On Teaching

May 31, 2019

The Art of the Fugue, Part 1

Before delving into the principal topic of this column, I must first briefly revisit the subject of the last two columns, which dealt with aspects of the practice of listening to music. Shortly after I finished the May column, I was in New York City for the day, and I happened to notice, walking along one of the avenues, some bins of used LPs outside an antique store. I had a few minutes to spare, so I started leafing through the boxes. Midway through I saw a record of Brahms’s First Symphony. This is a favorite piece of mine, and part of my program for that day was to hear a concert performance of it at Lincoln Center. I pulled it out to take a look, as I wanted to know who recorded it. But there was nothing: no orchestra name, no conductor, no date, no recording venue, no clues.

I had just written of my experience noticing that students and other listeners have a habit of seeking out recordings online and listening to them without noticing anything about who the performers are. I presented this as being a characteristic of the structure of modern listening technology and a strong and well-accepted modern ethos. But it is interesting to be reminded that it also is not a new concept. This Brahms LP, monaural as far as I could tell, is an artifact reflecting the view that it is perfectly acceptable to listen to a performance not only without noticing who is playing, but also without having any way to find out.

Some of the implications of this would be fascinating to explore at greater length, and I will write more about it at some point. When we listen to a performance, especially when we listen to the same one repeatedly, what do we feel about letting that particular way of performing the piece shape our way of defining it? Do we think about this consciously and give the performance permission consciously and deliberately to affect us in certain ways? The history of this has been more complicated than I was remembering when I touched on it before. That in turn ties in with questions of authenticity, which we tend to think of as being about composers, and authority, which can come from any number of places—writings, performances, teachers—and which can influence us with or without our being aware of it.

Questions concerning Bach’s The Art of the Fugue

For this month’s discussion, I turn to Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080. There are a myriad of issues surrounding this monumental opus that open windows into our thinking about authenticity and authority in particular, as well as many different aspects and dimensions of what we do as performers, listeners, students, and teachers. With its length, complexity, and importance in the arc of the work and career of Bach, crucial questions about the work are unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.

So, what is The Art of the Fugue?

It is a work written by Bach over the last decade or so of his life, consisting of many movements—about twenty, but that is one of the areas that can be looked at a number of different ways—each constructed contrapuntally, some as fugues and some as canons. The movements are all based to some extent and in some way on a particular theme. The piece was published shortly after Bach’s death in an engraved edition, and while Bach certainly composed the bulk of the music, the work was completed by others. There are also surviving earlier manuscripts of some but not all of the work.

The theme mentioned above is found in Example 1. The theme in this form opens the first movement, which is a four-voice fugue on this subject. The first movement is the only one to open with a simple statement of the theme in exactly this form and the only one that is based primarily on this form of the theme. The variants of the theme that form the basis of the other movements include inversions, diminutions and augmentations, rhythmic variations, and versions with added passing tones.

One question that intrigues me, and that I will broach here and come back to in the course of these articles about The Art of the Fugue, is, why this theme? One answer could be, why not? After all, Bach wrote fugues on a large number of different subjects and must have improvised fugues on many, many more. However, I think that it is worth interrogating the ways in which this theme in particular might have lent itself to the extended and varied treatment that constitutes this long work. The Art of the Fugue theme was not, as far as we know, or as far as I have ever heard, taken from somewhere else. (As, for example, the theme of A Musical Offering was, or as the themes of all chorale-based pieces are.) Bach wrote a number of other fugues on themes that are largely based on a minor triad, like this one. That is true of the subject of the fugue from the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542, and, in an even more thoroughgoing way, of the stand-alone Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578. The Canzona in D Minor, BWV 588, is based on a subject that could in fact qualify as a variant of The Art of the Fugue theme (Example 2).

(If that piece were dropped into the middle of The Art of the Fugue it would be quite possible to justify it, at least as far as themes and motifs are concerned, as part of the work. It would seem an interesting variant that the semitone by which the subject departs from the confines of the perfect fifth is the one going up, whereas in the original subject it is the one going down, and that the two of those outline the notes that give the minor mode its harmonic flexibility or instability.)

I have heard or read suggestions that this theme or subject is so simple, basic, plain, that it is astonishing that Bach could construct a massive edifice upon it: that his ability to do so is a particular proof of the power of his genius. I do not disagree with that conclusion, in that it took a genius to create this work. However, I am not inclined to agree with the premise. It seems to me that constructing this theme was indeed part of the genius: that it is specifically and purposely designed to carry the weight of all that was developed out of it, and potentially more. I will come back to this later on.

