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A fugue is a type of contrapuntal composition or technique of composition for a fixed number of parts or voices (referred to as "voices," regardless of whether the work is vocal or instrumental).


In the Middle Ages, the term was widely used to denote any works in canonic style; by the Renaissance it had come to denote specifically imitative works. From the 17th century onward and still in current use, the term fugue describes what is commonly regarded as the most fully developed procedure of imitative counterpoint. In a fugue, one main theme (the subject) is imitated successively in each voice; when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete. Usually, this followed by a connecting passage (termed episode), usually developed from previously heard material; late, further "entries" of the subject (in related keys) are heard. Episodes and entries are usually alternated until the "final entry" of the subject, by which point the music has returned to the opening key (or tonic), which is often followed by closing material. In some sense, fugue is a style, rather than fixed structure, of composition, and though there are certain established practices, in writing the exposition, composers approach the style with varying degrees of freedom and individuality.

The form evolved during the 17th century from several earlier types of contrapuntal compositions (imitative ricercars, capriccios, canzonas, fantasias, etc.). Middle and late Baroque composers such as Dietrich Buxtehude (1637–1707) and Johann Pachelbel (1653–1706) contributed greatly to the development of the fugue, and the form reached ultimate maturity in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). With the decline of sophisticated contrapuntal styles at the end of the baroque period, the fugue's popularity as a compositional style waned, eventually giving way to Sonata form. Nevertheless, composers from the 1750s to the present day continue to write and study fugue for various purposes; they appear in the works of Mozart (e.g. Kyrie Eleison of the Requiem in D minor) and Beethoven (e.g. the finale of the Missa Solemnis), and many composers such as Anton Reicha (1770–1836) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975)) wrote cycles of fugues.

The English term fugue originates in the 16th century and is derived from either the French or Italian fuga, which in turn comes from Latin, also fuga, which is itself related to both fugere (‘to flee’) and fugare, (‘to chase’). The adjectival form is fugal. Variants include fughetta (literally, 'a small fugue') and fugato (a passage in fugal style within another work that is not a fugue).


Modern Innovations

Resources on Young Composers

  • J. Lee Graham, a former Young Composers staff member, has written an excellent tutorial on the writing of fugues. It can be found here: A Crash-Course In Writing Fugues

External links

Musical Forms
Polyphonic forms CanonCanzonaInventionFugueOrganumRicercarRoundSinfornia
Sectional forms Strophic formChain formBinary formTernary formRondo formArch formRitornello form
Cyclical forms BalletConcertoMassOratorioOperaRequiemSonataSong cycleSuiteSymphony
composed forms
BagatelleFantasiaEtudeImpromptuPreludeRhapsodySymphonic poem
Dance forms AllemandeBalladBoleroContradanceEstampieJigPolkaWaltz

French: CouranteGigueMinuetSarabande

Italian: BarcarolleSaltarelloTarantella

Polish: MazurkaPolonaise