A polyphonic composition featuring imitative counterpoint based on one or more central and recurrent themes known as subjects.
The subject is introduced by a single voice (or instrument) at the beginning of the fugue, then reiterated by each of the voices in turn throughout the fugue in a myriad of combinations and transformations. In this sense, the voices imitate each other much like they do in the more familiar round or canon (e.g. "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"). When a voice is active but not stating the subject, it runs against or counter to the other voices using a wide range of possible material often assuming as much importance as the subject itself. For some portion of the fugue, the subject may be absent (episode). Some fugues feature multiple subjects (e.g. double fugue). The art of fugal composition is based on a general set of rules and common techniques including the complexities of counterpoint itself. While a fugue is a kind of counterpoint, not all counterpoint is a fugue. Composing a coherent and satisfying fugue is a high art.
Because of a basic formal organization common to most fugues, a fugue is often considered a form. But it is a very loose form that leads to a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Common rules require certain features (for example, a clear exposition) but not necessarily the overall layout or development of the composition. If there is any distinctive aspect of its form, it is generally its continuous, unarticulated nature, lacking repeats or strong sectional landmarks common to other song and movement forms. Nonetheless, fugue is better regarded as an aspect of texture, a process or a procedure. Even so, a fugue is a class, kind or type of musical composition, and the word fugue is often part of the composition's title (much like the word "symphony"). In this sense, fugue can be considered a musical genre. Most often, a fugue in joined with a prelude establishing a two-movement entity.
The fugue has a very old and continuous history in Western music going back to the Renaissance. Though it is most commonly associated with Baroque era and the masterpieces of Johann Sebastian Bach, the fugue has remained active in Western art music ever since (e.g. in the music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovich, Hindemith, etc.). Though not complete and independent fugues, many classical compositions feature a section with the texture and drama of a fugue known as fugato. A vivid grasp of the fugue is essential for deeply appreciating many of the great masterworks since 1600.
The greatest and most accessible examples of the fugue are undoubtedly the set of 48 written by Bach and published in two books known as The Well -Tempered Claiver.
After Bach, Beethoven is frequently considered the next great, as well as one of the absolute greatest contraputalists, specifically with regard to his fugues. For a gargantuan masterpiece fugue in the novel form and style of Beethoven, see the difficult but transcendant Grosse Fugue. Most worthy composers have expressed themselves in fugue or at least fugato with some finesse. Once you are aware of it, you will hear it far more that you would otherwise. For a modern master, consider Shostakovich.
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