On Fugue

The word Fugue (Fuga) is ancient. It is to be found in the old composers' works; but they did not apply it in the same sense as it is used nowadays. They called it by this name, counterpoints in imitation, whereof the cantilenas of plain-song furnished the themes, and in which canons are occasionally to be met with. In the present day, the name of fugue has been given to a developed and regular composition, unknown to ancient composers, and which, indeed, could not be known to them, since their tonal system did not assort with what we call tonal fugue - as will be seen farther on. 1)

Fugue, notwithstanding its ancient origin of the word, is, then, and invention of modern times, which has been introduced into church-music only since emancipation from the self-imposed restraint of contrapuntists to write always upon Plain-Song.

Such as it exists at the present time, Fugue is the perfection of counterpoint. It should comprise, not only all the resources supplied by the study of the different kinds of counterpoint, but many other devices besides, proper to itself, of which there will be occasion to speak hereafter.

Fugue may be considered as the transition between the system of strict counterpoint and that of free composition; accordingly, the pupil is here warned that in the examples of Fugue now to be given, he will meet with many chords not hitherto employed.

All that a good composer ought to know, may be introduced into fugue; it is the type of all pieces of music, that is to say, whatever the piece composed - so that it be well conceived, regular, and conducted with good intention - it should, without hearing precisely the character and form of a fugue, at least possess its spirit.

There are two principal kinds of fugue, from which springs a third; and again out of this latter are generated all the rest. The two principals are tonal fugue and real fugue. The third is fugue of imitation. All the others - offspring of caprice - are irregular fugues of imitation, or pieces in fugal style.

The indispensable conditions of fugue are:

  • the Subject
  • the Response
  • the Counter-subject
  • and the Stretto

There may be added to these conditions that of the pedal, which is almost always employed in a fugue of any extent.

All the devices that can be introduced into a fugue depend upon the knowledge, the skill, and the judgment of the composer; and, at the same time, upon the nature of the Subject and of the Counter-Subject which may offer more or less scope for these devices. These said devices consist, firstly, in the employment of imitations, formed by detaching portions either of the Subject, or of the Counter-Subject; secondly, in the transposition of the subject into different keys, and in the advantage which may be derived with respect to this from double counterpoints; thirdly, in the inversion of the Subject by contrary movement; fourthly, in a new Subject that may be introduced, which may be combined with the first Subject, and the first Counter-Subject; fifthly, in the manner of combining the Stretto in several ways, each time more and more closely approaching the Response to the Subject; sixthly, in the means that may be employed to let the Subject be heard simultaneously with its inversion by contrary movement; seventhly (and lastly), in the method of combining the Subject, the Counter-Subject, the Stretto upon the pedal, and in the skill and taste with which these devices are interwoven and brought in throughout the extent of a fugue.

All these combinations may be employed, and still more, in a study-fugue; but there should be a judicious selection of them, in a fugue intended for the public. Without this precaution, it would be too long, and consequently tedious.

And now follows the explanation of each of these denominations above-mentioned.

On Subject

The subject, or theme of the fugue, should neither be too long nor too short; its dimensions should be such as that it shall be easily retained in the memory, and that the ear shall readily seize upon and recognize it in the different parts and different keys where the author causes it to occur.

Here is the example of a subject of proper dimension:

The subject being conceived, the entire fugue should - so to speak - be comprised in its extent, and in that of the Counter-Subject which serves as its auxiliary.

The Subject may also be called Proposition, Antecedent or Guide; and the parts which succeed it may be called Responses, Answers, or Consequents.

The composer is at liberty to choose whichever part he pleases, wherein to propose his subject. The ancient composers, however, were accustomed to observe the following method: When a subject commenced with the octave of the Tonic, and then descended upon the Dominant, they took the highest part in which to propose it, in order that the response which was to descend from the Dominant to the Tonic might be made by a lower part.

On the other hand, when the subject commenced by the Tonic, and then ascended towards the Dominant, they chose, for the same reason, the lowest part for proposing the subject, in order that the response, which from the Dominant was to ascend to the Octave of the Tonic, should be made by a higher part.

The method of the ancient composers, just shown, is not of indispensable observance; it is simply a rational and judicious plan, well suited to the distribution of the parts in reference to the nature of the subject.

This plan need only be carried out with respect to Tonal Fugue, as will be seen when this kind of fugue comes to be discussed.

On Response

The Response, Answer, or Consequent, immediately follows the subject; it should be in all respects similar to this latter, but in another key. It will be explained, farther on, in what key, or at what interval from the subject it should be, when the different kinds of fugue are discussed. It may be said, that the Response decides the particular kind and nature of the fugue.

See what is said on this point by Padre Martini, in his treatise on Counterpoint.
  • cherubini_counterpoint_and_fugue/on_fugue/on_subject.txt
  • Last modified: 2018/08/10 23:09
  • by brian