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8.550703 - BACH, J.S.: Art of Fugue (The), Vol. 1 (Rübsam)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach often composed pieces as part of larger, summarial works. Thus the Orgelbüchlein was to contain a Chorale Prelude for each feast of the church year, the prelude-and-fugue pairs in the Well-Tempered Clavier represent all possible keys, etc. Similarly, Die Kunst der Fuge ("The Art of Fugue") was designed to offer a compendium of all types of fugal technique.
The fugue of the mature Baroque was the final flowering of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony. While most composers of Bach's generation had turned to other musical forms, Bach himself continued to write in "older" styles, and was to become the unchallenged master of the fugue. Die Kunst der Fuge was written during the last years of his life, and was being prepared for publication at the time of his death.
Though it was highly revered by later composers and in small circles of musicians, the work was not generally known to concert audiences until 1927, when it was performed at Bach's own Thomaskirche in Leipzig. This performance premiered an arrangement of the work by Wolfgang Graeser for orchestra, under the baton of Karl Straube. Graeser was under the impression that he had rediscovered a lost work. This fact, coupled with a lack of historical information concerning the work, led to a great deal of conjecture and speculation on the part of early 20th-century scholars.
Many misconceptions concerning Die Kunst der Fuge still exist today. Especially romantic is the notion that this was Bach's "swan song" -- that the composer, somehow sensing his imminent death, had set out to summarize all he knew about fugal writing, an art which he presumably also sensed to be dying. It is more likely that Bach was simply interested in the systematic elaboration of a single theme or subject. In fact, he had already demonstrated this with the Goldberg Variations, the Musical Offering, and the Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel Hoch", all of which also stern from the last decade of his life.
Especially unfortunate for the work was the idea that, since Bach himself made no indications concerning performance medium, it was not intended for performance. Many scholars through the years tended to consider Die Kunst der Fuge little more than a didactic treatise, even referring to it as "eye music". This has resulted in it being among Bach's least-performed and least-known works. Yet, given Bach's well-documented practicality and his nature as a musician, it seems unimaginable that he would have conceived this or any of his works without performance in mind.
Many possibilities as to performance medium exist today, including arrangements of the work for instrumental ensembles not even known to Bach. Still, keyboard instruments offer the most stylistic and logical realization of the score. The organ, with its tonal colour possibilities, its ability to sustain the numerous pedal points in the work, and its obvious prominence in the composer's life, seems increasingly to be the best vehicle for performance of Die Kunst der Fuge.
Die Kunst der Fuge consists of fourteen "Contrapuncti" and four canons, all based on a single fugue subject or elaboration of it. An extremely wide range of contrapuntal types and styles is represented. From straightforward fugues in the earlier counterpoints, the work progresses through double and triple fugues (i.e., fugues with more than one subject) and mirror fugues (employing invertible counterpoint).
The final fugue, generally thought to have been left unfinished at Bach's death, is the torso of w hat appears to be, a quadruple fugue, combining four subjects. The first three of these are fully developed; Bach's manuscript trails off at the point where the fourth (probably the original) subject would have been introduced. Such a fugue would have been a major technical feat and a fitting close to so monumental a work.
Many questions still surround Die Kunst der Fuge. None of them need preclude today's listener the enjoyment of it as a musical masterwork demonstrating the highest achievement in fugal technique from the pen of its fines! master.
Don H. Horisberger
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