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Artful Fugue

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J. S. Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

(released on January 11, 2011)
HMC 902064 | 77'41"

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J. Kerman, The Art of Fugue: Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715-1750

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D. R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
One would have thought that Bach had said enough about the art of writing a fugue -- in the Well-Tempered Clavier and his encyclopedic works for organ. Still, Bach came back to the fugue in his final decade, creating extensive contrapuntal elaborations of a single theme in both The Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue. A first draft of the latter work, BWV 1080, shows that Bach had begun work on it in the early 1740s, but it is generally performed in a longer, but still incomplete, version published in the year after the composer's death. There is evidence that the posthumous published version has been altered and "finished" by others than Bach, which complicates matters.

Bach notated the score with each voice on its own individual staff, seemingly to encourage the study of the parts and their contrapuntal interweaving. Nevertheless, Joseph Kerman stands by the assessment of most specialists that Bach conceived the work -- and intended its performance -- for the harpsichord. As Kerman puts it quite wisely, "for this composer learned display was inseparable from practical performance" (p. 34). Many of the recordings we have enjoyed have been for keyboard instruments, like those by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), André Isoir (organ), and Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord). In this recent recording by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the instrumentation changes with each movement, ranging from solo harpsichord or organ, to small chamber groups (string quartet, combinations of winds with brass or harpsichord), to the full ensemble. This is in line with some irresistible transcriptions of other Bach keyboard works, for various sizes of instrumental ensemble.

The results are rather idiosyncratic and quite wonderful listening. The group spreads out the four canons among the contrapunctus movements, which are performed more or less in order (the "correct" ordering of the movements, which differs significantly from source to source, is a matter of speculation). Cues in the music seem to have inspired the choices of instrumentation: for example, the explicitly written-out notes inégales of Contrapunctus II are played on solo harpsichord. The instrumentation also often illuminates the formal structures, as in Contrapunctus VI, the French overture, where stronger or softer instruments are used to differentiate fugal entrances from episodes of filigree notes, and in Contrapunctus VII, where the harpsichord plays most of the figuration and string quartet reinforces entrances of the subject and answer.

Since the interpretation is not trying to hew to the musicologically "correct" (thank heavens), it would have been great to have some more ornamentation and flights of improvisatory fancy (for example, the final cadence of the Canon at the 10th, marked "cadenza," gets only a few notes from violinist Bernhard Forck). The two mirror fugues (XII and XIII) receive two performances each, the rectus and inversus forms mirroring each other in different instrumentations. The best decision of all is how the players treat the fragmentary Contrapunctus XIV, the possibly quadruple fugue left unfinished by Bach, weaving in the theme of his own last name: eschewing any of the completions -- the attempts are legion -- the group just plays it until the final notes of what Bach finished trail off into silence.

Kerman's book is about a vast assortment of Bach's fugues, not only Die Kunst der Fuge, and he notes that "most of the fugues [in the work] differ significantly from any Bach had composed earlier," adding that "some are contrapuntally much more complex" and "some are simpler." As Kerman sees it, Contrapunctus I, the first fugue in The Art of Fugue is an "elemental fugue" stripped of all (or most) contrapuntal devices, never even modulating beyond the tonic and dominant keys.
Also extraordinary, and paradoxical, is Bach's decision to open a work like The Art of Fugue with a fugue that evokes improvisation. There is actually a written-out cadenza at the end. Paradoxical, because if one improvises a fugue with a simple subject tailor-made for strettos -- as this subject is -- it is almost perverse to eschew them.
As if to make the point about the plainness, the rudimentary quality, of the first fugue, Bach weaves in a near-complete statement of the answer form of the subject in the final measures, hidden in the tenor line as the other voices ornament it in a cadenza-like way. As Kerman notes in his study, Bach added these final four measures, not found in the manuscript first draft, only in the version published after his death, and it seems to make a circular gesture.

Kerman labels the first subject of Contrapunctus X the "Enigmatic Subject," opening as it does on the seventh scale degree and immediately launching this fugue into strange harmonic territory, leading to an "utterly improbable contrapuntal feat that throws up new expressive chords on almost every beat" (p. 40). The "singular rhetoric of the first subject," he notes, "fascinates and mystifies. [...] What matters is not the truth but the multifariousness of fugue." Kerman also takes note that much of what makes this fugue so striking was part of the revisions published in the 1751 version; many editions include both versions as variants for comparison.

Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his fascinating book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, uses the example of the Bach fugue (mostly focusing on Das Musikalische Opfer) and the enigmatic art of M. C. Escher as comparisons to very complicated mathematical theories (explained for the layman). The uncompleted quadruple fugue of Contrapunctus XIV appears memorably in his explanation of Gödel's theories about incompleteness: was the incompleteness of the final movement "caused by Bach’s attainment of self-reference?" The appearance of the B-A-C-H theme right before the manuscript runs out generally makes me think that Bach intended that final fugue to be incomplete just as he left it, a gesture to the infinite, to the circularity of the form that is implied by the end of Contrapunctus I. About Die Kunst der Fuge, Charles Rosen stated that the work "must, indeed, be played many times before its deceptive lucidity can be penetrated." The fugue, after all, is a process rather than a defined form, strictly speaking, and perhaps the ideal fugue is endless.

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