We observe that people solve crossword puzzles the quickest and most productive way by first getting the big picture, i.e. working the entire puzzle at the same time and filling in the easiest parts first [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XVIII].
This seems to work better than by starting in one corner of the puzzle and working laboriously across to the other side one tedious square at a time, disregarding any clues the surrounding parts of the puzzle might lend.
In like manner, the quickest and most productive stance to take for solving the puzzle of writing a fugue is to adopt the same approach by working the whole score at the same time rather than starting with the 1st measure of music and finishing with the last one [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part IX].
The metaphor of comparing fugue writing to working a crossword puzzle is an entirely valid one; working the squares across is akin to developing horizontal melodic lines within a given harmonic framework; working the squares up and down is akin to the vertical harmonies created by the horizontal moving lines as they intersect each other in time.
Zooming out a little bit from there, the various "chunks" of the crossword puzzle also are akin to the various entries in the fugue; the squares in the puzzle where these chunks join with each other are akin to the material which connects the fugal entries.
The subject is the melodic statement from which the whole fugue is developed, and is therefore its most important feature; just like a seed, it contains within itself an invisible instruction on what to become.
Not every interesting melody makes a good fugue subject.
Read that again.
Every well written fugue will have a good subject; no good fugue with a poor subject was ever written, nor shall be.
A shorter subject in terms of length may present a single figure; a longer one always subdivides into members which are duplicated by sequence [See blog, Sequencing] or by repetition, either simply or with variation.
Tonally speaking, variety and contrast are desirable in a fugue; Bach preferred non-modulating subjects for a very good reason, viz., to confine the exposition to tonic/dominant keys, giving a sense of harmonic repose; any new keys he introduced after that provided the contrast which would be lost if there had already been much modulation, or change of tonality, in the subject itself; he knew very well that if the available tonal forces for variety and contrast are brought out too soon in a fugue subject they would lose their effect in later developments.
Concerning rhythm (note values), a good fugue subject could have uniform rhythm throughout, slight rhythmic changes, or several different rhythmic groupings, but the combination of outline and rhythm are what give to a melody its identity.
Rising and falling curves are found in endless variety in music, and rhythmic patterns have innumerable possibilities; with the 2 working together, the melodic interest culminates.
Therefore, IF we've got a good subject in terms of length, tonality (key), rhythm, and melodic curve -- those qualities which lend it character and make it capable of contrapuntal elaboration -- and IF we know in the exposition where the answer should follow [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XX] -- and IF we've got at least one countersubject (another moving line which, in combination with the subject, complements it tonally and rhythmically and makes a satisfying melody all by itself) -- and IF we've got a logical plan in mind for the voice combinations in the various entries ... THEN we've got a fugue.
We prepare ourselves for this by studying some of the best examples that have been left to us, beginning with the strongest fugue writer in history; the fugues from the "the 48" (Well-Tempered Clavier, Parts I and II) of J.S. Bach and all of his glorious organ fugues should be consulted; we should also get ourselves well informed in harmony, counterpoint, the rules of voice leading, the general rules of fugue writing, and especially, Pressfield's book "The War of Art" [See blog, The Book].
ALL of this is critically important.
The process of fugue writing successfully practiced by this author can be summarized in Ten Steps (photo) which, as they're carried out, may be permitted to overlap to some extent.
We need to get for ourselves a notebook PC and either download some music writing software to it (such as Sibelius) or sign up with an on line music writing application (such as Noteflight) if we haven't already, make sure we're set up to write with a blank score [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part V], click as many measures as we think we'll need, add an upper and lower voice to the upper staff, then we're ready to begin the exposition.
This is how it's done:
STEP ONE: The first move we make in writing a fugue is to invent a subject (theme) in the tonic (home) key; in general, the longer the subject is, and the more varied it may be rhythmically, the more its material can be worked later on, in the episodes.
The subject should be examined carefully with an eye for this, and for contrapuntal elaboration, including stretto (overlapping of entries before the first entry finishes).
One of the best ways to engineer a stretto into a subject is to shape it so that it follows an implied tonic-dominant harmony with every other bar (or half bar).
In other words, in the 1st bar (or half bar) we make the first few notes outline or follow a imagined tonic harmony, then in the 2nd bar (or half bar) we shape its outline to follow an imagined dominant harmony, then in the 3rd bar (or half bar) we make the notes different but able to blend harmonically with the notes in the 1st bar, then in the 4th bar we make the notes different again but able to blend harmonically with the notes in the 2nd bar, and so on.
This method leads to a possible stretto (which is nothing more than an octave canon) at a distance of one bar (or half bar).
By the time we get done with this "sculpting" of the subject, we might think the pile was scraped off the velvet of our subject, that now it's a bit drab, maybe even mundane, and might be boring for the listener to endure, but this is precisely what makes it workable.
The subject for Bach's Art of Fugue [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XIX] is short, little more than a bare outline of the tonic chord in slow notes, with a quick little tail attached; it's without color, without light, and anything but striking, but, just like the most common lump of clay, he knew that such a substance could be molded and worked in every possible contrapuntal direction; the result is an hour and 10 minutes of some of the most beautifully intricate music ever written.
