On Teaching

August 28, 2019

The Art of the Fugue, part 4

Over the next two months, I will continue my analysis of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080, with a focus on my own experience of learning the piece. Following that, I will expound on the piece itself: namely analysis, form, history, and more. The later stages of the discussion will refer back to the long program notes I originally wrote in 1985 that formed the content of the July and August columns. This will include looking at some of what I wrote there in greater detail and from various points of view.

The ideas constituting this month’s column are set down in no particular order—not quite as a stream-of-consciousness narrative, but with some of that miscellaneous quality, somewhat reflective of how I learn a piece as monumental as The Art of Fugue. Of course, there is a big part of that process that is highly structured, especially the act of practicing.

The Art of the Fugue is monumentally important to me. I care about it more than any other piece of music, which is not a statement I make lightly. I have experienced the work, both as a listener and as a performer, While performing, it has a level of emotional power that is both deeply satisfying and difficult to live with. It is a known phenomenon that once in a while a person simply cannot listen to some particular piece because the emotional effect is too strong, too disturbing. I have a similar experience with The Art of the Fugue.

I can remember once hearing from a musician that he could not listen to the Bach Saint Matthew Passion because it was overwhelmingly emotional—but that he could and did participate in performing it. Being involved that way did not weaken his emotional force. Rather, it gave it somewhere to go that made it manageable. That is different from my experience with The Art of the Fugue. I find the piece more intense and powerful—and that intensity and power more difficult to assimilate—when playing it than when listening to it.

I do not think it is that I “like” my own performance better than the ones I might listen to. That is, in itself, a complicated concept. I make the interpretive/rhetorical choices that I want to make, whereas other performers make the choices that they want to make. So my own playing is at least striving to be that which I would find most powerful. It does not always succeed. Consequently, ideas that are not the ones that I have thought of myself can end up striking me as powerful.

I suspect this is not about liking interpretive choices or a particular performance. It may be connected with another aspect of my relationship to The Art of the Fugue. I wrote in the column from June 2018 that I experience a kind of impersonalized, societal superego looking over my shoulder while I perform with harpsichord performance than I do with organ performance. This is not that I necessarily think that my organ playing is more successful than, or better than, my harpsichord playing. But for some complex set of psychological reasons I have a more settled sense of ownership in my organ playing. In a similar way I seem to be discovering that I have an extremely solid, even unshakeable feeling of ownership in this piece. That sense feels exactly the same, in nature and in strength, whether I am playing it on harpsichord or organ. I intend to use that sameness to overcome some of the weakness in the feeling of ownership that I sometimes have at the harpsichord. In other words, some of the strengths of the way that I feel about The Art of the Fugue will, after I experience performing it on the harpsichord, be transferable to other harpsichord performance situations.

My early history with The Art of the Fugue

The first time I performed The Art of the Fugue was May 8, 1985, on the Fisk organ at Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey. This was the first of my two graduate recitals for the Master of Music degree in organ performance. I presented two recitals; the school’s policy stated that one could play either one recital from memory or two with music. It was easy for me to choose the latter. On the day of my first lesson in January 1985, I put The Art of the Fugue score up on the music desk before my teacher Eugene Roan came into the room, and then with some fanfare announced to him that I wanted to play it as a recital. He agreed immediately, even though it was clearly a stretch for me to learn it within the projected time! (I was 27 years old then, a late-bloomer as a player.)

This was an important step in the evolution of my belief that everyone should be allowed and encouraged to work on that which they find the most deeply important, engaging, and exciting. An interesting difference exists, however, between the project that we began that January and the normal approach that I take with my students as to their repertoire choices. Normally, if a student wants to work on something that is a “stretch,” I make it clear that I am very happy to oblige. But I also note that one key to making that process work is that there be as little time pressure as possible to allow the process to unfold naturally.

In the case of my first pass at The Art of the Fugue, we knew very well that we did not have any time flexibility, and the piece is long and difficult. There are passages that are still, at a minimum, tied for being the most challenging music that I have ever tried to learn for performance. So it was a bit of a gamble and a high-wire act. One consequence of this was that I spent that late winter and early spring doing something that I had never done before and have not done since: actual ten-hour practice days. I was taught up until then that it was counterproductive to practice for more than four hours a day. For those three months I averaged something like eight hours, five or six days a week, with some of those ten-hour days thrown in.

This was grueling and tiring, physically and mentally. I have never wanted to do anything like that again. But simultaneously, it was fun, exhilarating, and clearly something that could become addictive, even though it seems not to have done so for me. It also was effective. I learned the piece: not perfectly, but well enough to give a performance that made the people glad they were present. (That concert was not recorded. I am almost certain that many of the tempos were slower than what I would now want, and that was in part out of necessity. I also remember there being plenty of wrong notes.)

I believe that the full-immersion approach to the initial learning of the piece left me in a position to revisit it later with a kind of serenity and comfort that feels like quite a luxury when dealing with something so imposing. That practicing experience was, among other things, kind of mind-bending. I felt sort of spaced out, vertiginous, in another world much of the time. I now wonder whether my sense of bonding with the piece comes in part from my having encountered the nitty-gritty of learning it for the first time. Though a lot of effort was involved, it was also sort of as if I had learned it in a dream; therefore, it felt in a way like something that had been magically bestowed on me rather than something I had done.

