The Grammarphobia Blog

Two-part invention: mental and musical fugues

Q: I was at a concert last week and began wondering if there’s a correlation between the “fugue” that’s a musical construction and the “fugue” that’s a psychiatric state. Any ideas? Such are the thoughts that sometimes come into my mind while listening to a particularly interesting piece of music.

A: There is indeed a relationship between the “fugue” that’s a musical composition and the “fugue” that’s a mental state. Both have to do with fleeing and come from the same Latin source.

We’ve written about the two fugues before on our blog, but now we’ll go into a bit more detail. Call this a variation on a theme.

We’ll start with an obsolete English word spelled “fuge,” which was a noun for the act of fleeing and a verb meaning to flee.

It was adapted in the 15th century from the Latin fugere (to flee), which is also the source of the words “fugitive,” “refuge,”  “refugee,” “subterfuge,” and others.

The noun “fuge” first appeared, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 1436 poem: “Assaute was there none; No sege, but fuge.” (“Assault was there none; no siege, but fuge [i.e., retreat].”)

The verb “fuge” came along in 1566, in George Gascoigne’s translation of Supposes, a comedy by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto: “I to fuge and away hither as fast as I could.”

The old senses of “fuge” quickly disappeared. But soon a more lasting “fuge” entered English, this one meaning a polyphonic composition in which one or more musical themes are interwoven in different voices.

The OED’s first citation for the word is from the composer Thomas Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597):

“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).”

For its first 70 years, this word was spelled “fuge.” It was borrowed directly from the Italian word fuga (flight), a descendant of the Latin fuga (the act of fleeing), a relative of fugere (to flee).

A new spelling, “fugue,” was introduced by the poet John Milton, who used the French version of the word in Paradise Lost (1667):

“His volant touch /  Instinct through all proportions low and high / Fled and pursu’d transverse the resonant fugue.”

(Notice Milton’s play on words in the last line. He uses both “fled” and “fugue,” the original sense of fugere as well as the musical sense derived from the Latin verb. And “volant,” or flying, comes from the Latin volare, to fly.)

We come now to the mental state known as a “fugue.” This sense of the word entered English in the early 20th century, according to OED citations, and is defined in the dictionary as “a flight from one’s own identity.”

The term first appeared in 1901 in Caroline Corson’s translation of Dr. Pierre Janet’s The Mental State Hystericals: “Those long flights (fugues)those strange excursions, accomplished automatically, of which the patient has not the least recollection.”

Mrs. Corson was translating a book published in French in 1894, and apparently felt the word’s first appearance needed an explanation. But later in the book, she refers to “these fugues” without translating the word.

French doctors, who were the first to describe the psychiatric condition, had been using fugue in the medical sense since the late 1880s. The French also used l’état de fugue before the equivalent term “fugue state” showed up in English.

It’s easy to see why “fugue,” a word having to do with fleeing or flight, seemed appropriate to both composers and doctors.

In a polyphonic “fugue,” melodic strands are introduced that flee or diverge from the original theme, like musical flights of fancy. A psychiatric “fugue” or “fugue state” represents a flight or a fleeing from reality.

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