Once upon a time there was harmony. Then there was counterpoint. And then there was fugue.

Canberra International Music Festival, Roland Peelman Canberra International Music Festival Artistic Director Roland Peelman. Photo © William Hall

A fairy tale indeed. Once upon a time, in the old system where I grew up, those three pillars signified the crowning achievement of any aspiring musician. The reward for all that harmonic, contrapuntal and fugal toil (in that order precisely) was ‘composition’ – to be free at last. In case compositional glory did not eventuate, a nice posting as head of a suburban music school might ensue.

What is it about fugue that intrigues, irritates or fascinates us? The composer Saint-Saëns, in one of his deadpan moments, once referred to it as “a piece in which the parts enter, and the listeners exit – one by one.” What is it then that either sustains or loses our interest? What is it about the repetition of a particular subject (the theme) through different keys and registers? A minor key subject may well morph into major changing its demeanour, but the whole point about fugue is that the subject remains the...