I am having trouble composing a fugue. I would like someone competent in fugue writing or knowledgable about fugues to suggest resources I can consult to improve for the particular problems I am having.

Let me list what I can do so I don't get responses about the following topics: I am skilled in counterpoint. I also can construct fugue themes that sound very nice. I am also skilled at varying melodies so I can easily create similar or different melodies to give a piece variety and flair. I can also create accompaniments for typical two-part sonata form.

My problem is this: I don't know when to introduce changes or variations to the theme for fugues. Fugues involve multiple voices playing off of each other and it is this dynamic that I can't seem to nail. Bach has this amazing ability to have a four part fugue where voices move seamlessly in and out. This is the effect I want to achieve.

Summary in one sentence: I am looking for resources that can help me improve my ability to introduce new voices/parts into my work seemlessly.



2 Answers 2


The best resources I know are a pair of books by French composers, André Gedalge's "Traité de la fugue" and Charles Koechlin's "Étude sur l'écriture de la fugue d'école". This is possibly because scholastic fugue (fugue d'école) is very much part of the French Conservatoire system's curriculum, while it seems to be very uncommon in the English-speaking world, so it helps if you can read French. (If not, Google Translate doesn't cack up French to English translations too badly.)

The Gedalge book is available at IMSLP, specifically here. If you haven't already bookmarked IMSLP, do so: it's the largest repository of Public Domain music literature around. It not only has scores, but books on music and music theory in PDF form. (I'd link directly to the category indexes, but this is my first post here and I haven't got the rep points yet for lots of links.) I can pretty much guarantee you'll find other books on fugue there, in English and in other languages than French. You'll certainly find fugue scores there, and that is even more important.

The idea of fugue is pretty straightforward: it's a procedure rather than a form, really. You introduce each voice with imitative entries of the subject, usually at the tonic level and transposed to the dominant level (subject and answer), and each voice continues fairly freely after exposing its subject entry. The initial exposure of the subject in all the voices is called the exposition. You may need to make tonal adjustments to the answer to keep it from modulating away from the tonic too quickly. (The Gedalge book goes into how that's done in some detail.) The continuation of a voice after the subject may involve a countersubject that is played consistently against a subsequent entry of the subject in a different voice. (That is to say, one voice exposes the subject, then continues with the countersubject as the next voice comes in with the subject.) If you already know your invertible counterpoint, this isn't particularly tough to manage.

Between groups of subject entries (and sometimes between single entries), you have freely-written material (episodes) that may involve sequences and invertible counterpoint, and are usually based on motifs from the subject and/or countersubject and/or free material from the exposition. These episodes usually serve one of two functions: modulatory or cadential (i.e., as a kind of codetta).

Note that the bare minimum fugue involves an exposition, subsequent entries of the subject, and episodes between these. Everything else is optional, whether countersubjects, invertible counterpoint, stretti (overlapping subject entries; the singular is stretto), or multiple different subjects (double or triple fugues, etc.). Sometimes, for stretto fugues (i.e., for fugues that continuously overlap subject entries), even episodes are optional - see Bach's Fugue in C Major from WTC I for a stretto fugue that has very little in the way of episodic material.

Now, from a practical point of view, variation in the sense I think you mean doesn't enter into the writing of fugue too much: variation at the thematic level is rather rare; variation at the motivic level, quite common, but not of the subject itself (except when the variation is used to form a distinct section of the work, each varied subject in effect starting a small fugue within the piece - see J. J. Froberger's canzonas and capriccios, which can be found on IMSLP, as examples).

The biggest problems I usually see are problems of handling the composite rhythm of the voices when played together: either the voices all move in lockstep (which is really just writing in block chords), or they articulate every quaver (or semiquaver, or whatever the unit of background movement is) between them (counterpoint by Singer sewing machine, so to speak). Your voices are freely expanding melodies, so you do want some rhythmic differentiation within them and between them. If one voice is using straight quavers, for instance, arrange that the other voices are using longer and more irregular rhythmic values. This is where your counterpoint studies come into their own: all your appoggiature, suspensions and passing notes will not only allow you write the voices melodically against the implied harmonies, they will allow you to articulate the fugue rhythmically. This is no less important in a fugue than in a sonata. You want your voices' rhythms to come together to put weight on important cadences; you want enough rhythmic incompletion and momentum that the voices don't come to a complete halt at an internal cadence.

Are you finding specific problems when you try to write a fugue? When to bring a voice in with the subject?

