianos," K 426
  • Ludwig van Beethoven - "Grosse Fuge in B-flat Major for string quartet," Opus 133
  • Cesar Franck - "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for piano"
  • Johannes Brahms - "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel"
  • Dmitry Shostakovich - "24 Preludes and Fugues for piano"

More information on the fugue is discussed at the following Web sites: