A Conservative Obligation: Bach’s Art of the Fugue

One need not yield to the grotesque spectacle of the 170-million dollar “Inaugural Festivity” during a time when wealth is disappearing by the hours. Other, more worthy, objects of interest offer themselves for contemplation…

A desideratum of conservatives is to recognize and fulfill certain traditional, impersonal obligations that they regard as incumbent upon them to the end that society and the civilized order might endure. The Commandments thus oblige one, as does the cultivation of mind; beauty also obliges one – to refine one’s sense of it, to learn the proper responses to it, to conform one’s demeanor to it as far as possible. I adduce, therefore, the example of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ultimate, Platonic work, The Art of the Fugue. This is a work that civilized people have a duty to know and to live with over a lifetime. The Art will repay the effort of acquaintance many times by lending its magnificent form to one’s inner existence. It would be best, of course, to tackle Bach’s Magnum Opus as a performer, but only professionals can match the requirements of its execution. I assume that, like me, a person who decides to cultivate his interest in this colossal exercise of the contrapuntal imagination, a summit of Western music, will do so by seeking familiarity through recordings. With luck, he might also be able to hear it in concert, although live performances come but rarely.

Bach (1685 – 1750) composed The Art of the Fugue in the last years of his life, while he was dying from the combination of ailments that killed him. A good deal of it was overwork and fatigue. Bach kept at The Art even while lying in his deathbed. The concluding movement, a monumental fugue that would sum up the Master’s command of this odd musical form sprung from the tensions of the religious wars, remained unfinished because its composer passed into his reward with the manuscript in his hands before he completed it. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Europe’s musical taste had turned away from Papa Bach’s “baroque manner.” Bach’s sons, for example, tended to express themselves in the new and popular Style Galante, which reduced the dense polyphonic textures of fugue and chorale, with their layers of intertwining voices, to the simpler textures of incipient sonata form, with its emphasis on harmonic progression as a means of evoking emotional responses from the audience. Bach meant The Art to sum up the earlier musical ethos, but in the age of the rococo, the divinely serious play – the spiritual mathematics – of strict imitative composition failed in its appeal. Or the new audience failed in its duty to appreciate the old art. The lovely frivolity of Bach’s sons, of the Mannheim composers, and of the early Franz Josef Haydn furnished amusement for people (aristocrats and burghers) who preferred elegance to gravity and diversion to elevation. Haydn himself and Wolfgang Mozart, at the end of his life, both became interested in Bach and began reintroducing fugal textures into their instrumental music. Ludwig van Beethoven followed their example and one result is the finale of his Ninth Symphony. Felix Mendelssohn knew The Art. The real Bach revival would not come, however, until the twentieth century.

How to describe The Art of the Fugue? Perhaps one must first describe the technique – or the “texture,” as I have already called it – that bears the generic name of fugue. What Jorge Luis Borges said of the baroque generally one can say of fugue specifically: a fugue is a musical composition (hence also a musical event in its performance) that imitates itself. The earliest reference to fugue as a musical form occurs in a treatise by Jacobus of Liège from the early thirteenth century where the term designates a dance for multiple voices (instruments) that chases itself; Jacobus lists synonyms such as chace and caccia, French and Italian respectively for “the hunt.” In behavioral terms, fugue means “flight,” as in the flight of a refugee from his homeland; but fugue can also refer to the disruption that drives a party to seek refuge elsewhere. Given these sociological and anthropological connotations, it is at least peculiar and possibly also significant that fugue comes into its own musically with the composers of the Protestant North precisely during the decades of the religious wars of the early seventeenth century. But ours too is a conflicted era.

Fugue expresses fractiousness and conflict of its era. In a fugue, after the initial exposure of the theme, the other voices in their subsequent entries mimic and appropriate the theme; the thickening of the texture, as parts accrue entry after entry, suggests a mêlée in which hostile parties contend for primacy – or as though for possession of some talisman. But the genius of fugue lies in its design of resolving the apparent conflict into consonant unity in the end – the congregation resolved again in a single faith. The Dutchman Jan Sweelinck (1562 – 1621) and the Danish-German Dietrich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707) wrote fugues, often calling them ricercar or fantasia. But Bach brought the form to its peak of development.

With no instrumentation indicated in the score, The Art of the Fugue consists of a sequence of 22 fugues and canons (the latter being a related form) of increasing complexity all using a single recurrent theme, or one of its variants, that incorporates the motivic four-note series B-A-C-H (“H” standing for B-flat), the composer’s musical signature. The Art is thus a kind of musical-autobiographical work. So wedded was Bach in his own mind with this type of musical expression that in perfecting it he was also perfecting himself – and pointing the way to perfection for all who might appreciate it. Some scholars think that Bach planned another grandly conceived work to be called, The art of the Canon, and that the canons in The Art of the Fugue properly belong to that other speculative essay, only tentatively begun. Some performances of The Art omit the canons, to create a sequence of fifteen purely fugal items. The final fragment of a fugue, in four-subject counterpoint, has tempted many hands to complete it. Faithful to the score, pianist Glenn Gould let the performance of the final fugue break off where, presumably, Bach died; but arrangers of The Art such as Sir Donald Tovey and William Malloch have found ways of bringing it to a plausible conclusion.

