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Daniel Herscovitch go not work-related for, consult, own shares in or receive resources from any company or organization that would advantage from this article, and has expose no pertinent affiliations past their scholastic appointment.

You are watching: Which composer wrote the art of the fugue

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Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) in a portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1746.

In these 6 works he not just encapsulated every the explorations and accomplishments of the previous 40 years, yet extended come the outermost get of what was possible, the music language bequeathed come him – which he had currently done so lot to develop.

The Australian composer Felix Werder once drily remarked that we cannot totally understand a occupational of art uneven we know who paid because that it. Remarkably, however, Bach was no paid for any type of of the over works, and also indeed barely made any profit through personally financing the publishing of 4 of them.


Thus about 30 copies of the art of Fugue to be bought, and later the copper plates provided in the printing procedure were offered by his sons together scrap, in the hope of recouping some of the costs. So plainly Bach was thrust by fierce personal inner necessity to create these so late works.

He appears to have begun working on The art of the Fugue in 1742 and, with numerous interruptions, continued working on it till 1749. That was published posthumously in 1751, and in that an initial edition, the editors included Bach’s final composition, his quick Chorale Prelude prior to The Throne ns Stand as compensation for the absent ending that the last fugue.

It is simple to forget that the purpose of Bach’s keyboard output was generally pedagogical. Similarly, his three Passions (one currently lost) and also around 200 church cantatas were likewise intended pedagogically, however naturally in a profoundly much more meaningful way. With this work, his main purpose to be to show all the myriad possibilities the fugal composition.

What is a fugue?

The Oxford Dictionary’s meaning of a fugue is:

a polyphonic composition in i m sorry a short melodic theme, the subject, is introduced by one component or voice, and successively taken increase by the others and also developed by your interweaving.

Bach lugged the fugue come the height of its breakthrough in the hundreds the he composed, and also this work represents the apotheosis the the form.

The entire work is based on a template which consists of the two structure blocks of western tonal music: the three notes of a D minor chord and also a scale.


Excerpt 1 - Contrapunctus 1. J.S. Bach290 KB (download)
Source: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZusfVyit3s)

Nothing might be simpler, and it strains credulity the Bach could erect together a huge edifice through seemingly unpromising material.

But this straightforward theme undergoes numerous permutations transparent the 14 fugues and also four canons (in baroque terminology, fugues also) i m sorry constitute this work. For this reason in the third fugue he transforms it upside down, the is, whereby the original melody descends it now ascends and vice versa.


Excerpt 2 - Contrapunctus 3. J.S. Bach264 KB (download)
Source: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uH0CZ77Y7w)

In the 5th fugue, us hear it v some intervals to fill in with quite jazzy, dotted rhythms.


Excerpt 3 - Contrapunctus 5. J.S. Bach231 KB (download)
Source: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2Oheu8Gruc)

Later still, us hear the syncopated and in triple time. Starting with the eighth fugue, brand-new themes space introduced, yet they room all in fact derived from this original theme.


Excerpt 4 - Contrapunctus 11. J.S. Bach221 KB (download)
Source: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyiAdK0dD-w)


Excerpt 5 - Contrapunctus 12. J.S. Bach246 KB (download)
Source: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEYZJNkYhxM)

The last fugue was the last he was ever to write, and likewise his longest. Although he had regularly hidden the BACH motif in his music (in German nomenclature it is composed of the note B flat, A, C and B) below – for the first and just time – that overtly introduces it together the 3rd main theme of this enormous fugue. The is this fugue which has come under to united state incomplete, and also the factors for this room disputed.

We deserve to now be certain that it to be not as result of Bach’s last illness, which was probably late stage diabetes, although we cannot it is in certain.

So the question remains open whether ~ his death, a last page went missing, or whether he had actually indeed written it but not yet written it down, or even deliberately left it incomplete.

What us do understand is that there are practically certainly 47 bars absent and that right here Bach would have an unified the main theme that the whole work through the various other three themes the this mighty fugue.

A quandary because that performers

Its incomplete state creates a musical, aesthetic, philosophical and also even moral quandary for the performer. Most allow the job-related to trail off at the allude where Bach’s manuscript ceases rather conclude with the chorale prelude mentioned over (a chorale prelude being a brief contrapuntal elaboration the a traditional hymn tune). This method that after almost 80 minute of D minor, the occupational ends through a four-minute chorale prelude in G major.

As one movie critic remarked, this renders no musical sense whatsoever, however it does make huge non-musical sense. To the extent that music eventually deals through existential inquiries of human being existence, come conclude thus is perfectly valid. This writer, however, prefers come play among the countless attempted completions, in this case that through the famous British harpsichordist Davitt Moroney.

A more contentious problem is for what tools Bach written this work. That is created in open score, the is, one stave because that each polyphonic voice and, unlike virtually every other work by Bach, no instrumentation is specified.

Already in 1751 it was advertised together being arranged in together a method as to be playable by 2 hands ~ above a key-board instrument, and also this has actually led virtually all scholar to finish it was conceived for the harpsichord. However, to assert the it is playable on the harpsichord is an extremely different from saying that it to be conceived for that instrument.


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The Fugue is playable top top the harpsichord but that walk not typical it has been conceived for that instrument. Shutterstock

The American pianist and writer Charles Rosen has tellingly mentioned that the question of what instrument the work-related was written for would not have occurred to a musician the Bach’s time. For the few fortunate purchasers the the original print, the would have been play on everything instruments they might play and had easily accessible at home.

The fact that the first complete power of this job-related did not occur until 1922 has often been the topic of scandalised comment. But Bach would certainly never have envisaged a public rendition of any of these fugues, much less a power of the finish work, i beg your pardon in any case was unthinkable in the context of the performance exercise of the time.

As the Hungarian musicologist Paul Henry Lang has said:

each component of this occupational was to it is in painstakingly studied and also slowly absorbed at home.

To traction it right into the glare that the concert room is akin come displaying mediaeval altar triptychs in contemporary art museums. In both cases, however, these are among the couple of avenues we now have to experience these marvels of west civilisation.

As usual Bach gives us almost no power indications whatsoever, so it is each performer’s duty to send to each component the this occupational its own distinct character. So although dice Kunst der Fuga is a work-related of high art of the utmost seriousness, this does not mean that every individual fugue need to be play seriously.

Thus ~ the solemn opening fugue, the second fugue might practically be felt together a parody. The fifth, sixth and seventh fugues, all featuring significant dotted rhythms, can be felt as, by turns, skittish, pompous and melancholy, if the 12th fugue boundaries on the tragic.

This is in maintaining with the late functions of such diverse artists as Shakespeare, Beethoven and Goya, i m sorry exemplify how pathos, humour, gravity, exuberance and also tragedy room inextricably enmeshed in the deepest recesses of the human psyche.

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This write-up is shows up in conjunction v upcoming performances by Daniel Herscovitch of The arts of Fugue in ~ Brisbane Conservatorium in ~ 7.30 pm on April 5, Canberra ANU institution of Music in ~ 6.30 afternoon on April 21 and Melbourne at Monash university Clayton Campus Music Auditoriumon in ~ 2 afternoon on April 28.