That brings us to one of the most famous and important things about The Art of the Fugue: that it is incomplete. The movement we regard as the final one, while already the longest in the piece, breaks off in the middle of a measure. It is not a neat ending; it is not the end of a section—just an abrupt crashing from music into silence.

The reason that fugue is incomplete is that Bach died before he could finish it. Perhaps, he had it composed in his head. It seems likely that Bach or any composer would have had to have a fairly strong idea as to where a big contrapuntal structure such as this movement was going before venturing on starting it. It is a complicated fugue with multiple themes. But that does not mean that he had worked out the ending in detail.

In any case, we do not have the last measures of this movement, and therefore we do not have all of The Art of the Fugue. This creates a set of dilemmas for performers. Should one simply break off, playing all and only those notes that we have, allowing the “ending” to be jarring? Or should the performer or performers play one of the many endings that composers, scholars, and performers have composed over the last hundred years or so? Or should one look for a nice closing cadence as close as possible to where the piece currently ends and stop there? The fundamental fact is that none of these portrays Bach’s true intentions.

I have always favored the practice of ending abruptly. This preserves a certain “purity” of playing only Bach. It also forces us to confront in the most direct way the fact that things do not always go the way we want. That breaking off is beyond jarring: it can be deeply distressing and filled with anguish. It is an ending determined, as endings often are, not by any person but by death itself.

There is no way to maintain that this troubling breaking off is what Bach intended. I have had colleagues point out to me that by playing only and all of what we have on the page, we guarantee that we are doing something that Bach could not possibly have wanted. And every completion that has been attempted has been predicated on some analysis of what Bach might have been planning. Therefore any one of them has a chance at least of being similar in concept to what Bach would have envisioned. If nothing else, the length of the piece gets closer with each added measure to wherever it would have ended up if Bach had been able to finish it. And the abrupt breaking off is replaced by a normal ending. In between, the further working-out of the counterpoint might well be something like what Bach would have done. That is presumably the goal for those who have written such continuations, and each person has brought knowledge, care, and analysis to that project. But it is not Bach’s ending, and the piece is no longer just a Bach piece.

The first published edition, supervised by some of Bach’s surviving family and colleagues, chose a version of the third plan. The printed edition ends with the last solid chord, so to speak, before the spot where the manuscript source breaks off. This is an A-major chord in a piece in D-minor and indeed sounds like a dominant. It is a chord, and the rhythmic structure of what has preceded it gives it some solidity. But it does not sound stable, which raises an interesting question about authority. This is the approach apparently sanctioned by those closest to Bach. What authority do we give to that? What do we know or believe about how likely it was that they got that idea from J. S. Bach himself?

We tend to believe that this movement, an ostensible triple fugue that was very likely intended to end up as a quadruple fugue, was clearly meant to be the last section of the overall work. It certainly looks the part. However, we do not know for certain that if he had had several more years, Bach would not have added much more. Perhaps this triple (quadruple?) fugue would have ended up as a centerpiece rather than a culmination. Or perhaps it was really intended to be a centerpiece even without more movements. We do not have absolute certainly about the intended order of the movements, only very well-informed guesses.

Speaking of performance: we also do not know for certain what Bach’s intentions were for the performing forces that are brought to bear on this work. The surviving manuscript sources and the first edition say nothing about what the music is “for.” It is all in open score—four staves for a four-voice piece, three for a three-voice piece, and so on. There are no instrument names or any words on the pages of music talking about instrumentation or performance. There is a significant amount of evidence that this was probably intended to be a work for keyboard instruments, though that is not absolutely certain. And accepting that, it is less clear whether it was for harpsichord or for organ. There is a tantalizingly similar amount of suggestive evidence for each. Another real possibility is that the piece was intended equally for each of those two instruments. There was a long tradition of writing music that fits that profile, mostly from the generations before J. S. Bach. And there is a great deal about this piece that suggests that the composer wanted it to resonate in part as a throwback to those older generations.

The question of what instrument or instruments to use in playing a piece is crucially relevant to performance, to put it mildly. And since this series of columns is really about my own efforts to grapple with The Art of the Fugue as a performer, I will return to this in considerable detail.

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