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The Art of Fugue

Updated on June 23, 2016
The Art of Fugue
The Art of Fugue | Source

JS Bach

Portrait of JS Bach as a young man
Portrait of JS Bach as a young man | Source

The Musical Signature of Bach



In order to analyze, appreciate and comprehend the musical form called fugue, one must first know the various elements that comprise a fugue.

Every fugue has its own individual characteristic, which display a full range of human emotions. From peacefulness and tranquility to anguish and despair. JS Bach used rhythms, motives as well as melodies and harmonic movement to capture all of these human emotions. Bach used the temperaments of the different keys to establish the mood of each prelude and fugue. These same tonalities are also clearly defined in his choral works as well. Bach was acutely aware of symbolism in art and religion and used it extensively in his works and was well aware of the subtle subliminal effect it has on the listener in addition to the harmonic progressions, melodic intervals, rhythmic motives and patterns.

Bach very adept in the understanding of numerical symbolism, used numerical codes in all of his music which had a profound effect on the listener as well.

For example in the prelude in c minor from book I, for the first thirteen bars there are subtle changes. The first note of the first and third groups are the highest and the first note of the second and fourth groups go below the mordent. At bar 14 there is a change. the melodic notes are now above the mordent.

The number fourteen was a very symbolic number for Bach. It represents his name B-2, A-1, C-3, H-8 which equals fourteen. This was Bach way of identifying himself in the music. Sometimes he did this by having fourteen notes in a motive.

Although each fugue and prelude has its own characteristic based on the melody, rhythm, harmonic progression there are particular attributes that are common in all fugues. Each fugue will have one or several of these common attributes.

• subject-the main theme announced at the beginning of the fugue and recurring throughout the fugue.

• answer-the first entry of the second voice

• codetta-a short connecting passage between the subjects/answers

• countersubject-a secondary theme with which the first voice may accompany the second voice and recurs along with other subjects and answers

• exposition-first section of a fugue during which all the voices enter either with the subject or the answer

• episode-a passage between entries of the subject and answer often occurring with a modulation

• subsidiary subject-second or third subject introduced and also capable of being combined with the main subject

• inversion-turning a melody upside down so all existing intervals are replaced by similar intervals

• interchange-the displacement of two or more melodic lines so the lower part becomes an upper part or an upper part becomes becomes a lower part

• augmentation-altering the subjects rhythm so the subject is double the length of the original subject

• diminution-altering the subjects rhythm so the subject is half the length of the original subject

• stretto-overlapping of two or more entries of subject or answer

• coda-a passage bringing a conclusion to the fugue

With the advance of tempered tuning, JS Bach was able to compose in multiple keys, which previously had not been used. For the keyboard player of his day this meant one would need to develop greater dexterity and technique to perform works in these new keys with five, six, or seven sharps. JS Bach advanced to form of the Fugue to the highest level, from 'The Well Tempered Clavier' The Toccatas and Partitas and with his latest unfinished masterpiece: 'The Art of Fugue'

JS Bach Musical Signature


JS Bach Signature


JS Bach Tempered Tuning


The Music of JS Bach

Youri Egorov in a Live Performance at Carnegie Hall 1978

Alfred Brendel BWV 903 Fuga

Alfred Brendel BWV 903 Chromatic Fantasia

The Enigmatic Glenn Gould

What is your favorite piece by JS Bach ?

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    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 12 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I've been working on "The Well Tempered Clavier" half of my life. As a professional pianist and teacher these works present the challenge I need in order to polish my playing. Marvelous hub. Enjoyed the videos.

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      Many thanks, they are works of art in my opinion. I look forward to reading your hubs as well.

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image

      Music-and-Art-45 5 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Bach fugues are awesome, so glad to find someone who is interested in them. Great article.

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      greetings, many thanks for your kind words, it is an honor to share and talk about the incredible music and genius of JS Bach. i look forward to hearing your comments as well as your thoughts on this music. a lifetime is not enough to study the art of fugue and JS Bach.

    • Doodlehead profile image

      Doodlehead 5 years ago from Northern California

      I am reading this at my JOB! I will read it again when I get home! So excited to find this at Hubpages!

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      many thanks again alocsin, studying the music of JS Bach is quite fascinating. there are many spiritual aspects to his music, which require a great deal of study and research. his work in finding the tempers of all the different keys, is quite fascinating, as he researched the spiritual affects that each key has on the listener. this can be thought of as possibly the beginning of 'music therapy' which uses many of these same principles as well. thanks for reading, i too look forward to reading more of your hubs as well !

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      many thanks a.a. Zavala, it is a labor of love for me, a lifetime is not enough time to fully learn, research and appreciate the music of JS Bach. thank you very much for your kind words.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      This is one of my favorite pieces and I'm glad you explained it. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      many thanks !i look forward to reading more of your hubs as well !

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

      Completely fascinating. I love piano music, and can appreciate the detail you placed into the hub. Thank you for sharing.

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      Many thanks for your kind words ! There is so much to study about JS Bach, listen to JS Bach Fantasie and Fugue in d minor BWV 903 and you might be a fan !

    • GoGreenTips profile image

      Greg Johnson 5 years ago from Indianapolis

      Totally interesting. I'm not a big fam of classical, but it was really interesting to read about how Bach made his music and the detail and complexity of one piece. Simply amazing indeed.