'J.S. Bach in his Library, 1749'

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

The following work derives from a collection of essays, poems, fiction and non-fiction that I've been writing concerning the last fugue of J.S. Bach's final major work, Die Kunst Der Fuge (a collection of 14 fugues and four canons all deriving from the same theme in d minor). This compendium of fugues was composed over a period between 1742 and Bach's death in 1750. It marks the apogee of contrapuntal writing not only for Bach, but for the history of music. Fugues and canons were no longer in fashion by the time Bach was writing this ultimate statement on these crafts, and indeed, hardly any copies of the posthumously published masterpiece were sold. The manuscript and the craft of fugue writing both went into eclipse for generations, with notable exceptions, only to be resurrected again by the Romantic Movement.

This poem serves a purpose in my book as an opportunity to transmit a lot of information about the composers and kind of music Bach admired, placing him as it were in the historical context of fugal writing. The poem, while fictional, is quite accurate in terms of its historical facts and Bach's values. Lastly, the end of the poem refers to the last fugue's third theme that spells out B-A-C-H ('H' being b natural in German nomenclature).

I often imagine him in the year of his death, in the exact middle of the eighteenth century, bending with clouding eyes over The Art of Fugue, a composition whose aesthetic orientation represents the most archaic tendency in Bach's oeuvre (which contains many orientations), a tendency alien to its time, which had already turned completely away from polyphony toward a simple, even simplistic, style that often verged on frivolity or laziness.

Milan Kundera


Great music is abandoned in its death,
reviled as strict, complex, unnatural,
or even worse, it simply is ignored.
The art of counterpoint lies moribund
while simple little ditties take its place.
Everywhere, fashionable music-makers
belt their threadbare, galant melodies,
drinking songs and pleasant, empty tunes,
yet modern taste proclaims these trifles Art.

Where are you now, you architects of sound
who built us sanctuaries in the mind,
conjuring cathedrals and geometries
from notes on paper, voices in the air?
Dear Palestrina, first I look to you:
your composition was a kind of worship.
You must have heard the motions of the spheres
or else caught wind of angels singing Mass,
for something of the perfect world's reflected
in the order of your harmonies.
Victoria, you inherited his art
and spread it far afield your native Spain.
And Lasso, you who sang so sweetly you
were kidnapped several times by rival choirs,
you were like a painter painting forms;
stained glass is not as rich as your sweet sound.
Gesualdo, De Rore, you whose madrigals
meandered far and wide through every key,
you celebrated God chromatically.


In this library, Tallis, I turn to you,
reflecting on your wondrous counterpoint,
the gradual unfolding of 'Spem in alium'
whose otherworldly grandeur breaks my heart.
I have among these early manuscripts,
O Tallis, engravings and volumes gray with age
containing sacred music, keyboard works
and consort suites of yours and your countrymen.
Leafing through them, I resurrect a world
of deep devotion, consummate artistry,
page upon page of contrapuntal skill
with names that now mean little more than names.
John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, Dunstable,
still I feel the freshness of your themes.
Jenkins, Morley, Tomkins, Parsons, Locke,
Coprario, Mico, Lawes, in your own styles,
you wrote exquisite music for the viols.
Ah, Henry Purcell, you who died so young,
from what dark depths did your Fantasias spring?
In your short life, you excelled in every form,
just as William Byrd, who lived so long.

This library's a garden of polyphony,
these books, its variations of the art
containing forms throughout the lands and ages,
masses and motets, canons, fugues,
inscribed and pressed onto the folded pages.
All the knowledge, industry and beauty
scattered over centuries and nations
here exists, ingathered, bound by love.
Journeys are accomplished in a glance:
opening your 'Missa ad fugam,' Josquin,
I instantly travel to you, and you to me.
And like a bee amidst the sweetest blossoms,
I dart from flower to flower, alighting on
the masterworks of Schütz, Muffat, Dufay,
now on Machaut, Monteverdi, Couperin, Tye.
These disconnected fragments that I glean
compose themselves inside my mind into
a single, luminous map of counterpoint
with which I glimpse an order never seen
or heard on earth, a heavenly symmetry.


I never cared for learned treatises
expounding on the rules of harmony
or theories governing polyphony:
good music is itself the finest guide.
Such wisdom you imparted, Frescobaldi,
within your volume, 'Fiori Musicali',
with one eye looking forward, one eye back,
you folded history into your pen
and made instruction inseparable from your art.
I remember as a young boy deeply pouring
over cherished volumes night and day,
performing what my little hands could play,
for that was study; never was it boring.
Herrs Pachelbel, Reinken, Froberger, Kerll and Böhm,
the only manuals you used were on
the organ, planting theory underground
with music shooting forth as budding blooms.
Years ago, I copied out your works
and others' which I kept inside a book.
Those labors were a pleasure; what joy it was
to trace with my own hand the paths you took,
to reconstruct your elegant designs
and analyze the poetry of notes
on vertical and horizontal lines
that sprung, expanding outward, from their roots.

I was ever searching manuscripts
for fresh ideas, original motifs,
to watch the ways inventions were borne out,
the way great music always sprouted from
its themes, for all is in them and comes from them
like flowers from seeds. Those compositions once
were muted mirrors in which I sought myself;
in those changeless patterns I would find
subdued reflections of my changing mind.