Taking a page from this, composers have created some of the best fugue subjects by having its "head" begin in slower notes or maybe a dotted rhythm, then having it pick up speed with shorter note values in the middle, and the fastest notes saved for its "tail" (the last grouping of notes).
The subject is then repeated, usually in the dominant key (or, sometimes, in the tonic or subdominant), which is called the "answer" and is subject to certain "rules" with which we should be familiar before proceeding any further [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XX].
STEP TWO: is to write a contrapuntal line which sounds in harmony with the answer; when this line is reproduced against the subject and answer at many, if not all, of its subsequent appearances in the course of the fugue, it's called a countersubject.
This countersubject should move in contrary motion to the answer and in faster notes whenever the notes in the answer are slower or stationary.
When the answer and countersubject are put together, the result should be good implied harmony in mostly contrary or oblique motion and perpetual 8th note or 16th note motion.
This is crucial, to have these 2 lines well thought out, but, we sometimes have to come back later on, after we've worked an entry or two, and "tweak" (change a note or two) something in the answer or countersubject(s).
Why is this? ... there can be many reasons, one of which is that the music needs to remain within one key and not wander away from it.
One of the principle rules of harmony forbids consecutive perfect 5ths, octaves, or unisons in similar motion, but sometimes we find them cropping up unintentionally right in the middle of our writing which wasn't noticed earlier; we're human; things like this can be overlooked; this necessitates fixing that passage to eliminate the mistake and then going back through all preceding passages and making the same change in the subject or countersubject all the way through, for the sake of consistency.
If something in the answer is changed to keep it in the home key tonally, it's called a "tonal" answer and the fugue is a "tonal fugue"; if the answer is an exact transposition of the subject in the dominant (or subdominant) key, note for note, then it's called a "real" answer and the fugue is a "real fugue."
This is why working from a notebook PC with online music writing software can be such a time saver; changes like this can be made quickly and easily without crossing things out or maybe trashing the entire copy and starting over.
STEP THREE: is to write a 3rd line; this must return to the home key and blend in harmony with the subject and countersubject; if this 3rd line can be maintained throughout each successive entry of the subject, then it becomes a 2nd countersubject, the original one becomes the 1st countersubject, and the music is being worked in triple counterpoint.
As the voices of our fugue enter, one by one, it's easy to see that our mind can quickly get boggled trying to coordinate all this complexity unless we work from a predetermined plan.
We can keep things straight here by working the whole exposition at the same time, like a "chunk" of a crossword puzzle, by first placing the subject in whatever voice we want it to enter in the exposition; we can then come back and enter the countersubjects, one at a time.
After deciding on the order of voices in the exposition, the expected plan would be for each voice to commence immediately after the conclusion of its statement by its predecessor; but here were very often find that, instead of this arrangement, there is inserted an additional passage (called a codetta, interlude, or link).
This may be either a few notes, as connection, or extended into a significant statement; this is very commonly encountered after the 2nd voice has given the answer, and its function there would be to bring about a smooth return to the home key for the 3rd entry.
STEP FOUR: is to write the entrance of the subject again in the remaining 4th line of the exposition; if the fugue is in 4 voices, then this line will enter after the 3rd line while the other 3 lines go one to play the 1st and 2nd countersubjects and a free voice.
If this 4th free voice can be maintained throughout each successive entry, then it becomes a 3rd countersubject, and the music is being worked in quadruple counterpoint.
Since the 3rd entry of the exposition typically points to the key of the dominant already, it isn't always necessary to insert another codetta to link the 3rd and 4th entries, although composers sometimes do.
This exposition will then end in a cadence in a related key, usually the relative.
One way to construct a smooth pedal line to transition from the 4th entry to the relative key is to have a look at what's going on in the bass a couple of measures before that, invert that figure, and finish it with an octave leap on the dominant note of the relative key using whatever accidentals are necessary to land on the new tonic.
At this point it helps to print a hard copy of this completed exposition; we will refer back to it when it comes time to enter the subject and countersubjects in the remaining entries or to determine the inverse of the subject or countersubjects for possible use in the episodes or coda.
STEP FIVE: is to work out on a separate sheet of paper how many additional entries there will be, in which keys, and the order of voice leading for each (the positions of the subject, countersubjects, and free voice) so that duplications might be strictly limited, if not avoided; this sheet of paper will be consulted frequently as work progresses.
As soon as we have this figured out we expand our working screen to accommodate the number of measures it will take, then mark off with double bar lines the various additional entries and 4 bar episodes which separate them; this is so we can find them quickly while scrolling down (these double bar lines can be easily changed back to single bar lines during the final editing).
