INKPOT#88 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: J.S.BACH The Art of Fugue – An Inktroduction


The Art of Fugue
Die Kunst der Fugue
BWV XXXXAn Inktroduction by Johann D’Souza

by Johann D’Souza

Are You Ready for Y2K? George Bernard Shaw among others realised the heartfelt quality of Bach‘s fugal music when he wrote in 1885 as a young music critic,

“Sebastian Bach could express in fugue or canon all the emotions that have ever been worthily expressed in music. Some of his fugues will be prized for their tenderness and pathos when many a melting sonata and poignant symphonic poem will be shelved forever”.

My introduction to this work came in the form of piano versions – those recorded by Tatiana Nikolaeva (Hyperion CDA 66631/2) and Joanna Macgregor (Collins). Both take the opening introduction rather slowly; then there is the four-recorder version by the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet (reviewed here) who do so in a likewise manner but due to the difference in instruments the impact is different. When four instruments come together – especially with the unique tone of recorders quite unlike the other woodwinds, one is taken into a new dimension. It is here that I fully understand the true dimension that Bach wants to show to the listener, but no amount of words will substitute actually experiencing this mystical religious experience. I feel that to pay the music justice one simply has to listen to it.

Leonard Bernstein constantly kept saying that one has to look for the God in Bach’s works because all of Bach’s life revolved around God. Although he was a noted teacher and composed much of his works for his students, it was God that he was serving and got this divine inspiration directly from. Bernstein points out that Bach was extraordinarily blessed to be touched by the hand of God and this manifested itself in every work, from the miniature Inventions to the monumental Passions.

The Art of Fugue starts slowly but its ingenuity comes in many forms, from the individual writing to the combination of parts which have to be brought out against the background of the others. Bach did not wrote any markings for these works – this leaves tempo and phrasing to the interpreter of the work. While the work may figure out on a basic musical idea, the genius of Bach is clearly displayed everywhere – he demonstrates why he is the father of the Fugue. Many composers continue to pay Bach tribute by acknowledging the foundations of their compositions in the wealth of his music.

The Art of Fugue is perhaps not really meant to be heard in its entirety (or perhaps that isn’t even a consideration at all). That is why few performances occur for concerts. The fugues can be rather heavy in even repetitive (they are but in a very different way). One needs to look at their qualities as compositional structures, evolving new dimensions with each fugue. It is a work for meditation at least for me – I tried it and it really helped me. Another suggestion is to listen to the first twelve fugues first, take a break and then the remaining – this allows me the opportunity to look at them with a fresh perspective.

Many believe that The Art of Fugue was the last work that Bach composed although Tom Koopman, the well-known Bachian exponent, does not believe so. His theory is that Bach was constantly working on many works at any one time and during the last years of his death this was not the only work that he was trying to finish. He still believes that the work may have been completed but the manuscript is lost.

Many of us would like to know how The Art of Fugue would have ended if indeed it was completed. Koopman says that The Art of Fugue was already displaying signs of 19th century writing, as was the case with some of his other works at that particular time. I suppose this is a case for musical scholars to argue about.

Last works seem to have this tendency to give their composers the premonition of death, famous examples being Mahler’s 10th Symphony and Mozart’s Requiem. For The Art of Fugue there is an elusive dimension as well, in that it is uniquely private and very meditative. One has only to listen to the opening theme, which is so transparently simple, but Bach puts in all his mastery and his unparalleled complex writing abilities to make this an interesting work all the way to the closing Fugue. It is definitely a pity that we have no ending to this piece – or maybe it was meant to be so.

Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach describes it as the most perfect example of applied fugal technique. In 1774 J Ph. Kirnberger wrote, “the Art of Fugue is more difficult in the entire science of compositions than this, each of the four voices have not only its own fluent melody, but all of them have a uniform character which is maintained so that in their union, a single perfect whole is created.” In the early years this piece of composition was considered by many as a mathematical work of art and its fascination with scholars and musicians continue to grow.

Johann D’Souza has just found out that babies behave well when they hear Bach as if there was a hidden message which only they can understand.

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