It begins with one voice stating the subject. Another voice enters, and the initial voice is bumped into the dominant key where it is now referred to as the answer.
“At frequent intervals throughout a fugue, then, the subject will appear in one voice or another: at the top of the texture, at the bottom (the bass), or else tucked away in the middle surrounded by other polyphonic lines. The subject appears in different tonalities, too…without modulations a fugue would get badly bogged down. “(Joseph Kerman, Listen, p.96,Worth Publishers, Inc., 1972.)
Each subject is separated from it’s succeeding neighbor by bits of melodic fragments and other fun stuff, which are called episodes. Episodes serve to unify this little madness of subject variants and keep the whole business from cascading into polyphonic hell.
After awhile, the ears need a break from the aural carousel, and that’s where we take leave of this “…one-sided devotion to a single idea.”(ibid) and are utterly relieved to be given the countersubject.
The above description is primarily Baroque, but fugues are found all across the repertoire. The finale of Verdi’s Falstaff is a famous example of Romantic fugue. Unlike the predictable, albeit glorious mathematical fugues of Bach, sorting out the through-composed fugue of Verdi is an exercise in futility. At least for me.
Having performed two productions of Falstaff as the female principal, Alice Ford, I must make a public confession: I never have learned that damn fugue correctly. I know all the entrances, but not the episodes. Sing straight out when your turn comes round, then mouth gibberish to your neighbor and appear to be having a fabulous time. I am not proud of this.
Why the chat about fugues? Lately I’ve been feeling the circular turmoil of a fixed number of subjects built on a theme. As with all things on this journey, I can’t alter the form. I can only do my best to keep my place in the music. Sometimes the only way I can work this is by slipping inside my self. Things get too intense, and demands are greater than I can meet, so I find an emotional yurt and keep warm until the anxiety has passed. This periodic withdrawal is hard on one’s friends and family, but it is a core personality trait which is hard-wired within me.
When I withdraw, I fret about the effect on those around me. I withdraw so I can work it all out.