Fuguing tune

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The fuguing tune (often fuging tune) is a variety of Anglo-American vernacular choral music. It first flourished in the mid-18th century and continues to be composed today.


Fuguing tunes are sacred music, specifically, Protestant hymns. They are written for a four-part chorus singing a cappella. George Pullen Jackson has described the fuguing tune as follows:

In the fuging tune all the parts start together and proceed in rhythmic and harmonic unity usually for the space of four measures or one musical sentence. The end of this sentence marks a cessation, a complete melodic close. During the next four measures the four parts set in, one at a time and one measure apart. First the basses take the lead for a phrase a measure long, and as they retire on the second measure to their own proper bass part, the [tenors] take the lead with a sequence that is imitative of, if not identical with, that sung by the basses. The tenors in turn give way to the altos, and they to the trebles, all four parts doing the same passage (though at different pitches) in imitation of the [part in the] preceding measure. ... Following this fuguing passage comes a four-measure phrase, with all the parts rhythmically neck and neck, and this closes the piece; though the last eight measures are often repeated.[1]

A well-known fuguing tune that is typical of the form is "Northfield," written in 1800 by Jeremiah Ingalls. The text is by Isaac Watts:[2]


Variety in fuguing tunes[edit]

George Pullen Jackson's description above gives a common form for a fuguing tune, but there are variations.

  • Jackson describes the entrance order of the four parts as "bottom to top" (Bass-Tenor-Alto-Treble), but this is not the only possible order. Indeed, in the fuguing tunes printed in The Sacred Harp, 1991 edition, it is not even the most common one; the most common order is Bass-Tenor-Treble-Alto. There are many other orders possible, particularly if one includes the many cases in which composers bring in two parts at once (so that there are just three instead of four entrances). However, it does seem to be a widely valid rule that the basses must at least be included in the first group to enter. This may reflect a wish to support the entrances with a solid bass line, or perhaps just a practical consideration: thanks to the weight of existing tradition, the bass singers have considerable practice in coming in alone at the beginning of a musical phrase, practice which the other sections lack. Thus a fuguing tune with a bass-first structure is likely to be more stable in performance.
  • The section of the tune that begins with the fuguing entrances can vary in length, though it is always as long, and usually longer, than the part coming before the fuguing entrances.[citation needed]
  • Occasionally a second round of fuguing entrances is introduced.[citation needed]


The fuguing tune arose in England in the middle of the 18th century. The first fuguing tunes were the work of itinerant singing masters, described by Irving Lowens (see references below) as follows:

[The singing masters were] often ill-trained by orthodox standards ... [They] wandered from village to village and eked out an existence by teaching the intricacies of psalm-singing and the rudiments of music to all who cared to learn. To supplement his generally meager income, [the singing master] frequently sold self-compiled tune-books in which psalm tunes of his own composition ... were featured as examples of his skill and artistry.[this quote needs a citation]

According to Lowens, the fuguing tunes created by these singing masters at first involved a separate fuguing section appended to the end of a complete psalm tune. Later, the fuguing became more integrated and eventually evolved to be the longer part of the song.[this quote needs a citation]

Fuguing tunes were popular in rural areas of England, but were scorned by city dwellers. Their popularity did not endure in England past the end of the century, and the remaining history of the fuguing tune is largely American.[citation needed]

There is good evidence that by 1760, English tune books including fuguing tunes were circulating in the American colonies; the first English fuguing tune printed in America appeared in the hymnbook Urania, or A Choice Collection of Psalm-Tunes, Anthems, and Hymns by James Lyon. Soon, fuguing tunes were being written in great profusion by American—especially New England—composers. Karl Kroeger (see reference below) has documented the publication of almost 1300 fuguing tunes during the period 1750-1820. Among the principal composers of New England fuguing tunes Irving Lowens lists the following: William Billings, Daniel Read, Jacob French, Timothy Swan, Stephen Jenks, Supply Belcher, Abraham Maxim, Lewis Edson, Joseph Stone, Elisha West, Justin Morgan, and Daniel Belknap.[3]

