Exploring Music's Complexities

Inventions and Fugues

What are They


Inventions and fugues are compositional forms dating back to 16th century.  They are novel compositions that don’t fit established categories.  It is thought that Clement Jandquin first used the term  invention in Premier livre des inventions musicales (1555; “First Book of Musical Inventions”) (1).  Today the terms are associated with Bach and a few of his contemporaries.  Perhaps the best known are a set of Bach’s 15 two-part inventions and a set of 15 three-part sinfonia. Twentieth-century composers of invention pieces entitled “Invention” include the Austrian Alban Bergand the Russian-American composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who followed Bach’s lead more or less directly (1).


An invention is a composition which uses counterpoint in its voices. It is a short composition with two-part counterpoint. (Compositions in the same style as an invention but using three-part counterpoint are known as sinfonias.).  In an invention a short motif is introduced by one voice in the tonic key.  A voice is a line of music that is sung or played.  It is also known as the subject. The subject is then repeated in the second voice in the tonic key while the initial voice either plays a countersubject or plays in free counterpoint.

The composer develops the piece by writing variations either melodically or harmonically. This usually involves the alternation of episodes with statements of the theme.  In minor- and major-mode inventions, the theme is typically restated in the relative major and the dominant, respectively. New key areas are reached through episodes, which usually move sequentially through the circle of fifths. The final episode ends on a half cadence in the original key, and is often exaggerated to make the subject sound extra special when it returns.  Many of Bach‘s inventions follow this plan, including BWV 775 and BWV 782 (2).  Inventions serve as exercises for keyboard students, and as pedagogical exercises for composition students (2).


On the other hand, fugues are considered to be one of the most challenging forms of music.  Unlike the invention, a fugue has a very specified form.  It is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices, built on a subject (a musical theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation and which recurs frequently in the course of the composition (3).

A fugue usually has three main sections: an exposition, a development and a final entry that contains the return of the subject in the fugue’s tonic key.

As noted in Wikipedia , “most fugues open with a short main theme, the subject, which then sounds successively in each voice (after the first voice is finished stating the subject, a second voice repeats the subject at a different pitch, and other voices repeat in the same way); when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete. This is often followed by a connecting passage, or episode, developed from previously heard material; further “entries” of the subject then are heard in related keys. Episodes (if applicable) and entries are usually alternated until the “final entry” of the subject, by which point the music has returned to the opening key, or tonic, which is often followed by closing material, the coda. In this sense, a fugue is a style of composition, rather than a fixed structure.” (3).

Bach’s most famous fugues are those in The Well-Tempered Clavie comprised of two volumes written in different times of Bach’s life, each comprising 24 prelude and fugue pairs, one for each major and minor key. His The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, is a collection of fugues (and four canons) on a single theme that is gradually transformed as the cycle progresses.

Fugue #1 from The Well-Tempered Clavie



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  1.  https://www.britannica.com/art/invention-musical-form  
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invention_(musical_composition)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fugue


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