In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fugue

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Theory and Terminology in Historical Context

Music Fugue
Paul Walker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0023


The word fugue (fuga in Latin, Fuge in German) has been applied to music continuously since the late Middle Ages, and so has inevitably undergone a great number of transformations in aning. In broad outline, the word has referred to, (1) in the 14th and 15th centuries, the technique that we today call canon (and thus, the Latin synonym for chace and caccia), as well as pieces based on that technique; (2) in the 16th century, the technique of pervasive imitation as found in vocal music and the imitative ricercar; (3) in the 17th century, pieces or movements (predominantly instrumental but also vocal) based on one or another manifestation of imitative counterpoint, variously designated (if instrumental) ricercar, canzona, fantasy, or fugue; 4) beginning with the era of Bach and Handel, a piece of music based on the contrapuntal handling of a theme (subject) and constructed according to certain principles about which it is possible to find unanimous agreement. The article begins with the two primary Reference Works for music, Grove Music Online for English speakers and Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart for German speakers. The section Theory and Terminology in Historical Context comprises scholarship on the etymological history of the word fugue in music and the way musicians have understood it over time. The next two sections bring together writings about how to compose a fugue (see Composition) and how to analyze one (see Analysis). The final and longest section, Fugal Composition in Historical Context, organizes writings that consider fugue as a genre in one or another historical era, including a few that attempt a broad sweep rather like that found in the two primary reference works. This final section omits source material on the earliest use of the word fugue with the meaning of “canon” and begins with fugue in Renaissance vocal music and the instrumental ricercar; additional sections discuss the 17th century, Bach, Handel, the Classic era, the 19th century, and the 20th and 21st centuries.

Reference Works

Grove Music Online and Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart are the principal music encyclopedias in English and German, respectively. Both offer a comprehensive guide to fugue. Each encyclopedia also offers articles on terminology related to fugue, such as subject answer, exposition, etc.

  • Platen, Emil. “Fuge.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Sachteil. 2d ed. Edited by Friedrich Blume. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1995.

    The territory is subdivided into four sections: 1) A general definition, 2) a technical description of fugue as a compositional technique, 3) the history of fugue, and 4) the theory of fugue. The article is concise and relatively brief.

  • Walker, Paul.“Fugue.” Grove Music Online.

    The article in Grove Music Online begins with an analysis of Bach’s C-sharp Minor Fugue from book 1 of the WTC (Well-Tempered Clavicord) as a paradigm of what a fugue is, then proceeds to examine the history of fugal composition from the earliest use of the word to designate canons in the late Middle Ages to today.

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