There's no rule which prohibits interpolating an episode between the entrance of the 3rd and 4th voices in the expostion (Op. 10 is an example);
There's no rule which prohibits a redundant entry in the exposition (Op. 13 and 18 are examples);
There's no rule which prohibits building an entry on the inversion of the subject and countersubjects (Op. 13 and 18 are examples);
There's no rule which prohibits the last voice in an exposition from entering in the relative key (Op. 11 is an example);
There's no rule which prohibits the voices in an exposition from entering one by one in the home key (Op. 11 is an example);
There's no rule which prohibits building an exposition by means of these or any other bold moves, as long as they're made with good reason, the general rules of part writing are scrupulously observed, and the result sounds smooth to the ear [See menu bar, Free Stuff].
Doing what's unexpected like this changes the musical landscape from common to uncommon and is the way the boundaries of art have been extended and music has been permitted to grow and develop for thousands of years [See blog, Do The Unexpected, Poetic License].
From here on the remaining steps may overlap some, depending on what captures our working attention at the moment.
STEP SIX: is to fill in the subject and countersubject lines in all the remaining entries, leaving the 4th free voice blank for now; this work proceeds quickly.
Before moving to the next step this would be the time to carefully check the score for voice crossings or consecutive 5ths or octaves between the moving lines in their various configurations and make the necessary corrections; this may require the tweaking of a note or two or even exchanging one line for another in order to get things to "fit" better harmonically [See blog, Tweaking].
STEP SEVEN: we now go back and fill in all the free voices in the various entries; we don't just pick notes out of thin air to make a 4-note chord with each moving note; instead we make this 4th line just as singable as the other 3 lines; this is the "secret," if there is one, to get the music to sound with an easy, flowing beauty.
If there isn't sufficient space at some point to squeeze another note between 2 others, we adopt one of the notes already on the page as the note for the free voice and resume the line a beat or 2 later when there's enough room; 2 different lines may share the same note momentarily, if necessary.
STEP EIGHT: is to create a stretto, if there is one, immediately following the last entry by starting the subject in one voice then starting it again in another before the first voice can finish; we start it again at the same distance so that the voices create some excitement as they accumulate and "pile up"; after that we finish it off with an interesting, original coda; mundane and cliche endings should be avoided.
We have it on authority of the strongest fugue writer in history that a good fugue doesn't have to have a stretto -- some of the finest fugues of J.S. Bach have no stretto at all; if the subject at hand doesn't lend itself to stretto, it doesn't mean that it's weak or unsuitable in any respect; we just ignore it and move on.
STEP NINE: is to connect all of these separate "chunks" of entries with short modulating episodes; these can be of any length, but 4 bars is sufficient; they do not each have to be of the same length, but it sounds smooth when they are.
This step is like assembling a string of beads where the individual "beads" are these big entries; when all the beads are connected finally, the fugue is almost finished.
STEP TEN: now it's time to proofread our work, check it for errors in notation or composition (stems on the top staff up or down, voice lines crossing, notes failing to resolve correctly, consecutive fifths, octaves, or unisons moving in similar motion, awkward leaps in a melodic line, misplaced or missing accidentals or rests, etc.) and make the necessary additions or corrections [See blog, Making Mistakes, A Smooth Sea].
Now is when we add our metronome and tempo marks, dynamic marks, hand divisions, and registration suggestions or changes, if any; here is where we convert our double bar lines to single bar lines and erase any labeling inserted earlier to keep things separated and easier to find on a screen.
This is where we go back and spruce things up, put our work under a microscope, get things as animated as we can and as smooth as we can, so that when we're done we can't imagine a single note following another any other way.
When we can say that, when our score is cleaned up and professional looking, our fugue is finished.
We have a look at it now, and if we see something in it that can be worked as a prelude or other type of free work to be paired with it we create some blank space in the score anterior to it and feel free to have at it again.
Sometimes an idea or two for a prelude occurs to us in the middle of writing our fugue and can/should be notated at that time; it's perfectly okay to postpone work on the fugue today in order to give its matching prelude some attention -- we can always resume work on the fugue tomorrow.
It's better to get the big picture first, to map out the prelude's main sections, theme(s), key changes if any, and creating the framework for the piece, before filling in its smaller details.
By following this process of 10 steps, and without hurrying, a well built fugue can be completed from start to finish in a surprisingly short time; all of the scores for the fugues on this web site were composed that way, some of them in just 3 days.
This 10 step process for fugue writing has been battle tested in the creation of many fugues and is very solid [See menu bar, Free Stuff]; it makes our time productive over a period of a few days, but it's important to remember not to fly through the work so quickly with such an overambitious timetable and unrealistic expectations that we start flaming out or missing some obvious mistakes.
The best results come by working our projects a little bit at a time, chipping away some of it every day like a sculptor frees the subject slowly from a solid block of marble.
If we aren't careful, we can overdo it; we can get so wrapped up in what we're doing that time gets away on us and our energies get completely spent; we can wear ourselves out -- unless we pace ourselves.
We should stop at the first sign of physical or mental fatigue; as we make progress we learn to develop the ability to recognize that point when it arrives, when the mind starts to get numb, and listen to what our body is telling us, that it's time to call a halt for today.
Composers know to arm themselves with patience; they know, with every day's work, when to say "when," that it isn't a sprint, that it isn't the 60-yard dash.
It's a marathon.