Most of the time, when a voice drops out, it does so on a cadential melodic note, usually the tonic or dominant of the current key. When it comes back in, it usually does so with a subject entry, and, of course, the entry is going to come in when the harmony and beat can support its incipit or opening motif. Subject entries usually stand out when they are at the top or bottom of the texture. For alto or tenor entries that need to stand out, it is usually a good idea either to drop out the voices above or below that might obscure the entry, or to hold them fairly static (so that the melodic changes in the internal voice are noticeable).

If you have specific examples of problems, they're usually easier to address than trying to explain by elaborating the big picture.

  • This was a great answer. Thanks for the info. Yes I have three specific problems: (1) I don't know when to introduce new voices and (2) because of this, my variations often become uncoordinated so they don't work smoothly together and (3) I don't know the rules for modulating or variation in fugue. the previous comments actually helped a lot because prior to posting here, I didn't even know the terms answer or countersubject. Googling these gave me some useful info and I saw a mild improvement, though not enough to formulate even a solid 16 measures of fugue. Dec 22, 2014 at 3:30
  • For instance, in one of the articles i found based on earlier comments, it suggested transposing my theme by a fifth. When i did this and made some slight adjustments, i immediately heard something more fugue like in my composing. In that sense, it is very procedural as you say for there wasn't much creativity involved in that simple maneuver. I assume there are many such small rules and was hoping for a book that would have many compiled in one spot so I could try them out (perhaps those you mentioned will help. I must look at them). Dec 22, 2014 at 3:33
  • @Stan Shunpike, the Gedalge book is almost in point form. He deals with a deliberately limited form of fugue (scholastic fugue) just so that the novice can get a handle on effective techniques. For instance, he forbids subjects that modulate to other keys than the tonic or dominant so that the beginner can get a handle on dealing with tonal answers. Is it possible to write fugues with further-ranging subjects? Certainly, but it pays to start with the basics.
    – user16935
    Dec 22, 2014 at 5:53
  • I checked the first book out and it looks excellent. It covers the ideas mentioned in earlier posts quite clearly and in more detail. Thanks again. Obviously the language barrier is an issue for English speakers but I'll gladly accept good info wherever I can find it. Dec 22, 2014 at 5:54
  • Question: is Scholastic Fugue a subtype of fugue? I understand where it comes from based on your comments, but I'm confused whether the term means all fugues or a particular type of fugue. Dec 24, 2014 at 5:28

Great resource is "Counterpoint in the style of JS Bach" by Thomas Benjamin. Apart from the common fugue parameters - tonic/dominant/tonic/dominant entries to begin with.. The following are points I have picked up re: Bach. (1) As mentioned above "or they articulate every quaver...between them", you can find your shortest note (e.g., semiquavers, 8 per bar) and ensure that every single 8th part of the bar has at least ONE voice striking there. That is, between the 4 voices, all 8 points are marked. If one voice is silent or sustained, another voice will be "filling in the blanks". (2) As an example, you will often find that one voice plays Mimim-sq, sq, sq, sq; and this dovetails against another voice playing -sq, sq, sq, sq, Minim-. This gives a very nice curtsy and response feeling. (3) Importantly, again, as mentioned, the texture often thins by a voice dropping out - to give a break to the ear - but also to prepare for and accentuate the return of the voice with a new return of the theme. Think of a conversation with one guy leaving the room and returning after a while. He's going to jump in with a new restatement of the theme of the conversation... "As I was saying...". Always aim to reproduce a sort of a conversation between the voices. (4) What seems to make Bach great, in my book, is that he didnt just use simple counterpoint. If you write out the notes played together on every beat, yes, they are consonant (or dissonant treated correctly), BUT if you play these as simple chords, 4 per bar, the music still sounds good. If fact, you can often hear some things more clearly. This means that the music is not only written linearly (as with a lot of counterpoint), it is also written vertically. BOTH aspects are given great and simultaneous attention. While all voices remain very good individually, their combination is ALSO sensible as a succession of chords. That is very difficult to accomplish - Gradus ad Parnassum makes no mention of harmonic functions. Bach does, however, use a very wide repertoire of chords, not simply I, IV, V, I, rinse and repeat. So his chord movements can be quite complex. In summary, I'd recommend following scores of eg., the art of fugue, and noting where you see a nice effect and seeing if you can spot how it works. But the Thomas Benjamin book is also very useful.

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