On Teaching

September 29, 2019

The Art of the Fugue, part 5

This month I continue my discussion about the process of performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. The connection of all of this to teaching is tangential, perhaps, but very real. As part of the act of working on a project that is especially important and challenging to me, I find myself trying to delve more deeply, accurately, and honestly into understanding what is most important and meaningful to each student.

Yet it can be hard to figure out what is important to oneself and why. In my recent attempts to look closely at that, I have noticed that a majority of the artwork that I care about the most is either big in scale or possesses a convincing overall arc that gives it a spacious feeling regardless of the literal size or length. That arc is a significant part of what is artistically important about the work.

I recently made a list of the five specific artistic entities that mean the most to me or have meant the most to me over my life. This was not in connection with The Art of the Fugue project, though coincidentally, they all have this quality. Just for the record, the five entities are, in no particular order, as follows: The Art of the Fugue; Handel’s Messiah; Hamilton (the current Broadway musical); the Jethro Tull album-length song Thick as a Brick; and the off-Broadway immersive theater piece Sleep No More. All are in the category I have described. Each of you reading this could probably make such a list; it would surely be very different from mine. The same is true for each of our students. But I could also make a list of moments, bits of music or theater or other narrative, say no more than ten or fifteen seconds long, that are in themselves deeply important to me.

Presumably a work of art that moves through time, like music or a play, cannot have a convincing and important overall arc unless each constituent part of that arc is convincing in itself. Some of those constituent parts may be the ones that strike a given person as especially intense, important, or moving. Others may be just part of the moment-by-moment flow. Something about the relationships of those details to one another, ones that are adjacent in time and ones that have to rely on memory to be connected, has to be convincing in order for the overall arc to be convincing. Is it important to think, in shaping each detail, about how it relates to the overall arc? Or is it possible to trust that if each detail comes out the way that you want it to (on its own terms) the overall shape will take care of itself? Does this differ from one piece to another? Are there many possible ways of dealing with this effectively, and do these arise out of and then shape the interpretive stance of different performers? It seems that, among other things, it would have to vary from player to player, based on different fundamental feelings about the relative importance of overall arc and moment-by-moment experience.

Why is the overall arc so important? I do not have one specific answer, though I think there is value in asking the question. I believe that one answer that is highly personal and significant, but that also risks sounding cliché, is that it relates in part to the quest to understand what it means to experience the arc of a life, and thereby to come to terms with death. Of course, The Art of the Fugue has a special role in this regard due to its unfinished nature.

The longer a work of art is, and the more compelling its shape, the more it feels to me like a place—perhaps a place into which one can escape for a while. (That is significant even without anything from which to escape. The sense of being elsewhere for a while is enticing and refreshing in and of itself.) I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and spent a lot of time as a small child roaming around some of the buildings of Yale University. Many of these structures are maze-like and are imbued with a strong feeling of being places unto themselves, hidden and self-contained. This was perhaps especially so to a child for whom they are frighteningly big. This shaped some of my taste in architecture, but I believe it spilled over even more powerfully into my taste in music and in theater. It is relevant to all of the works of art I mentioned above, but most especially to Sleep No More. It is also a source of my love for golf, since a golf course is also this sort of place. (If you count the movements of The Art of the Fugue one particular way, the number comes out the same as the number of holes on a golf course.)

I am finding (or re-confirming for myself) that because of my propensity or craving for long structures, it actually is not a challenge for me to play from one end of The Art of the Fugue to the other. Encompassing the whole of it in my focus seems to be the aspect of working on it that comes the most naturally to me. The challenge—the part where I have to be honest with myself and not let myself indulge any laziness—is making sure that that overall shape is as convincing to audience members as it is to me. This is a place where the questions I posed above about details become critical.

To have an intermission or not: that is the question . . .

Here is a consideration that arises from the length of this work taken in conjunction with the desire to make the overall shape convincing and powerful: intermission. I do not yet know exactly how long my performance of The Art of the Fugue will be. I am sure that in my graduate school performance the music itself took about an hour and forty-five minutes, in addition to an intermission. Subsequent performances have varied in length. My recording on two harpsichords with George Hazelrigg used faster tempi still. It lasts about 78 minutes and just fits on one CD. I think that my planned solo harpsichord performances will be somewhere in between. It is rare for a classical concert lasting over an hour and a half to lack an intermission. On the other hand, an intermission interrupts the flow of the piece significantly. But so will listeners’ impatience and need for a physical and mental break. We go to movies that are longer then that, without needing to take a break. Plays lasting ninety minutes with no intermission have become more and more common. But as I ask people about this—concert patrons among my friends, students, etc.—I get a pretty strong consensus that an intermission is a necessity. I am very reluctant to go along with that, so I am conflicted. Perhaps some performances will include an intermission while some will not.

