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The Study of Fugue

The Study of Fugue

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by Alfred Mann

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Classic study comprises two parts. The first is a comprehensive historical survey of writings on the fugue from the beginning of fugal teaching (c. 1350) to the present. Part Two explores in depth four 18th-century studies which are its classical presentations: Steps to Parnassus, J. J. Fux (1725), A Treatise on Fugue, F. W. Marpurg (1753–54),


Classic study comprises two parts. The first is a comprehensive historical survey of writings on the fugue from the beginning of fugal teaching (c. 1350) to the present. Part Two explores in depth four 18th-century studies which are its classical presentations: Steps to Parnassus, J. J. Fux (1725), A Treatise on Fugue, F. W. Marpurg (1753–54), Fundamental and Practical Essay on Fugal Counterpoint, Padre Martini (1775), A Manual of the Fundamental Principles of Composition, J. A. Albrechtsberger (1790). Translations of texts, introductions and critical commentary, and many musical examples. Index. Bibliography.

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Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1986 Alfred Mann
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ISBN: 978-0-486-17134-0


Texture Versus Form

The rise of polyphony has been recognized as the most decisive phase in the history of Occidental music. The beginnings of polyphonic art, long buried in oblivion, are today a subject of intense study. Early traces are suspected in classical antiquity and in the less familiar past of Northern countries. Yet, those beginnings were actually contained in all monophonic practice which involved the simultaneous use of different voice registers. The octave, fifth, and fourth, which mark the distances between vocal registers, have gradually emerged in musical knowledge as fundamental phenomena and thus as the basis of part writing.

The first documents of polyphonic practice and theory that have been preserved show the rule of these intervals in various styles of the medieval organum. The technique of part writing reached a considerable degree of melodic independence when contrary motion of different voices triumphed over direct and oblique motion, crystallizing in the style of the discantus the true spirit of polyphony.

Throughout the gradual process in which the elements of polyphonic practice unfolded, we can recognize the gains and setbacks characteristic of the contest between the old and the new. Each bold advance was eventually checked and followed by a consolidation of forces which made the newly won objective more clearly perceptible. The victory of the use of contrary motion was modified through the fact that this principle of part writing was at first applied to the narrow choice of perfect consonances. Connected in angular voice movements, they failed to provide early polyphony with an undisturbed melodic flow. As the tradition of essentially linear writing was restored, the actual conquest attained was the use of imperfect consonances. Although still considered "harsh to the ears," these new aids to polyphonic writing were now accepted.

A final reconciliation of the various polyphonic means was found when Western art music adopted and cultivated the technique of imitation, which had probably existed for many centuries in the improvisations of popular musicianship. The linear strength of monophony was not only regained, but it received a totally new meaning as different voices performed the same melodic line, although, through spaced entrances, they were more clearly distinguished than ever before. The older forms of polyphony had assumed their roles as components of a more complex system of part writing, serving as motus rectus, obliquus, and contrarius. Contrary motion remained the most important of the three, and the combination of the principles of contrary motion and imitation ensured a more definite balance of ascent and descent in the course of each melodic line than had been possible in monophonic music; for any ascending passage called for a descending continuation against the imitative entrance of the next part, just as any descending passage required an ascending continuation.

This technique of imitation, which became the outstanding characteristic of the Renaissance style of composition, thus proved to be the ideal combination of likeness and diversity, the strongest form of polyphony. The fifteenth-century theorist Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareja described it in his Musica practica as optimus organisandi modus–the best manner of part writing–and added, "This manner is called fuga by practicing musicians." A texture for Occidental music was found. Now began the search for its form. It is here that the study of fugue originates.

In several sources which antedate Ramos de Pareja's writing, the word fuga already appears as title or inscription to musical works. In one instance it is listed together with such forms of medieval music as the conductus and the motet. Thus from the earliest period of its use, the term fugue held the curious double meaning of texture and form or genre that has bedeviled musical theory ever since.

While the texture of music had developed an entirely new world of its own, the structure of music had followed lines well defined and prepared by the literary arts. One notable exception of an early form-giving element was the canon-in its original meaning the "precept indicating the composer's plan"; but, in general, musical form was guided by the text. The dominant position of vocal performance, naturally established in the early phases of musical history, was increased through the influence of the Church, which directed all cultural activity. It had tied medieval music to the Mot-the sacred Word-as the pre-eminence of the term motet shows. With the decline of the Middle Ages new concepts, an ars nova, lent importance to musical practice beyond the domain of the Church, and musical forms began to lean more and more on secular texts and, eventually, in the greatest event of musical secularization, on the drama modeled on classical antiquity.