The New England fuguing tune tradition ultimately failed to endure in New England itself, as it was gradually extirpated by the advent of a "better music" movement, headed by Lowell Mason. This movement emphasized hymns with homophonic texture, sung with the support of an organ. The new music was incompatible with the polyphonic fuguing tune, which emphasized the ability of each section to sing on its own. Despite the simpler texture of the new music, "better music" advocates succeeded in spreading the view that the earlier sacred music with its fuguing tunes was the work of yokels; in much of the country, "better music" won the day.[citation needed]

In the rural South, however, the older music survived, thanks in part to the conservative local tastes, and in part to the widespread popularity there of shape note hymnals, which often included old fuguing tunes reset in shape notes. The 19th century Southern singers, while singing the old fuguing tunes regularly, did not create a great number of them themselves. Instead, their composers brought new resources to the tradition, for example from folk melody and camp meeting songs. Mid-century composers who did write fuguing tunes included Sarah Lancaster and J. P. Reese.[citation needed]

With the dawn of the 20th century, a new development resulted in the revival of fuguing tune composition. The community of singers who used The Sacred Harp (whose shape-note tradition is one of the most widely followed today) came to treating the music in their book as a valued heirloom. It is not surprising that the composition of fuguing tunes was revived among Sacred Harp singers, and new fuguing tunes have been added to The Sacred Harp in each of its many editions throughout the past century.[citation needed]

The general trends discussed above can be seen in the following chart, which is based on the songs of The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition. The songs were sorted according to the date assigned them in this book (this is often the date of first publication, not composition), then grouped more or less arbitrarily into historical periods. The vertical axis plots the fraction of the total tunes from the given era that were fuguing tunes.


The particular popularity of fuguing tunes in both late 18th and the 20th centuries can be clearly seen.

Fuguing tunes and fugues[edit]

The similarity of the terms "fugue" and "fuguing tune" means that the two forms are easily confused. A fuguing tune certainly is not some kind of failed attempt to write a fugue, as an ill-informed musicologist once asserted.[4] This is plain from the different structures of the two genres: in a fugue, the voices take turns coming in at the very beginning of the piece, whereas in a fuguing tune that moment comes about a third of the way through. Moreover, in a fugue the musical material used at each entrance (the so-called "subject") is repeated many times throughout the piece, whereas in a fuguing tune it normally appears just in the one location of sequenced entries, and the rest of the work is somewhat more homophonic in texture.

Indeed, "fuguing" does not derive from "fugue". Rather, as Irving Lowens points out,[citation needed] both terms hark back to a still earlier, more general usage (ultimately from Latin fugere "to flee"). He cites the words of Thomas Morley, who wrote (in 1597 in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke) that "we call that a Fuge, when one part beginneth and the other singeth the same, for some number of Notes (which the first did sing)."[citation needed]


Most gatherings of shape note singers (currently the principal singers of fuguing tunes) find these tunes no more difficult to sing than shape note music in general; the regular spacing of the entries makes it usually fairly clear when a section should come in. Fuguing tunes are a bit harder, however, for the leader, who must coordinate the fuguing entrances.[citation needed] Some advice for leaders is posted here.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jackson (1933:207-208)
  2. ^ the sixth and final stanza of hymn 21, book 1 of Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs in Three Books (1701).
  3. ^ Lowens (1964:239)
  4. ^ This was Hamilton C. MacDougall. His claims, and a refutation, appear in Lowens (1953:237-238).


  • Jackson, George Pullen (1933) White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. University of North Carolina Press. (1965 Edition: ISBN 0-486-21425-7)
  • Kroeger, Karl (1993) American Fuging-Tunes, 1770-1820: A Descriptive Catalog . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-29000-8.
  • Lowens, Irving (1953) "The Origins of the American Fuging Tune," Journal of the American Musicological Society 6: 43-52.n Citations are from reprinted version in Lowens (1964).
  • Lowens, Irving (1964) Music and Musicians in Early America. New York: Norton.

External links[edit]