J.S. Bach's Problem Child: Die Kunst Der Fuge (The Art of Fugue)
Old man Johann Sebastian Bach begat 20 children by two wives. Those that lived to adulthood turned out pretty good. Rather, it was one of the children Bach created that went bad, his last one, Die Kunst Der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), and it killed him on July 28, 1750. Okay, it was old age and not this piece of music that killed Bach. Nevertheless, TAOF is not without its intrigue and controversy.
Bach began his counterpoint magnum opus in the early 1740s, making an early copy of 12 fugues and 2 canons dated 1745. A second version of the piece was published in 1750, shortly after the composer's death and is made up of 14 fugues and 4 canons. Bach scholars consider (TAOF) as the composer's effort to fully explore the use of counterpoint within a single musical subject.
At this point, a bit of definition is in order. Counterpoint is the relationship between two or more musical voices, independent in shape, time and rhythm, but harmonically integrated when played concurrently. The net effect of sliding these musical voices over one another at the same time is the creation of chordal harmonies that emerge naturally.
A fugue is a contrapuntal (employing counterpoint) composition for a fixed number of musical voices. Typically, a fugue opens with a main theme, or subject, which is sounded successively in each voice. Once each voice has presented, the thematic exposition is complete. The subject is then modulated through related keys until the "final entry," which logically returns to the opening key, concluding with the coda.
A canon is a contrapuntal composition employing a melody with one or more thematic presentations after a given duration. The initial subject is called the leader, while a progressive theme presentation, played in different voices, is called the follower. The follower must imitate the leader, either as an exact rhythmic and periodic replication or some transformation of the leader. Repeating canons where all voices are musically identical and repeat are called rounds"Row, Row, Row Your Boat" is an example.
In TAOF, Bach's theme is a simple 13-note figure in D minor:
Bach modulates this theme as its horizontal mirror image (inversion), with augmented (doubling note lengths) and diminished (shortening note lengths) versions also applying altered rhythm and presentation with the ascending addition of new themes going from simple fugues to double, triple, and what most scholars thing would have been a quadruple fugue, the unfinished Contrapunctus XIV.
Bach had previously surveyed the 24 major and minor keys for keyboard with his Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well Tempered Clavier). These represent Bach's horizontal counterpoint investigation where TAOF illustrated Bach's vertical counterpoint investigation, one that was not fully realized because of the composer's death.
Two recordings illustrate the rich loam of creativity, both in composition and performance of Bach's problem child. One is very traditional and one is not.
Sergio Vartolo and Maddalena Vartolo
J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
An historic artifact of TAOF is its open scoring (individual musical voices are given their own staff) in both surviving manuscripts and published forms. This open scoring originally led scholars to speculate that the composition was intended as an intellectual exercise intended for study rather than a vehicle for performance.
While most modern music historians agree that the piece was intended for keyboard, TAOF enjoys many notable inventive treatments, including piano (Zoltan Kocsis, Philips, 1984); organ (and piano; Glenn Gould, Columbia, 1962); string quartet (The Emerson Quartet, Deutsches Grammophon, 2003); viol consort (Fretwork, Archiv, 2002); and orchestra (Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano, Opus 111, 1998).
Sergio Vartolo's TAOF, on Naxos, is performed on harpsichord with pedantically deliberate pacing and sharply demarcated musical diction. Ample time separates the tracks, giving the recording an academic personality well suited for close aural study. Vartolo's informed performance is very three dimensional, allowing the listener access to the composition's many contrapuntal nooks and crannies.