What is a fugue?

Eight Little Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach
Eight Little Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach

Recently, as I sat down at the organ to practice, my oldest sister, Renee, called. I decided to keep playing while on the phone. Renee asked me what I was playing. I was practicing the “Prelude and Fugue in F Major” (BWV 556)  which is credited to J.S. Bach. Specifically, I was working on the last few measures of the fugue. She asked what a fugue is.

Renee was aware of the non musical definition of fugue. The Merriam Webster dictionary provides definitions of both the musical and non musical fugue. Wikipedia gives an extensive overview of the musical fugue. But, it’s hard to discern the meaning from these sources without looking up additional words, such as contrapuntal. There is also a simpler explanation on Wikipedia that is much easier for a novice, like me, to follow. You see, it is possible to learn a piece without understanding the structure. We will keep our definition simple!

 What is a fugue?

A fugue is a piece of music written for more than one voice (part or instrument). The initial voice states a theme and then each additional voice imitates the theme. The music progresses with different sections which may or may not repeat the theme. At the end of the theme is usually repeated by one (or perhaps all) of the voices.

I will describe the fugue of the “Prelude and Fugue in F Major”. I am also working on the prelude, but today’s topic is fugue! In the beginning the theme is presented in the left hand. Then the right hand joins next and restates the theme. Finally, the pedal is added also imitating the initial theme. After the introduction of all voices, the theme may be repeated again alternating between voices and perhaps played in different keys. Then the fugue will end with one or more voices restating the theme.

In the video below of “Prelude and Fugue in F Major” (BWV 556) the fugue starts at 1:28 (the prelude is first!).

Can you hear the different voices as they enter?
Vincent Dubois Concert at Hill Auditorium
It's not any harder to play it right - November 2013 Lesson
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Heidi Bender writes about her experiences of learning to play the organ. She started on the adventure in 2009.

She also writes on her website Tons of Thanks, which helps people write thank-you notes. Heidi is also a cat lady who writes at The Joy of Cats.

8 thoughts on “What is a fugue?”

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  1. There is so much about music to know. It seems overwhelming at times how complicated it all is. I am sure that is what helps make is so beautiful too. The complexity of it as well as how simple it can be too.

  2. The music was very nice. So this is one of the pieces you are practicing.
    When you are ready I will come and listen as you play. I could tell when the different parts came in too.
    I am amazed at all you have learned since you began organ lessons.

  3. YES!!!! I could hear each part as it entered…..wow, that was beautiful to listen to. The organ is the most beautiful of all instruments, I think….the sound is awesome, but it sure does look complicated. I give you so much credit for this undertaking of yours….when you play at Carnegie Hall, I’ll get to go and say, “I know her.” Is Cannon in C a fugue? I know what “theme” means in music and how it repeats itself and I do listen for it and Canon in C seems to have a recurring theme.


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