A section of a fugue where the subject is absent.
All fugues begin with the subject stated in turn by all voices (the exposition). The remainder of the fugue alternates between subject entries and subject-free episodes. Some fugues have no episodes meaning that the subject is always present in at least one of the voices (e.g. Book 1, No. 1, C-major). Other fugues are dominated by the episodes (e.g. Book 2, No. 1, C-major). Most fugues have at least one episode. It is generally fundamental to the musical experience of fugue that the subject disappears and later reappears in a recurring sequence of departure and arrival. Repetition and contrast are the chief vehicles of all musical coherence.
Here is example of a 3-voice fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 14 in F sharp minor. Episodes are the yellow regions labeled with an 'E':
There are no rules governing the material used in an episode; it is left to the artistry of the composer. Often, episodes are based on motives from the subject or countersubjects. Sometimes, an episode may presage important material to come such as a second subject in a double fugue. Episodes frequently provide tonal transitions for the subject to appear in a new mode or key. In a fugue with multiple episodes, an episode is typically related to others creating another mechanism for relationship, contrast or development.
Not all subject-free passages are episodes. See coda and codetta.
Credit goes to Siglind Bruhn for her excellent diagrams.
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