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 Gręse, 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 Gręse'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