Bach-unfinishedfugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach. – Berlin State Library, Germany.
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Some compositions are so nerdy that you can only start to appreciate them after you understand how they work. A Star Trek version of a Mozart opera is pretty high on the nerdy scale, but one type of composition rivals it: the fugue.

Fugues can get really complicated. Like I said in the last post, it could take a post or two to explain all their parts. So today we’ll explore the most fundamental parts of the fugue: subjects and answers.

Subjects and Answers

Fugues are based on a subject (or theme) that is presented in the beginning. This is followed by an “answer”. The answer is a repetition of the subject in which another voice comes in. For example on a piano, a fugue starts with the subject played by one hand, then the other hand plays the answer as the first hand continues on. It’s a dead giveaway that when you hear this subject and answer the piece you’re listening to is a fugue. Compare these fugue introductions:

Texture of Fugues

Fugues have a contrapuntal texture. This means they have two or more melodies going on at the same time. It’s like a more complicated version of singing a round (like Row Row Row Your boat or Three Blind Mice). The genius of these compositions is making two melodies sound good together. It gets even harder when there’s three or more.

Fugues of J S Bach

We can’t talk about fugues without mentioning Bach, who was the master of fugues. He wrote a collection of fugues in his Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as in other compositions (like the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor). But the work that really showed off his masterful skills in writing fugues was The Art of Fugue, in which he writes 14 different fugues and 4 canons based on one subject. It includes 4 voice fugues (4 different melodies at one time), exploring the vast amount of variations possible on one theme. By the way, when you can write something that has “The Art of…” in the title, you’re pretty good at it. But Bach was not just “pretty good”, he was the master of fugues. His preludes and fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier are so important to keyboard repertoire that most music colleges suggest playing one prelude and fugue for auditions or recitals.

Let’s listen to one of the fugues from this collection from book 2, the fugue in F minor. I played this (along with the prelude) in my senior music recital:

  • Hear the subject at 4:11, then the answer at 4:16
  • Listen for the subject at 4:25, 4:42, 4:46, 5:01, 5:15, 5:41

Next time we will listen to some fugues on themes you may know from popular culture. Stay tuned.


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