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A Bach A to Z

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A is for 'Art of Fugue'

Bach's 'The Art of the Fugue' is widely regarded as a defining work in the history of Western musical expression. It consists of 14 fugues and four canons and explores principles of counterpoint more fully than any other work before or since. The composer took a single great theme and subjected it to contrapuntal variations of immeasurable variety, poetry and imagination.

By the time of his death in 1750 publication,  copper engraving as a form of publication was well advanced. Members of the family began handing pages to an unidentified, musically illiterate engraver. The logic and sequence of the music became increasingly haphazard. CPE Bach, the composer's 2nd son by Bach's 1st wife, (Maria Barbara), took over management of the score. Nonetheless a posthumous publication (1751) was hopelessly muddled. As a result the work suffered unjustified neglect.

Even today numbering of items and Bach's preferred instrumentation remains unresolved. In 1924 Wolfgang Græse, a Swiss student painstakingly prepared a logical running order with the fugues and canons apportioned to various groups of instruments. Its Leipzig premiere in 1927 caused great excitement on both sides of the Atlantic .

Subsequently however Græse's full orchestra scoring was sidelined in favour of versions for chamber orchestra or string quartet.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey believed the music was intended for keyboard. In 1932 he published an open score edition and one for keyboard. At the same time he completed the truncated final, 4-part fugue which, through Bach's worsening final illness, had been left unfinished at bar 239. Other transcriptions followed.

More recently keyboard performers have reasoned 'The Art of the Fugue' is best adapted for their own instrument; among them organist Helmut Walcha (1907-1991) harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt (1928 - ), and pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva (1924-1993).

The imperishable content of this work remains inviolate but its shape and purpose continue to ignite controversy - truly a hallmark of great art.

Copyright Howard Smith November 2005

    Read what others have said..

    Indra Hughes - Auckland, New Zealand
    I've been gripped by the AOF for about 5 years ago now since i first decided to learn it and perform it as my contribution to the JSB anniversary in 2000. For the last year I've been writing a doctoral thesis about it and have been living with it almost every day. I can honestly say that I see something new in it every time I open up the score! I will be coming to UK and will be performing this work at Blackburn Cathedral, Lancashire at 6pm on saturday 21 Janaury (2006). If you're in the area please come to hear it!

    Christopher M Thomas, Kilburn, London
    The best completion of Contrapunctus XVIII that I know of, is that by Lionel Rogg in the 1968 recording from St.Peter's Cathedral in Geneva. Could we hear some of this monumental and beautiful recording?

    Pete, Warrington, Cheshire
    The Art of the Fugue has been a mesmerising favourite of mine for a number of years. The most beguiling performance I have ever heard of this piece was that of Joanna McGregor with the Britten Symphonia at the RNCM a couple of years ago. The contemporary reworking of the Art of the Fugue was incredible and it left a lasting memory, which has certainly cemented this piece as an all time favourite.

    Steven Rhodes, London
    I have returned to this piece time and again since my late teens when I managed to obtain a recording by the Orchestre Jean-Francois Paillard. The proliferation of recordings since: piano and harpsichord (in number) orchestra, saxaphone quartet, strings, confirms just how enduring this music is. It will richly repay any genuine attempt to express it and its simplicity is the key. Yes, it develops into extraordinary complexity in the later contrapuncti, but this is the theme that Bach himself chose (as opposed to the deliberately complex theme chosen for him as a challenge by Frederick the Great for the Musical Offering). The early contrapuncti require great emotional resources and musicianship to do the score justice. The later contrapuncti are, of ocurse, no less demanding. This late Bach is a very special place. I envisage it as a surreal landscape with beautifully undulating hills and bathed in a pale but warm light, few trees, but with many clear rivers. When will Bach doubters realise that the first and overwhelming response to this music by lovers of Bach is an emotional one?

    Jimmy -Fleetwood, Lancashire
    I find Die Kunst der Fuge to be perhaps Bach's greatest legacy, more so than his cantata's to an organist like myself. A recent present by a very good friend of mine and fellow Bach enthusiast, Mr A.J Kinghorn, means i am now in possession of the organ scoring of the work. Even at 16, i can realise the true beauty of the score. To take, essentially, the same theme, and transform it into so many different variations speaks of genius. I currently, only have the Glen Gould recordings of it, though i find that playing it myself on the Organ is better. Contrapunctus IX and VI are both fantastic pieces to play, in Contrapunctus VI, the use of the high pitched melodies to contrast the heavy bass pedaling, is amazing. But perhaps, the least heard work, Contrapunctus XV, the so called "Unfinished Fugue". Etheral is best to describe it, the most funereal of all the Fugues, as if Bach knew he would never finish it. I whole heartedly disagree with those who finish the piece, stopping dead at bar 239 is truely haunting, and the most devastating part of the whole work. But alongside his other Fugues, Fantastias, Preludes and Toccatas, this rates as high as any other.

    Geoffrey Elborn at Stromness, Orkney
    Music in which more is discovered and heard each time it is played. The extraordinary invention and mathematical calculation creates an intensity of pure beauty. For the non reader of music, the grammar, the structure and architecture although complex, do not need to be understood for the music to communicate.The moment where the incomplete Art of Fugue abruptly stops, after the great B, A, C, H, motif is poignant and deeply moving.

    Andrew -London
    I prefer the Goldberg Variations more than the Art of Fugue; perhaps because it is so sublimely structured. I am sure if he had had a few more years Bach would have done the same for this work. Still, the music is profound and very moving despite it's cerebral intentions. I have a friend who belives (quite churlishly) that the 'History of Western Music' begins with Bach and ends with Part, and that you might as well ignore everything in the middle. I have to concede that that deep stillness and intense spirtual beauty that is such a great part of Parts motivation is particlularly evident in 'Art of Fugue'. I particularly enjoy sitting in the dark late at night listening to Nikolayeva play it.

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