Can anyone explain what a "fugue" is, in simple words?

After listening several times to Little Fugue in G minor by J. S. Bach, it seems that same "subject" is playing from start after an interval of time with a different instrument. But after listening to Toccata and Fugue in D minor, I am a bit confused and I believe fugue is not as simple as I thought.

So can anyone please explain fugue and explain its presence in these two contexts?

  • highly related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/25364/… – Dom Jan 23 '18 at 23:33
  • fugue is not as simple as I thought The fugue is by no means simple. In fact, many consider it to be the ultimate challenge for a composer (also for performers). For that reason although it is a very old form, dating back at least to the Baroque period, it remains a popular form for modern composers, for example. Ludus Tonalis-by Paul Hindemith : ...In between, there are twelve three-part fugues separated by eleven interludes, beginning in the tonality of the previous fugue and ending in the tonality of the next fugue . – Stinkfoot Jan 25 '18 at 0:12

(Note that Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" is two separate sections; if you're looking for fugal writing in the toccata portion, you'll have some trouble!)

Fugue is a type of polyphonic contrapuntal writing (the noun is "counterpoint," and "polyphonic" means "many voices"). "Counterpoint" basically just means the relationship among written notes; it stems from the Latin punctum contra punctum, or "note against note." (The connection is more obvious in the German Kontrapunkt.)

Fugues begin with an exposition where the subject (and possibly countersubject) are introduced in each voice. Once all voices have entered with the subject, the fugue enters into one or more episodes where they develop thematic material, move through extra keys, and so on.

Types of development include elongating the (counter)subject, shortening it, flipping it upside down, playing it backwards, using only a section of it, playing it in multiple voices at the same time (but slightly staggered), some combination of all of these, etc.

There's a famous statement that "fugue is not a form, it's a process." This is because the possibilities are really limitless in terms of keys visited, types of development employed, etc. Fugues can be remarkably different, which is why it can be so difficult to explain a fugue in one sentence.

Dom's answer here is really terrific and should definitely be consulted.

And, if you're interested, check out what I think is the single most impressive example of fugal writing of all time.

Lastly, two tongue-in-cheek references:

  • There is a piece, Bach, I think, that states a phrase, which is copied in the next bar, with another , then that second phrase goes into the next bar, and so on, like a game of tag. Seem to remember it as an ultimate fugue, but have searched and failed. Help!! – Tim Jan 24 '18 at 10:25
  • @Tim Definitely sounds like Bach! Is it maybe the famous crab canon? – Richard Jan 24 '18 at 15:33
  • Sorry, that's not it. But that's so famous I've not come across it till now! Far too clever! Thanks, though. – Tim Jan 24 '18 at 15:45
  • fugue is not a form, it's a process - Excellent! Source? – Stinkfoot Jan 25 '18 at 0:03
  • 1
    @Stinkfoot I first read it in Harold Owen's book, but he doesn't give a source, he just says that it's an oft-repeated phrase. – Richard Jan 25 '18 at 18:52

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