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I know what a fugue is. I also have been reading up on the form of the fugue and how to write in counterpoint. I wrote a canon and I have written a sonatina using sonata form. So theoretically a fugue shouldn't be all that much harder to write, especially with the free counterpoint that makes up the majority of the fugue.

But I am having trouble starting the fugue. Here is what I have thought out so far:

Key: C minor

Basic harmony of the subject

Starting voice: Soprano

Instrument: Piano

Widest interval without arpeggios: Octave

Tempo: Moderato(more specifically, M.M 110)

Time signature: 4/4(at least for now, I might change it later on)

Countersubject?: Yes

Number of voices: 4

Order of entry: SATB

And I have this so far for the subject:

G, F, Eb, D, Eb, D, C, Bb, C, Rest

1, 2, 3 4, 1, +, 2, +, 3, +, 4

2 measures, that's it. I have heard that if you don't have a long enough subject, you won't have the implied harmony you want in a fugue exposition.

So I looked at diagrams of Bach's fugues to see what the length of the subject is. Turns out, it is usually at least 3 measures long for his WTC fugues. I don't know how long it is for his other fugues though such as the fugue section of Tocatta and Fugue in D minor. But there is only 1 fugue I know of that has a 2 measure long subject. That would be Fugue in C minor WTC book 1, a fugue I am currently leaning along with the prelude(which is full of 16th notes, the prelude is).

Also, I don't know what to do out of 4 possible answers for the subject. Here they are:

  • Real answer without any harmonic minor

  • Real answer with harmonic minor

  • Tonal answer without harmonic minor

  • Tonal answer with harmonic minor

    I know the key will determine whether to use a real or tonal answer but I don't know how it does that. I will listen to more fugues by Bach to try to figure out how he develops his relatively short subject into a full fugue.

But will 2 measures be sufficient for a fugue subject or should I expand my subject to something more like 5 or 7 measures? I mean the longer the subject, the more I can develop the subject and thus the more episodes I can have in a fugue. But too long and you have something more along the lines of a sonata in fugue form.

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    I think the subjects of the fugues in BWV997, BWV998, and BWV1000 (all for the guitar / lute) are all 2 to 3 measures long (but my analytical fugue skills are quite shaky). So it seems 2 is enough for Bach, but, well, he was Bach. – Willem van Rumpt Aug 22 '18 at 5:04
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    The subjects of Bach's Inventions are often 1 bar long (or even less). – Dekkadeci Aug 22 '18 at 5:42
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    If a fugue's subject is only just as long as it can be, you won't be able to use it in stretto. (Stretto's not something we expect in an Invention, so the lack of it is no great loss.) – Rosie F Aug 22 '18 at 6:17
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    It depends. The longest fugue subject I know of is in one of Sorabji's Organ Symphonies, and its duration is more than one minute. (If doesn't make sense to count bars, because the piece doesn't have a time signature, and the bar lines are irregular and usually 20 or 30 beats apart.) But the entire fugue lasts more than two hours (and in total has about 6 subjects, and is in up to 8 parts!!) so a one-minute subject isn't ridiculously out of proportion to everything else! – user19146 Aug 22 '18 at 7:44
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    "So theoretically a fugue shouldn't be all that much harder to write" - you might want to revise that opinion, after you have tried writing one ;) – user19146 Aug 22 '18 at 7:47
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I think you are overthinking it. Why not experiment??

You already know all the rules to compose a fugue, so, get it done. You can't know for sure if it's too short or not until you try to make a fugue out of it. As you said, Bach himself has fugues with only 2-measure subjects, only 3, and also many more with 4, 5, 6 or whatever. You choose.

About the possible answers, same thing. Try them and decide what you like the most, there is no possible way someone could give a fact-based answer to this question.

All you can do is listen to a bunch of fugues, as you said, and then make all those decisions by yourself. Remember the most important it how it sounds, so try not to make decisions prematurely. (For example, how can you possibly know that M.M 110 sounds better than M.M 100 or 120 if you didn't even compose the song yet??)

So, is a 2-measure subject too short? You can't find out before you try! Real answer or tonal answer? Try both of them and choose what's best! You can compose infinite fugues, if you don't like this one very much, just compose another, you can even use the same subject and good ideas you came up with. Just don't be reluctant to start!


Now, if you would like a little opinion, I personally think it might be too short, but this only means you will have a harder time keeping the breath, because all your voices will be presented really fast (your subject has ~4s), so say you introduce them all in 16-20s, you will have to do something else for the next 90% or the song (or as long as you want, no problem with 1-1,5 minute fugue). And, as you said, it's harder to develop a short subject, so maybe this is meant to be a short fugue. Remember Bach's fugue in C minor's tempo is practically half as fast as yours, so his subject has ~8s, and when he is done introducing all 3 voices, 32s have gone by (you did 4 voices in maybe half the time). Also, his subject has 20 notes and yours has 9, so his is much easier to develop into a 3 minute fugue, despite also being 2 measures long.

  • "so say you introduce them all in 16-20s, you will have to do something else for the next 90% or the song " - why is that a problem? Sorry to bring up Bach yet again, but in the D major fugue from WTC 2 the first 4 notes of the subject occur about 90 times in the whole fugue - and it doesn't sound like "boring repetition" either. – user19146 Aug 22 '18 at 22:24
  • @alephzero No problem, it was just to illustrate that it would be harder with a short subject, but not impossible at all. – coconochao Aug 23 '18 at 12:58
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Absolutely. 2 bars is enough for a fugue subject. You might even say it's a 'happy medium' for subject length.

In addition to The Well Tempered Clavier take a look at:

Both have some similarities with The Well Tempered Clavier, they are collections of fugues moving systematically through various keys/modes.

Fischer's set is the smallest of these works with both short overall fugue length and short subjects. Pachelbel's set is sort of in the middle with fugues roughly twice as big as Fischer's, and then the WTC is the grandest.

Fischer's collection includes 20 fugues and I counted 11 where the subject is only 1 bar long. Some are even less than 1 bar and exhibit stretto right at the opening. For example...

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