Yet the departure from liturgic forms and the renaissance of drama and dramatic music in the opera only served to strengthen the influential role of the text. The search for a form constructed with purely musical means was left to music which, in the words of the English composer and theorist Thomas Morley, was "made without a ditty"-to instrumental music derived from modest idiomatic beginnings that lived on in the early toccata (overture) and in stylized dance movements. After a long apprenticeship in the subservient roles of accompanying, paraphrasing, varying, or prefacing vocal forms and dances, instrumental music gradually was raised to independent tasks. Its literature produced the new foils to vocal forms: the canzona da sonare, or song for instrumental performance; the ricercare and the tiento, works whose titles describe the "searching" and the "tentative" groping for form; and the fantasia, the capriccio, and later the inventio, pieces in which the matter of musical structure was left entirely to the fancy, caprice, or invention of the composer. The search for form continued through the music of the Baroque until the Classic era found a final solution, and it ended in the triumph of instrumental music. Just as the "cantata" departed from the musical scene, the "sonata" had found its "form."

This quest for musical structure was associated in all its phases with the term fugue, for originally or eventually this term served each of the forms mentioned. In its first meaning, it identified the canon, but it was to be used in turn for the motet and its instrumental descendants, the ricercare, tiento, and fantasia. It was applied to the core, and at times to the very essence, of the canzona, of the toccata, and of the overture (even as late as in Beethoven's Quartet Op. 133). It ruled the forms of the Baroque concerto and sonata, and eventually bequeathed the structural achievements which it had gathered during three centuries to the Classic sonata, yet retained its own life in the developmental technique, the "major element" that marked the "final decisive step" toward and beyond the Classic era.

An understanding of the course that this search for musical form followed has grown only slowly. Fifty years ago, Vincent d'Indy placed before the musical scholars assembled at the third meeting of the International Music Society the question: "Can the epoch be determined in which the decline of the admirable form of the fugue occurred–a decline leading to a mere formula void of any artistic and musical interest–and can the first source of such treatment of the fugue be ascertained?" The chairman of the meeting, Johannes Wolf, stated that a direct answer could not be given since it would require a comprehensive discussion of the history of the fugue which was not as yet available.

This suggestion led to Joseph Maria Müller–Blattau's outline history of fugue, Grundzüge einer Geschichte der Fuge (1923), a work which deals particularly with the formal and expressive aspects of fugal art. Although Müller-Blattau's careful account provides a new perspective against which d'Indy's question can be studied, it does not discuss the problem contained in the question itself. It fails to conclude that the eventful history of fugal writing never led to a definite form in the sense of a pattern, and that the very attempt to halt the evolution of fugal technique, freezing it into "the fugue," and this attempt only, represents decline and reduction to a mere formula.

A recent essay by Alberto Ghislanzoni, which follows the plan of Müller-Blattau's work, offers a solution to the problem by summarizing the ever-changing appearance of fugue in a comprehensive definition, expressed in one sentence, which is too unwieldy to serve its purpose. A more concise and successful explanation is given by Manfred Bukofzer, who declares fugue neither a form nor a texture but a contrapuntal procedure.

In answer to d'Indy's question, Müller-Blattau places the end of the fugue with Bach; but surely we cannot consider any of the fugues in Mozart's instrumental and choral works or in Beethoven's piano sonatas and string quartets as works that represent "a decline leading to a mere formula void of any artistic and musical interest." Nevertheless, a significant difference between the fugues of Bach and Beethoven is expressed in the qualifications that appear in Beethoven's fugue titles. Beethoven called the finale of his Sonata Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) fuga con alcune licenze, and his Quartet Op. 133 was published as Grande Fugue tantôt libre, tantôt recherchée– qualifications that we do not find in Bach's writing. Bach's use of the older term ricercare in his Musical Offering may be understood in the sense in which recherchée is used in Beethoven's Quartet Op. 133- as describing a highly elaborate example of fugal writing–but the fugue libre or fuga con licenze is foreign to Bach's style.

Ebenezer Prout's textbook Fugue (1891) shows in its opening sentence that the "licenses" in fugal writing had grown to incredible dimensions within a century. Prout quotes his colleagues as saying that "Bach is not a good model because he allows himself too many exceptions," and that "there is not a single correctly written fugue among Bach's 'Forty-Eight.'" With the premise of his work, namely to go "to the works of the great composers themselves," Prout draws unquestionably the right conclusion. Yet his aim to find by this method that which is "correct" shows that he is guided by a new concept, that of the "fugue without exceptions," which never existed in actual literature. Since the problems connected with this concept arise from the theory of music, not the music itself, we shall take for the present discussion a point of departure that differs from those of Müller-Blattau and Prout and direct our attention primarily to the writings of theorists–the works which represent the actual study of fugue.

