“Little” Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

So at last we arrive at the fugue, admittedly one of the more complicated forms of music out there. I mean, a fugue is basically 2-4 voices, each doing different things but playing all at once. That just sounds exhausting for the ears of the listener. That’s why I am going to try to ease you into the concept with this “little” fugue. I picked it for a couple of reasons. First, it is a very simple fugue, following pretty much every rule about how they should be written. There’s no funny business in this one. I won’t have to tell you, “I know Bach made a rule to never do A here and do B instead, but Bach did A here just to confuse you.” Second, it really is a cute little fugue. It’s simple, to the point, and very short.

Who’s a cute little fugue? You are! Yes, you are!

I am going to try to make this as painless as possible, but I do have to explain what the heck is going on. So, fugues are basically made up of three different sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. Lots of big words, but they boil down to pretty easy concepts.

Exposition: To expose something is to reveal it. So, the exposition of a fugue is the section where the composer reveals the themes. The exposition is the most structured part of the fugue with very strict rules.Every fugue starts with the introduction of the theme or subject, which is what the entire piece is based on. The second voice comes in next, echoing that theme while the first voice performs the second theme or countersubject. It is written specifically to go with the subject. Then, following suit come the third and finally the fourth voices. During this time, the first and second voices get a little more freedom to play, as long as they sound good with the subject and countersubject, of course.

I built a handy dandy little chart to help you understand what the heck I am talking about.

Fugue Exposition

And it’s color coded!

The soprano starts on a G (because, after all, this is a fugue in G). The altos come in next, and they enter on the V of G. Whoops. Did I lose you? Okay, let me break this down: G-A-B-C-D=1-2-3-4-5. It is widely accepted that the 1 and 5 sound really good together, so this is done a lot. Of course, things can’t be quite that simple in classical music, so we use Roman numerals instead of numbers. In this music, the G is I and the D is V. And yes, I do realize that it is weird that the letters only go up to G. I don’t know who voted on that years ago, but they are crazy. That’s just the way it is. It is common knowledge that musicians only know the first seven letters of the alphabet. 😛

Development: After the exposition comes the development. It is my favorite part of a fugue because it is the part that allows the composer the most freedom. This is where you hear fun, interesting way to twist and bend the subject and countersubject. Bach was an expert at finding amazing ways to develop his themes, such as writing them upside down.

Look at me, Mom! I’m composing!

No, no, no. The MUSIC was upside down, you silly people. Although Bach might have composed like that. Maybe that’s what made him such a genius. Anyway, the development section gives the composer a lot of opportunity for self expression. Composers utilize key changes (changing home base), rhythmic variation, changing the texture (like having the alto quiet to make the tenor line sound really strong), and lots of other devices. I know, it sounds kind of boring, but some interesting stuff happens in there. Trust me.

Recapitulation: Wow, that’s a big word. Stupid fancy words that mean something simple… The recapitulation is a return to the beginning. It means that we go back to the basics that we heard during the exposition. We are in the same key, and the parts are playing the same notes we heard at the beginning. Remember, recap is short for recapitulation. A recap on a TV show is when they replay what happened before. A music recapitulation is when we rehear what we heard before.

So, I was trying to figure out how I could explain fugues to you all if you don’t have the music in front of you, so I decided that you all needed a basic fugue that would allow you to read along. Ah! Inspiration! I’ve written tons of music in my time as a student, and some of it is pretty darn good, if I say so myself. About three years ago, I was asked to compose a fugue for a final project in music theory. I thought maybe I could use that to help explain a fugue as you see it happening. Hopefully, you all will like it.

Now, go back to that first video. Listen to it again. Can you separate out the parts? Can you tell when the exposition turns into the development? Can you hear key changes? Not to worry. If you can’t figure all of that stuff out right away, you are in good company. It takes us music majors years to get all of this stuff under our belts.

Mass for Pope Marcellus by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina


Have you ever wondered what heaven might sound like? I think it’s filled with the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance. No matter what your religious background, it’s hard to argue with the pure beauty of this music. The line between classical music and sacred music is historically very thin, and during the Early Music period, it was pretty much nonexistent. This is because churches were willing to pay BIG BUCKS for gorgeous music, and frankly, most people back then didn’t realize that it was even possible to have art without religion. Many of the great composers of history, from every time period, wrote works to be performed during the Catholic mass, including Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvorak, just to name a few.

The Catholic Mass is made up of five movements (or sections): Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. (Sometimes the Sanctus et Benedictus is split into two separate movements.) Some masses have added movements depending on the occasion, but these five make up the “meat” of the mass, if you will. The movement I have included for this entry is the first half of the Agnus Dei from the Mass for Pope Marcellus. When trying to get a first impression of a mass, it is often best to start with the final movement, the Agnus Dei, as it will usually cite sections from the previous movements. It also has very simple text, so how a composer sets it will tell you a lot about their particular style.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

This music has a whole lot of meat in it, and I could spout a quite a few musical terms at you to explain it. I’m going to do my best to keep the music jargon to a minimum. The fancy words don’t make it any easier to understand how lovely this music is, but a few of them might help you to explain it to someone else (and possibly even seem like you know what you are talking about when speaking to music professors). So here we go:

Melisma- This is what we call it when you sing a whole lot of notes for just one syllable. Most music today has a very clear-cut rule that one note= one syllable. In fact, Julie Andrews TOLD us that!

At about 3:05, Julie tells us in no uncertain terms that each word (or syllable) gets just ONE note. Wait, so Freulein Maria LIED to us?! Now don’t be too quick to judge her- that’s usually a golden rule, and probably over 80% of music is written this way. But even today, we can find melismas in popular music. Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder, they are all masters of melisma.

Polyphony- As if the melisma didn’t make this piece incomprehensible enough, there is the added element of polyphony. That’s where more than one melody is happening at the same time. In this case, it is FOUR different melodies all happening at the same time, weaving in and out of harmony with one another. The phrases start and stop at different points, meaning the words almost never match up among the different voices. This gives the piece an ethereal, ephemeral feel, perfect for the high, echoing domes of grand cathedrals.

There was just one problem. The bishops weren’t quite sure they wanted his music there. During the 1560’s, the Council of Trent convened, and they made a lot of decisions pertaining to faith, the church, and the arts. One of the items up for discussion was the increasing amount of melisma and polyphony in sacred music. The problem? The music became more important than the words. To the church, that was a big no no. During this period, music was not a tool for self expression; its sole purpose was to praise God. Muddled words meant that listeners might forget the important messages and prayers in the text of the mass.

Supposedly, it was the music of Palestrina and this mass in particular, which changed the mind of the Council of Trent. They found his music to be so beautiful that it must certainly be a gift to God. There is, technically, no evidence to back up this widely-held belief. In fact, there may be no tie between Palestrina and the Council of Trent. It is possible that this story, much like that of George Washington and the cherry tree, was made up to prove a point. Palestrina’s music WAS beautiful, and it DID elevate the art form of sacred music. With Palestrina paving the way, and with sacred music allowed to blossom and flourish despite the incomprehensible text, Early Music would soon evolve into the high art of the Baroque period.