The Fugue and Canon

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in...Image via Wikipedia(Text Large for classroom projection)

Textbook recommendation: Roger Kamien Music: an Appreciation



The Fugue was a major development in polyphony during the Baroque era. Other types of polyphonic forms were used, like the canon (ex. Pachelbel Canon in D). A Prelude often preceded a fugue (ex.)

In the fugue, the main theme typically comes in a single voice. This first appearance is called the subject of the fugue. (Sound example). After the subject is presented in the first voice, it is manipulated a number of ways by the composer. It does not necessarily have to return the same way.

After the subject is introduced, a second voice will echo the subject (called an answer), but in the dominant. Sometimes a countersubject (a melody unrelated to the first subject) will play at the same time as the subject. It counters the initial subject like a good fencer would in a match. They intertwine with each other.

At the same time, the composer must make sure that his or her lines of polyphony do not create too much dissonance, and that they follow a specific chord structure, usually some variation of I-V-I.

Transitions in a fugue are called "episodes". An episode gets you from point A to point B in the fugue, but is not part of the subject, countersubject, and repetition of the other musical lines.

A composer manipulates a subject several ways:

(Examples on the Board)

Both Handel and Bach wrote hundreds of fugues and preludes. Learning how to write canons and complicated fugues are a part of every composer's training, although the form in its purest state is generally dead.
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