Theoretical discussions, as a rule, present musical phenomena considerably later than they have appeared in practice, but their very purpose is to present them at a stage of development which permits precise formulation of rules and doctrines. A comparison of these first definitions and the changes to which they were subjected in the course of time will make it easier to determine where the study of fugue properly served to support and clarify its practice, and where it deviated from it, thereby creating an imaginary, unreal world of its own.


The Renaissance: Fugal Exposition

The Beginnings of Fugal Theory

The first known use of the term fuga in theoretical writings occurred in the Speculum musicae by Jacobus of Liège. This work, written about 1330, holds a significant place as "the last great medieval treatise on music," a final summary that opened the road to musical theory in the modern sense. Although fuga is listed here among the chief vocal forms of the time, the mention of the term remains relatively isolated. The reason for this is doubtless to be found in the fact that the imitative technique was generally associated with secular music, far removed from the domain of sacred art, with which the writing of music theorists was primarily concerned. In the course of the fourteenth century, however, the secular technique of canonic imitation gained prominence and recognition in the caccia and the rondedlus–canonic forms whose designations have come down in English usage as catch and round. And the term fuga seems to have served for either of them.

In the Latin text of Jacobus, fuga evidently stands for caccia, its Italian equivalent, since in his enumerations of musical forms it is mentioned separately from the popular round (cantilena vel rondellus). On the other hand, two generations later, fuga appeared as the title for two-and three-part rounds by the minnesinger Oswald von Wolkenstein. In the Trent Codices the term fuga is for the first time applied to both secular and sacred works: No. 62, Chasse mois, je vois devant (anonymous), and No. 911, Et in terra ad modum tubae, a portion of a Mass by Guillaume Dufay (the opening is given in Example 1). It is interesting that Dufay's fuga still contains the typical accompaniment of secular canons. The supporting ostinato fanfare (written "in trumpet style"), which foreshadows the bright orchestral Gloria settings of later periods, is similar to the pes of the famous Sumer Canon.

The fusion of imitative style and sacred music was completed by the generation after Dufay (Ockeghem and Obrecht) and clearly borne out in the tide Missa ad Fugam (Josquin des Prez and Palestrina). By what amounts to a reversal of history, imitation was to remain the characteristic of church music when secular influences threatened its traditions anew.

Whereas the term fuga served in its earliest use as a title for the accompanied canon and the round, it emerged in its first precise definition as the technique common to both: "the identity of rhythmic and melodic writing in various parts of a composition." This explanation is contained in the Diffinitorium musicae, the first musical dictionary in history, written about 1475 by the Flemish theorist Johannes Tinctoris.

Once the imitative technique was identified by the generic term fuga, it was also recognized as a means of artistic expression, for in his Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477), Tinctoris groups fuga with other devices that a composer may use in order to obtain musical variety–the final and most strongly emphasized rule in his teaching of counterpoint. Tinctoris adds that at times fuga can designate even an identity of pitch and spacing for successive entrances, giving a first suggestion of the distinction between free and strict imitation.

With Tinctoris, then, fugue is acknowledged as a principle of composition. This principle assumes a significant position in the treatise of Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareja, less than a decade after Tinctoris. Ramos is the first to recommend the choice of perfect intervals, fourth, fifth, and octave, for imitative entrances–the intervals which we have encountered as basic elements from the very beginning of polyphonic writing. He introduces the musical usage of the verb imitari and applies it to both the strict and free repetition of interval progressions. But his most important remark lies in the suggestion that free writing be introduced in the imitative style whenever consistent imitation would result in difficulty. This principle of composition leads to the concept of fugue which was to gain greatest importance in the following centuries.

The emphasis upon free use of the imitative manner may seem surprising at a time which we customarily associate with contrapuntal art of amazing and mysterious strictness. Yet it is doubtless this free, non-canonic use of imitation on which the most significant achievements of the time are founded. The importance of Flemish contrapuntal skill is easily seen out of proportion–just as the complexity of its most famous example, the thirty-six-part canon Deo Gratia by Ockeghem, is easily overrated.

The German theorist Adam von Fulda, a contemporary of Ramos, was one of the first to speak of the limited value of canonic artifices, and his opinion was followed in the account of Ockeghem's and Josquin's work given half a century later by Heinrich Glarean. The attitude which places freedom of imitative writing above strictness, expressed in theoretical discussions as early as this, was to remain typical of theoretical thought, and we shall find it again and again as the key to decisive advances in the study of fugue.


Excerpted from THE STUDY OF FUGUE by ALFRED MANN. Copyright © 1986 Alfred Mann. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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