Instrumentation in The Art of the Fugue

The Art of the Fugue was not designated by its composer as written for any particular instrument or combination of instruments. For my purposes in planning out a performance, this is liberating. We are all very aware of transcription as a kind of thing in itself. If I take the notes of a Beethoven string quartet and try to execute them on the organ, that is a transcription. Transcription has been an important aspect of organ literature for ages. In some way—which is not rigorously defined—transcription is seen as different from other performance. (As a personal confession: part of my own frustration with the common practice of performing harpsichord music on the piano is not that it is done, but that it is never categorized as “transcription.”) I have a lot of faith in composers’ abilities to know what they are doing with sonority, and I have a preoccupation with shaping music and performance to sonority, so I have never been that interested in playing transcriptions myself.

But what is or is not transcription with The Art of the Fugue? Neither a harpsichord performance nor an organ performance can fall into that category. How about a clavichord performance? Bach never specified clavichord in so many words for any piece of his, whereas he did for organ and harpsichord. How about a performance by an ensemble of any instruments that the composer could have known? There is a fair amount of reason to assume that he had keyboard performance in mind, but it is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. What about instruments that the composer could not have known?

Even though we care about what is or is not a transcription, it is not really important to know how to answer these questions. I enjoy knowing that the various ways that intrigue me to perform the piece all have similar claims to being “valid,” while each one has its own light to shed on the work. The ways of distributing the piece on instruments that interest me the most are the following:

1) on organ, played “like organ music.” That is a deliberately silly way of putting it, but what I mean is with ample pedal, by and large putting bass lines in the pedal, typical of Bach’s other organ music. One feature of this approach is that it allows the three-voice mirror fugues to be played in trio-sonata texture. In some other movements, the distribution of the four voices over two hands and feet enables the independent motion of the voices to be especially clear.

2) on organ, mostly or entirely manuals. This approach opens up the interesting idea of playing on a chamber organ or trying out lighter textures.

3) on harpsichord. Part of the interest for me right now of this very normal, obvious, and mainstream approach is that I have never done it.

4) on two harpsichords. For several years about ten years ago, my occasional student and current colleague George Hazelrigg and I performed and recorded The Art of the Fugue in a thoroughgoing arrangement for two harpsichords. That is, every movement was played by two instruments, usually with each of the four voices on a different manual. This provided an extraordinary variety of colors, but all within the landscape of colors that the composer knew. It made the note playing simpler for each performer, but introduced the challenge of chamber-music-like coordination.

It is fascinating to me that in the entire Art of the Fugue there is exactly one note that is unplayable on the organ (because of compass) and one spot that is unplayable by one performer on the harpsichord (because of hand span). Since there are plenty of arguments in favor of playing the work on either of those instruments, it almost seems like he is teasing us!

Since I have played this work on the organ frequently in the past, learning it and playing it on the harpsichord is the first priority for the current project. That is true both in that, in a pinch, it is more important as a project for me and in the sense that I plan to do it chronologically first. However the real point is to see how it feels to have both performances in my fingers and feet simultaneously and to try to get comfortable playing it one way one day and the other way the next day or soon thereafter. There are two main components to this: getting comfortable with the differences in sonority and touch between the two instruments and the interpretive/rhetorical differences that these make necessary, and getting used to playing some notes now in the pedal and later in the hands.

In one of my first columns in The Diapason, addressing the question of why playing manuals-only is often considered easier, I wrote “ideally, the more resources one can bring to bear on playing a piece—like ten fingers and two feet rather that ten fingers alone—the easier it should be.” Working on The Art of the Fugue simultaneously with pedals and without is a good test of this. Often the fingerings required to play all four voices of a four-voice movement are extremely complex. The gain in out-and-out easiness created by only having to finger the three upper voices is considerable. It is also usually meaningfully easier to make the voices seem clear with this lighter load. On the other hand, the bass lines themselves, while most are amply playable by the feet, are also often extremely challenging. Both sides of the equation are heightened in intensity, and there is the matter of keeping both approaches fresh and reliable at the same time. Will there be moments at the organ when the outer part of my left hand inadvertently starts to play the pedal line? Will there be moments at the harpsichord when the same outer part of my left hand drops out, relying on a pedal keyboard that is simply not there?

I close this month with a couple of stray thoughts. I notice reading through the piece these last months that I feel significantly less connected with Contrapunctus II than with any of the others. That certainly does not mean that I do not like it. I like it a lot, as I do the whole piece. Maybe just a tiny bit less. And, as a practical matter, I have a much less well-developed sense of what I want to do with it than I do with any other movement. It is the one that begins with the version of the theme seen in Example 1.

And I have also noticed that when a fragment of The Art of the Fugue starts going through my head, more often than not it is the opening of the long and imposing final movement. I do not know why this is the case, but I just want to notice and muse about all such things.

To be continued.

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