So, I have always been kind of on and off about writing fugues. Bach keeps encouraging me to write a fugue and when I am in fugue mode, Bach is all I listen to. After all, who better to learn from than the master of the fugue himself?

But I find it very hard to write a fugue. I have gotten slightly better but I'm still doing like a ton of harmonic planning before I actually write the melody. In general this is what happens:

  1. I choose a random key to write my fugue in.

  2. I write the subject on the fly, making sure that it goes no longer than 10 bars or so, otherwise it will sound like a sonata theme.

  3. I look at the harmony that is implied and start writing the countersubject in iterations, each one getting a little more melodic and less harmonic. Like in 1 iteration I might have just consonances but in the next iteration, I might speed the rhythm up a little and add dissonances. This makes it more melodic which is what I aim for. But I start with good old quarter notes and the roots of 3 triads.

  4. I check to make sure all notes are within my playing range(so any 10ths I end up getting, I will usually change to a 9th that leads to an octave. Sometimes though I will change it to a third by doing an octave leap).

  5. If I hear a tritone, I try to substitute it for a second or a seventh. Easier to know where to resolve it whereas a tritone can resolve up to a fifth, or resolve to a third along with probably several other resolutions so it is harmonically ambiguous whereas seconds and sevenths aren't.

  6. I check for parallel fifths and octaves and correct them. Same for direct fifths and octaves.

  7. I get overwhelmed when I start doing free counterpoint because the melody could go in millions of different directions and I would end up with a viable fugue for most of these melodic directions. Pretty much the only way I limit myself is via planned modulations and the rules of counterpoint and this leads to me feeling like I am solving a 20 variable system of equations. Fugue writing feels so much like algebra except for the fact that there aren't just a few viable fugues like there are algebraic solutions, there are millions for any given subject and countersubject.

Fugue vs Sonata

But anyway, yeah, I find fugue writing to be hard, even after lots of study unlike how I only needed a little bit of music theory and musical form study to compose a sonata. I can go with the flow with a sonata. I feel like I can't with a fugue because there are quite a few limiting rules and if I'm trying to write in the style of Bach, I have to break the rules very little if at all.

Sonatas and fugues are on the opposite end of the spectrum for me in terms of difficulty and how long it takes to compose. Sonatas are easy and I can compose one in just a month. Fugues are hard and for me, they are in 1+ year territory along with symphonies and concertos, partly because I reach composer's block so much with fugues and listening to Bach doesn't help me much with that unlike how if I listen to Mozart, I can go from "I don't know how to do this development section" to "I know exactly how I am going to compose the development section" within just a few days. Composer's block for me with fugues lasts for up to several months.

Countersubject approach

Here is my general approach to writing a countersubject(which is what I'm asking about)

  1. Start with the roots of the I, IV, and V of the key the countersubject is in, keeping it all in quarter notes

  2. A bit more flexibility but still staying exclusively within the 3 triads.

  3. More flexibility yet again, rhythmic freedom but keeping everything consonant

  4. Introducing dissonances, faster notes around the dissonances.

Each step is more melodic than the previous step and once I've reached dissonances, I feel like that is the most melodic it will get. The corrections come after this fourth iteration where I introduce dissonances. Thing is, I almost treat a minor sixth as dissonant(So I move either to a major sixth or to a fifth). It just naturally gives me that dissonant sound, almost like I am playing an augmented chord, even though strictly speaking, it is consonant. Only if there is a minor third between the lower note and the middle note do I perceive a minor sixth as consonant. Otherwise I treat it the same way I would a fourth or a tritone.

Do you think my strategy of doing these 4 iterations is a good strategy for writing a countersubject and thus all the melodies that come after it? Do you think this more harmonic to more melodic strategy could be improved on? If so, how could it be improved on

  • If it works for you, it’s a good strategy for you. Everyone has to develop their own process. – Todd Wilcox Dec 31 '18 at 6:59
  • have you considered using canon or various permutations (reverse, inversion, etc) of the melody? – thrig Dec 31 '18 at 18:13
  • Yes, I have considered that for development of the subject but I have never considered using the retrograde or inversion of the subject as a countersubject. – Caters Dec 31 '18 at 18:29