A library is filled with memories
not only of what's recorded, but what's lost,
between the spaces and the book-lined shelves,
of earlier readings and our distant, earlier selves.
Looking now in de Grigny's 'Livre d'orgue,'
in 'Tabulatura Nova,' 'Ariadne
Musica,' in 'Hortus Musicus,'
I catch faint shadows of my childhood face.
Something of me lives in you, Sweelinck,
and turns in the rapid scales revolving round
your solid, humble cantus firmus themes.
Another shade of my former self inhabits
pages of 'L'Estro Armonico' and from
your example, Vivaldi, learns to truly think.

O Buxtehude, in my innocence
I turned to you and now return again
when opening your 'Templum Honoris',
I'm back with you in Lübeck, reverend master,
taking part in your 'Abendmusiken,'
listening to the organ of St. Marien.
To hear you play I journeyed miles by foot;
now my pilgrimage is of the mind,
a flight inspired by your awesome craft.
In you, the ancient and the modern merge,
and nations' disparate styles are synthesized;
your organ works are glorious and strange,
massive in range and sheer diversity,
infused with passion and yet a noble order.
My debt to you is great: You are my father,
from your boldness, my own boldness grew.
You lifted me that I am more than I.
You carried me once. Now I carry you.


There is no silence where there is the book.
The manuscript forever sings its soul,
the notes reveal themselves to those who look
and lie asleep for those who look away.
Unfurl the sacred scrolls and David will
sing joyous psalms of praise unto the Lord
accompanied by music of his lyre.
I take the oldest tome down from the shelves
and lay its giant binding gently open:
still the priest and congregation share
their antiphons, responses and plainchants
although their souls lie folded up in silence.

Yet, what use the music no one heeds,
the contrapuntal gems that lie in darkness
for an audience that yearns for newer charms
that gleam with showy, polished radiance?
These books preserve the treasures they contain
as well as oceans protect a sunken ship.
A century, more perhaps, the vessel remains
intact, yet hidden on the ocean floor,
its precious cargo buried in the sand.
A future diver takes the downward plunge;
if lucky, he will find the foundered craft,
or maybe it forever lies unfound,
submerged within immense eternity.
Beloved old masters, who now opens your scores,
who gives new life to your lives of long devotion?


Could I spin a web to catch the past?
Could a work of man spun on a single
thread spread out and out and capture history
inside its fragile lines? Could I condense
the orders of the universe to fit
the circling cycles of a set of fugues?

I would capture, for whose eyes and ears
I do not know, the art of counterpoint,
and then its slow, eventual eclipse
would seem less dark, less like a death, and more
a phase inside a larger period.
Once I had vision. Now that too is fading,
a cloud descends on everything. Still,
I have my powers and my memory.
I would shape a monument that like
the moon shone softly with a borrowed light:
all the knowledge I have gathered, there
might be recorded and distilled to teach
the student and exemplify the art
even if my audience be one.

Within the fabric of my tapestry,
proportioned for the hands or for the mind,
I shall weave you, too, my ancestors:
Veit the baker, who played the cittern even
as he worked; uncles Johann Michael
and expressive Johann Christopher
whose motets glorified the Lutheran church;
cousins Johann Bernard, Nicolaus;
Ambrosius and your many instruments,
you and all the multitude of Bach's
shall be reflected in the monument.
Within the last, quadruple fugue which I
shall carve in ancient and in modern styles,
I'll set the name of BACH, as much to say
we gave ourselves to music and to God,
and also, though imperfect be my work,
that I might join the web of my design
and pray to join the perfect one some day.

Looking inward, I shall motion outward,
surveying without, I shall recoil within.
All will be a searching starting from
a theme and radiating back again
so one might feel the joy and anguish of
a lifetime's journey in the widening arc.
In the final fugue, all will race
or slowly crawl around a mighty theme
whose seven almost static notes will read
the same in each direction, a perfect calm.
This shall be the changeless face of Him
Who set us on our circling locomotion
out of dust and back to dust again.
For His sake polyphony was sprung
that we might offer up our highest praise
and tell and never stop our telling the story
of our grace. To God alone the glory.




John Kestenbaum Stone*


John Stone

Born in 1970, John Kestenbaum Stone is a composer and writer based in his native town, New York City.

After graduating from Vassar College, having majored in philosophy and literature, Mr. Stone received an ABD/PH.D. in Renaissance literature at New York University.

He has composed music for period instruments in Baroque and Renaissance styles for numerous theatrical productions including Vanessa Redgrave's direction of 'Antony and Cleopatra' in 1994.

Mr. Stone's compositional styles are broad-ranging, incorporating influences as diverse as French and German cabaret, ragtime, vintage jazz, Nancarrow, Bach, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Gershwin, and international folk musics. His music, in collaborations with numerous choreographers such as Ariane Anthony, The Paper Bag Players and Brian Brooks, has toured the United States and Europe.

Mr. Stone is also an avid long-distance unicyclist and plans soon to ride across the United States.

* Email address: please keep attention to change the $ with @.

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