On Bach's Art of the Fugue

By John Stone


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It is difficult to write about the things you love most. For me, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (‘Art of the Fugue’) is tantamount to a sacred text, an artwork so quintessentially perfect in form, so unutterably beautiful from the dual perspectives of the mind and heart, intellect and emotions, that the best thing I usually think I can do in facing it is to remain silent. And having studied it intensively for years, played through it countless times on the piano, written a book about it, it is generally in silence that I contemplate this music— in the portable, never-skipping player of my mind. But to get to that point, it was certainly helpful to have had real world guides along the way in the form of recordings and critical analyses; if there is one piece of music that has generated an avalanche of diverse recordings, intense critical discussion and debate, it is Bach’s Art of Fugue.

Despite some groundbreaking musicological work by Christoph Wolff and compelling (though somewhat more speculative) theories by Hans Eggebrecht, this late work of Bach retains its general aura of mystery. Certain longstanding misconceptions, fueled in the Romantic era, have been cleared away, chiefly that Bach died mid-bar while penning the final fugue of his enormous compendium, having just reintegrated his name in notes (in German nomenclature, B=b flat and H=b natural) with the main themes of the final fugue. It is also now accepted that the cycle was mostly finished as early as 1742, though it is clear that Bach continued work on the manuscript until his death in 1750. Nevertheless, the facts that the final fugue (enormous as it is) remains incomplete, and that Bach provided no indication as to which instrument(s) Die Kunst der Fuge was intended for, have contributed to its status as a work effectively “up for grabs” by countless ensembles. It is generally accepted that Bach had an organ or harpsichord in mind, but this has not stopped groups of every conceivable stripe to claim this universal music as their own.

The amazing thing is, the musical ideas themselves, the pure relation of note to note and voice to voice, are so consummately worked out that the music “works” on virtually any instrumental combination. Timbre really does seem beside the point with such composition. Fugue is a process that Bach cared deeply about, and that had an illustrious history preceding him (with notable exponents such as Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Buxtehude, Sweelinck, Pachelbel, de Grigny, and Vivaldi, to name a few). Many ancient and Baroque theorists such as Johannes Tinctoris and Johann Fux contended that fugue was an adequate human representation of the harmonia mundi (the ancient notion of musical spheres, or a divine music created by the revolutions of the heavenly bodies). Further, Bach belonged late in life to Lorenz Mizler’s Society for Musical Sciences, a group that upheld the ancient arts of counterpoint and polyphony just as they were going out of fashion throughout Europe and as gallant music ascended in popularity. All this is by way of suggesting that our contemporary notion that Bach’s fugues, and particularly those of this final cycle, are instances of contemplative eye or mind music, are actually not such new ideas at all.

Still, Bach was ever devoted to his Protestant ethic of practicality (much as all of his music was devoted to the glory of God). Whether Bach’s Art of Fugue contains extramusical symbolism (and many suggest it does), as well as a directedness toward things celestial, it is also basically a textbook on fugue written with pedagogical aims in mind. For the Mizler Society, members below the age of 65 were expected yearly to submit either a treatise on counterpoint or a contrapuntal work itself. Bach had already submitted his organ work Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch and A Musical Offering for his 63rd and 64th years. Prof. Woolf (et al) conclude that Art of Fugue was to meet Bach’s final “membership dues,” the composition offered in his 65th year. Sadly, it wasn’t to be: after a failed eye operation, Bach died of a stroke. The massive work he left behind, complete to us except for perhaps a single missing page of manuscript, is among his greatest achievements, an apotheosis of fugal composition, a teaching manual put in practice, and perhaps a mystical road map to the universe. I write that last suggestion somewhat tongue in cheek, having at one point been convinced of its truth. As much as I realize now the subjective nature of such exhortations, I nevertheless continue to be amazed and awed by the otherworldly splendor of this music.

The Art of Fugue is comprised of 14 fugues and four canons. Though the order of the fugues and placement of the canons is a matter of endless debate, it is clear that Bach had a progression from the simplest to most complex counterpoints in mind when he conceived the compendium. Like Bach’s other monothematic works, the Canonic Variations, A Musical Offering, and the Goldberg Variations, Die Kunst der Fuge is an exercise in how far one can develop a single theme. There is little true key change in any of these works (though of course, extremely deft modulation at play); instead, Bach devotes his considerable inventiveness and genius to the focused treatment of one theme, one key. In this case, we remain in the serene and gray sphere of d minor as Bach ups the ante with each successive fugue, treating his somber, elastic theme to a whole catalogue of contrapuntal appropriations— inversion, diminution, augmentation, mirroring, doubling, retrograde, and so on. The final fugue (the one which in performance ends so abruptly, shockingly mid-phrase) was incredibly a planned quadruple fugue, that is, four different themes working in simultaneity.