Because the published score of 1751 (there is an earlier version dating from 1740) leaves the medium undesignated, a strong prejudice would confine The Art to keyboard exposition, using a harpsichord, a piano, or an organ; but in the twentieth century, The Art has appeared in many guises, from string-quartet arrangements to chamber orchestra and even full-orchestral realizations. An advantage of non-keyboard versions lies in the ability of distinct instruments (like those of the string quartet) to represent the interweaving lines by imbuing each with an audibly individual timbre or color. Of course, what a string quartet can do, a small broken ensemble can do even better. Such gestures help non-technical listeners in appreciating the structure, not only of the separate items in the plan, but also of the plan as a whole.

The compact-disc era has done well for The Art of the Fugue, resurrecting classic performances from the mid-twentieth century and granting the musically curious a cornucopia of new performances and arrangements. The online classical music store Arkivmusic currently lists sixty-five available versions of The Art, with dozens for keyboard alone and a few for odd combinations such as saxophone quartet and an ensemble of plucked-string instruments. The classic piano and harpsichord performances are those respectively by Gould and Gustav Leonhardt. [Sony 87759 / Vanguard 1652] For organ, Helmut Walcha provides a locus classicus. [Archiv 463712] With so many solo-performer versions, however, and with so many discs offered as budget-priced issues or re-issues, no musical explorer stands likely to be disappointed. Indeed, Bach achieves such consummation and richness that almost every performance can emphasize some element of the score that other performances underline rather less. The Art is inexhaustible.

The Art has found a home in the last three decades as part of the string quartet repertory. Here performance style is an issue. The Keller Quartet performs in so-called period style without noticeable vibrato. [ECM 457849] The Julliard Quartet and the Emerson Quartet play with more or less standard modern technique, with the Emerson Quartet using more vibrato than the Julliard. [Sony 45937/DG 000090802] The Delmé Quartet, an English ensemble, uses composer Robert Simpson’s arrangement, which does two quirky things. First, it shifts the key from D-Minor to G-Minor, allegedly so as to fit the tessitura within the range of the four instruments; and second, it uses Tovey’s completion of the final fugue, with a few touches of re-composition by Simpson himself. The Delmé Quartet avoids the affectations of period-style, bringing legitimate romantic warmth to The Art. [Hyperion 67138]

Orchestral adaptations may be divided and subdivided as follows. First there are small-ensemble or chamber-orchestra arrangements, some for string orchestra with harpsichord or organ support and some for string-and-woodwind combinations; depending on the director, the musicians play using modern technique or they adopt period practice, which usually means no vibrato in the strings. Then there are true orchestral arrangements although these are fewer in number than the small-ensemble or chamber orchestra realizations. Musical purists deplore full-orchestra arrangements, arguing that these distort Bach’s baroque ethos by imposing a romantic interpretation, and that at most a type of “Brandenburg Concerto” orchestra fits the content of The Art. Here again, The Art seems to justify many interpretations – including the grand ones using all the resources of the modern symphony orchestra. In the modest category, the redoubtable Sir Neville Marriner made at least two recordings of The Art with his small orchestra, the Academy of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields; Marriner’s are modern technique performances, of great polish. [Philips Duo 442556] Reinhardt Goebel, leading his Musica Antiqua Köln, uses a slightly smaller group than Marriner and asks his musicians to play in period style, but they do so convincingly. [DG 447293]

The maverick German conductor Hermann Scherchen recorded The Art three times (once in 1949 and twice in 1965). The two 1965 recordings use Scherchen’s own arrangement. The 1949 recording, with the Orchestra of Radio Beromünster (Switzerland), uses Roger Vuataz’s 1927 arrangement calling for a large string ensemble divided into three orchestras, to approximate the sound of an organ. [Tahra 245-246] The second of the two 1965 recordings, with the Chamber Orchestra of Canadian Broadcasting, involves strings and winds. This latter has been available on CD. [Tahra 108-109]

Mention should be made of the Romanian composer Erik Bergel’s full-orchestra version of Bach’s score, which he leads in performance with the Cluj-Napoca Symphony Orchestra. [BMC 11] Bergel, even more than Scherchen, makes the case for The Art as a symphonic composition. Finally, under the title The Art of Fuguing, comes composer William Malloch’s zany adaptation, which turns The Art into a veritable history of Western music. [Sheffield Gold 10047-2-G]

[P.S. The remarkable orchestration of The Art by Bitsch and Pascal, performed by the Chamber Orchestra of the Saar and conducted by the legendary Karl Ristenpart, now has a CD reincarnation in a six-CD set from Accord, which includes the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites. The performance of The Art all by itself makes this set worth acquiring.]

Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego .

@ Capo

Not fair, Washington for crying out loud, when did Washington have any culture whatsoever?


New York would be different, in New Orleans you wouldn't even be able to get past the musician anymore.


In Moscow they wouldn't even go to work anymore. They would call their bosses to come listening.

@ Capodistrias

Thank you for sharing that interesting story with me. I had neither read nor heard about it before. It reminds me of the (supposedly) true story about Elvis Presley entering himself into an Elvis impersonators competition and finishng... THIRD.


You're welcome. Consider it PUNishment for your original Sindh (Sikh;)

Though now, I'm a little shook up about how Elvis himself could have even placed in an impersonator contest.

I'll stop now. I have to get get bach to my Bush whacking.

Bach à Bell


A note of encouragement:

Violinist in the Metro

From The Effective Club
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

WPOST 1/20/08