Room 64--Am I losing my mind, or is this a fugue?

There are two types of things known as a fugue. The word comes from the word “fugare,” which means “to escape.”

The psychological type of fugue can be described as a dissociative memory disorder, which is characterized by an interruption of, or dissociation from, fundamental aspects of one’s everyday life, such as personal identity and personal history. During the fugue state - which can last several hours or a few months - an individual forgets who they are and takes leave of his or her usual physical surroundings. In a minority of cases, the individual can assume a new identity. Often, the fugue state remains undiagnosed until the individual has emerged from it and can recall their real identity. Upon emerging from the fugue state, the individual is usually surprised to find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.

OK, now that you are thoroughly confused, we’ll turn to the musical type of fugue. That is a contrapuntal composition which was popularized during the 17th century. J.S. Bach was perhaps the greatest purveyor of the fugue, and his last and some say, his greatest composition was called The Art of the Fugue. For simpler types of musical fugues, look at the collection of keyboard works titled Das Wohltemperirte Clavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), which is a collection of 48 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys.

The fugue is generally for three or four instrumental lines all of which play the same melody often in varying but related keys. The primary melody is known as the subject. Sometimes there is a related “countersubject,” which helps to provide other material to the composer.

One of Bach’s greatest works for pipe organ is the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue. If you can’t remember the St. Anne melody or you’ve never heard it before, go back to this link on the first floor, which will familiarize you with the melody.

Bach’s “St. Anne” piece is very special because the fugue is a triple fugue, meaning that there are three subjects that are explored. Twentieth century composer Arnold Schoenberg created an orchestral version of Bach’s work. Here is how the first subject sounds.Listen!

Bach’s second fugue is more of a running figure as you will hear.


The third subject is more like a fanfare and is quite suited to Schoenberg’s choice of brass instruments.


British composer Benjamin Britten went way overboard when he created a fugue for string orchestra that has 18 (!) separate parts. Check this baby out!

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