The very existence of such a collection at this point in history is already unusual, to say the least; fugues were already considered archaic, fusty, dogmatic, turgid. Though Bach paid great service to the upcoming trends that favored a lighter, more melody-driven touch, he turned his back completely on the fashion of his day by venturing forth on projects such as the ones that occupied him in the 1740s. And yet, while stylistically, there is much in the fugues that looks backwards to the so-called stile antico practices of Palestrina and other Bach predecessors, there is also ample evidence of Bach the harmonic innovator and vanguard. Indeed, the B-A-C-H section of the final fugue contains dissonances that would not be out of place in early Schoenberg, Wagner, or Mahler. Going a step further, we can say that the music— in its absolute purity and genius of design— really transcends period and place.

One of the many, seemingly inexhaustible pleasures of listening to and studying this music is admiring the skill with which Bach varies the main theme, opening it up as he does to countless permutations. (Really, the same can be said for his Goldberg Variations, Chaconne for violin solo, etc.) The theme is stretched and shrunk in time, flipped upside down, turned backwards, coupled with other themes, rendered in mirror form. A further pleasure lies in witnessing the ways in which Bach alternates between tightly packed counterpoint and the freer episodes (moments when the statement and answer pairs of fugue are absent), giving a sense of contraction and release throughout the music. The music affords intense intellectual excitement as one tries to hear all four lines (or voices) in their horizontal independence and vertical unification. Emotionally speaking, Bach covers enormous ground all the while sticking to his one theme; though a general tone of seriousness and even melancholy pervades the work, there are elements of intense joy, exuberance, vivacity, and freshness.

Of utmost importance in any rendition of the Art of Fugue is that the four lines be clearly articulated. This dictum applies to the recorder and saxophone quartets as much to the organists, pianists, orchestral and chamber ensembles, and string quartets (to name but a fraction of the musicians who take it on). Of equal importance is artistic sensibility, phrasing, and in the case of multiple musicians, true ensemble playing. Of the over 30 recordings I have collected of the Art of Fugue, that by the viol consort Phantasm best achieves the marriage of clarity and unity, and best exemplifies the heart of this music. Naturally, we are dealing with questions of taste here. However, I think it is fair to say that some historical understanding of the period combined with technical virtuosity and artistic sensitivity make for excellent exemplars. In these respects, Phantasm has many esteemed brethren: Jordi Savall and the Hésperion XX, the Keller Quartet, the Amsterdam Bach Soloists, and the Max Pommer directed chamber orchestra. In each case, choices of inflection, tempo, phrasing and emphasis are made that strike as just and compelling. Contrarily, the vibrato-heavy laboring of The Juilliard String Quartet and the rococo, gallant approach of conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini’s ensemble fail to meet the intrinsic proportions, needed clarity and aesthetic sensibility of the fugues.

For those unfamiliar with viols (also called viol da gambas), they are precursors to the modern violin, viola, and cello. (That is putting it very simply; in fact, the viol is more closely related to the guitar in terms of historical development, fingering, and string number.) They produce a warm, breathy sound that is slightly darker than their modern counterparts. In conventional practice (owing to the fact that the viol’s heyday was during the 17th century), there is generally less vibrato than in later periods. Phantasm’s approach, with sparely inflected notes that emerge and recede back to silence very gradually, enhances both the textural transparency of the music as well as its deeply affecting character.

On this recording, there is an unusual omission and an equally unusual addition. The four canons (two-voiced constructions that are even more labyrinthine than the fugues) are dropped. Why— I have no idea. All I can say is that they do belong with a complete recording of the Art of Fugue, and I recommend supplementing this stunningly beautiful account of most of the cycle with any of the ones praised above, or perhaps with the piano rendition by Charles Rosen (in its own way, a true peer of Phantasm’s recording, though in an entirely different field.) However, as if to erase the small slight from memory, Phantasm plays five fugues of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier that W.A. Mozart arranged in his youth, as well as one of Mozart’s original-themed fugues (in G minor, K. 401). The arrangements are rarely performed or recorded; they demonstrate in practical and beautiful terms the well-known fact that Mozart deeply admired Bach’s work and was influenced tremendously by its complex design. The G minor fugue (originally for piano) was written before Mozart’s familiarity with Bach; it is an astonishing work, quite unlike the tenor of the composer’s more celebrated pieces. There are dashing sequences and modulations, a terrific inversion, and wildly inventive episodes.

How highly do I recommend this recording? If I were allowed only two discs to take to the proverbial desert island, this would be in my luggage.


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Two Reasons Man is Superior to Machines: Bach and Gould

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