Playing a work as if improvising

I have written in previous columns that it can be useful to pretend that you are improvising the piece that you are performing. This is not a literal idea, since I am not a particularly adept improviser, yet it is an image or a way of mentally organizing the quest for spontaneity. How does that relate to The Art of the Fugue? After all, the piece is so complex contrapuntally, and we know that Bach worked on it over a long period, so we can safely assume it was not improvisatory in origin. Yet, it might be all the more necessary to try to have that improvisatory feeling as a corrective to the tendency to be over-awed by that structure, formality, and complexity.

It is a myth that improvisatory means unstructured, free, or rhapsodic. Improvisation can be of that sort, but it can also be highly structured, contrapuntal, well planned motivically or harmonically. A few times over the years I have heard an improvisation that was begun by a player who did not know how long the improvisation needed to be, but who ended up producing an experience that seemed to have a convincing overall shape. It seemed to me listening as if the expectations shaped by the beginning determined the rest, including the timing of the end. How is that even possible? Of course, I am only reporting my reaction, not anything scientific or measurable, and I do not have recordings of these moments to study objectively. But those experiences have always been in the back of my mind as a paradox that probably has something to say about musical shape. I will return to this next month in discussing the state of my thinking about the structure of The Art of the Fugue.

After practicing on different harpsichords recently I have noticed that in the four-voice mirror fugue there are passages in parallel tenths, a rarity in Bach and other Baroque keyboard music. However, these passages disappear when one voice is in the pedals, so their existence as an unavoidable technical matter is harpsichord-specific; and I can reach those notes on a harpsichord with a 61⁄4′′ octave, but not on one with a 61⁄2′′ octave! So as a very practical matter, this defines or limits what instruments I can successfully use for an Art of the Fugue performance on harpsichord. This is another example, specific to me, of the ways in which this work is playable, but just barely.

It’s all in the name.

There is no evidence that the name The Art of the Fugue or its original in German, Die Kunst der Fuge, came from J. S. Bach himself, or that he even encountered it. It is found on the title page of the first edition, published under the supervision of members of Bach’s innermost circle. It is entirely possible that the choice of that title reflected something that they knew about what J. S. Bach intended or wanted. But it is also possible that it did not: that he had not said anything about a title by the time he died, and that therefore they just had to come up with something.

I believe that the name has tended to move us toward thinking of the work as being more academic—more of a treatise or exposition about something—than the music itself gives us any reason to think that it is. In fact the younger generation circa 1750 might well have seen it as old-fashioned in a way that seemed to make it into something academic. C. P. E. Bach certainly seems to have revered his father. But he also lived surrounded by musical aesthetics that would have been foreign to his father. If J. S. Bach himself had meant to call this work something very different, say The Mysteries of Harmony or Grand Passacaglia in D Minor or The Strife of the Gods, would we see the piece differently? Would the tradition (quite weak now, but prevalent for many years) of thinking that this work was only suitable for study, not for performance, ever have formed?

We do not really know how much any child understands about the work or indeed the character of a parent. It is convenient to assume that what C. P. E. Bach says about J. S. Bach, or what he implied by engraving a certain title on a piece, is valid. No one would suggest that it be arbitrarily dismissed. But it is just not accurate or intellectually rigorous to assume that it is correct or that it could not be misleading. I know that when I myself try to understand the work or the intentions of anyone of an older generation whom I knew well, I am under very strong internally derived pressure to make the kind of narrative out of that story that I would like it to be or that I can in some way admire or relate to. I resist that, but I do not think that I can escape from it. A composer’s children and students belonged to a different generation from that composer and grew up with different artistic assumptions.

Talking about study

I have found myself slightly more inclined to look over The Art of the Fugue away from an instrument than I normally do with music that I am working on. All of the analytical work that I do with pieces is usually done at a keyboard, teasing out voices and actually playing them, looking at aspects of harmony, rhythm, melody, and so on, either while playing them or in a position to play on the spur of the moment any or all of what I am trying to analyze. Why am I spending time with my Art of the Fugue score in front of me at a table or seated in a comfy chair? I am not sure. Should I suspect myself of being subconsciously influenced by the age-old classification of the piece as one suitable for study? I do not quite think so. I believe it is two things: that I want or need to spend more time thinking about the piece than I can or should spend playing, and that I am just plain interested in it. I think that some of the time that I am spending reading The Art of the Fugue sitting in a chair is taking the place not of practicing it more, but of reading a novel or the newspaper! Needless to say, I am rethinking the ways I encourage my students to study away from the instrument!

Next month I will write more about the structure of The Art of the Fugue, in particular, the ways in which the overall shape makes sense even though the piece is incomplete and even though we are not certain about the order of the movements.

To be continued.

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