'Two Reasons Man is Superior to Machines: Bach and Gould'
on the Glenn Gould Edition, Bach: Two- and Three-Part Inventions

By John Stone

About the 'Art of Fugue' you may also read:

An enigma resolved: the Bach's Art of the Fugue by David Peat (on Hans-Eberhard Dentler)

Glenn Gould Discourses on Fugue: Watch and Learn by John Stone


Search for sheet music on the Art of Fugue

The Bach's Art of Fugue in MIDI files

Recorded in 1964, one month prior to his decision to leave the stage for good and focus on studio recordings, this performance is among Glenn Gould's most charming and inviting interpretations of J.S. Bach. The Two Part Inventions and Three Part Sinfonias, intended for pedagogy, constitute an intermediate level among Bach's practical primers for the study and performance of contrapuntal music. In terms of difficulty and complexity, these compositions are situated between the beginner's Anna Magdalena Bach Book and the expert level Art of Fugue (though none of Bach's music is ever solely pedagogical).

What is counterpoint? Its Latin origin, contrapunctus ('pointed against') indicates in music the existence of two or more simultaneous melodies (lines) working 'note against note' according to the rules of harmony. Part of the pleasure of listening to/studying well wrought contrapuntal music is admiring the ingenuity of the composer who could take what really amounts to puzzles of varying complexity (in Bach's case, employing as many as six independent and simultaneous voices) and making them artful- making them soar. Bach ranks among the best of many contrapuntal composers able to infuse intellectual counterpoint with a full gamut of feeling.

Scored for two and three voices in nearly every key and mode, the Inventions and Sinfonias transcend their raison d'etre as musical instruction, yet are often relegated to the fingers of piano students and are rarely performed in concert. In Gould's hands, they are treated as the exquisite things they are, replete with the pathos, humor, elegance, wit and excitement attending Bach's more overtly 'professional' music (e.g. the English Suites and Partitas). His technique can be absolutely astonishing (e.g. in the B minor Sinfonia) but more often it is the intensity of rarefied emotion that comes through. Most crucially, he exposes the multiple voices in their all their glorious independence, deftly inflecting his dynamics between the melodies to highlight one, now another, yet never losing the overall equality of lines.

A caveat: Gould, notorious for his emotive humming and singing while playing, is occasionally more than tolerably audible here. I have a fairly high tolerance for this (one of many) controversial idiosyncrasies of his, but draw the line when his vocalizations equal or exceed the piano's volume (e.g. at times in the C minor Sinfonia and B-flat Major Invention). I find the situation worse when I listen to the CD through headphones, and rarely problematic when listening through speakers.

Two other drawbacks: One, Gould insisted on using a piano that was, from the technician's standpoint, unsalvageable, and the result is a few notes (A below and G above middle C) hiccup when played. Eventually, one gets used to them, and oddly, they add to the charm of this inspired recording. Two, Gould has elected to play the set in an unconventional order, against Bach's own chromatic-based one. Again, not a major issue.

Among personal highlights are the slower Inventions and Sinfonias, which Gould treats with aching tenderness, never drifting into mawkishness, but making them unfold with geometric precision. The D minor Sinfonia is one such movement that transcribes beautiful arcs in the imagination, offering a vision of a perfect order tinged with sadness. And of particular note is the final selection of the CD, the F minor Sinfonia. This is one of the most dissonant, introspective and celestial works in the entire Bach canon, and Gould approaches it with tremendous reverence and devotion. This is music and performing of the highest intellectual and emotional order.

You may be also interested in:

Introduction to J.S. Bach in His Library, 1749

On Bach's Art of the Fugue

Road Map for a Fugue

A Portrait of Two J.S. Bach's

Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach

Two Reasons Man is Superior to Machines: Bach and Gould

A Glenn Gould Survey: The Music Through 1750

Glenn Gould Discourses on Fugue: Watch and Learn