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Hyperion Records

CDA66631/2 - Bach: The Art of Fugue

Recording details: January 1992
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Antony Howell & Robert Menzies
Release date: August 1992
Total duration: 119 minutes 44 seconds

'The remarkable Tatiana Nikolayeva … uncovers Bach's revelations as if they were her own' (The Independent)

'Absolutely superb. Certainly I can think of no finer recording of this endlessly fascinating masterpiece, whatever the medium. Highly recommended' (CDReview)

The Art of Fugue
Ricercare a 3  [6'53]
Ricercare a 6  [9'40]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The contrapuntal Ricercare derives from the vocal motet and dates from as far back as Flemish composer Adrian Willaert (c1490–1562). He wrote nine instrumental ricercari (1551). Subsequently, organ ricercari were prevalent in seventeenth-century Italy. Most commonly, ricercari are in several sections, each of these being a fugal exposition with the basic theme presented in each polyphonic voice.

Some ricercari allowed each section its own theme. Others had a single theme taking on different guises within each section. Gabrieli and Frescobaldi, in particular, drew upon the form. But the style reached its zenith with the three- and six-part examples in Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ (1747).

That year, while visiting Potsdam, Bach was challenged by Frederick the Great to improvise a six-part ricercare. The Berlin News (11 May 1747) reported:

His Majesty was informed that Capellmeister Bach had arrived in Potsdam and was waiting in His Majesty’s antechamber for His Majesty’s most gracious permission to listen to the music. His August Self immediately gave orders that Bach be admitted, and went, at his entrance, to the so-called ‘forte and piano’, condescending also to play, in person and without any preparation, a theme to be executed by Capellmeister Bach in a fugue. This was done so happily by the aforementioned capellmeister that not only His Majesty was pleased to show his satisfaction thereat, but also those present were seized with astonishment.

During the Potsdam gathering (4 May), Bach had essayed a 3-voice fugue for the monarch. This most likely became the basis for his lighter, more questing ‘Ricercare a 3’ which, in turn, joined canons and a trio sonata to make up Ein musikalisches Opfer (‘A Musical Offering’, 1747), a conjunction of contrapuntal works, dedicated to the Prussian king. Bach’s treatment of the royal theme has a variety of changing motifs. The increasing rhythmical and harmonic intensity retains its symmetry through recapitulations and later to a dimunution of motifs taken from the subject.

Bach also accepted the royal challenge and back in Leipzig fashioned what is sometimes known as his ‘Prussian Fugue’—Ricercare a 6—a miracle of expressive, elaborate harmony and structural compression. Here the royal theme is enlarged with a quiet grandeur in the manner of a slow alla breve. There are extended polyphonic episodes in quadruple and triple counterpoint. A rising chromatic motif from the bass leads to the final entry of Frederick’s theme.

Unlike contrapuncts within The Art of Fugue the splendour and severe lyricism of this Ricercare emerges from within the six entries and six additional statements of the theme, one in each voice. N.B. The Ricercari have no stretti, no inversions and no subsidiary themes.

From the Musical Offering it is the 6-part Ricercare alone that survives in Bach’s own hand. The original print was engraved in the main by J G Schübler of Zella. Then Breitkopf of Leipzig assembled and printed the work for distribution during the town’s Michaelmas fair, beginning on 1 October (1747). Bach asked for a 100-copy print run.

Apparently he distributed most of these among friends. One, on special paper, went to the king, the remainder were sold at one thaler each. His two eldest sons became agents for the ‘Offering’ in Halle and Berlin. This orginal edition has no consistence, either in format or pagination, though, as Cardiff University scholar Malcolm Boyd observed (1983): ‘The question of a fixed order does not arise until we wish to bind the work under one cover or to perform it complete, and there is no evidence that Bach envisaged either course.’

The neglected Four Duets are found within Part III of the four-part Clavier-Übung, patterned on a Neue Clavier-Übung (1689) from Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s forerunner as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The Clavier-Übung begins with six suites originally presented as a complete set in 1731. Two works, the Italian Concerto (BWV971) and the Overture in the French Style (BWV831) appear as Clavier-Übung Part II (1735). Bach’s final part has just one work, his ‘Aria with Divers Variations’ (BWV988), more commonly known as the ‘Goldberg Variations’.

The intervening element, Part III, begins with a prelude in E flat (BWV552), part of a larger five-part fugue which later re-emerges, once again in E flat and with three subjects. A sequence of liturgically-based chorale preludes (BWV669-89) separates these E flat episodes. In all, with the four puzzling Duets recorded here, Clavier-Übung III is seen to have 27 separate items.

Within this sub-section of the Clavier-Übung we find divergent styles—some of almost elegant superficiality, others in antique mode suggest an ‘adopted’ approach. Bach’s uncommonly severe chorale preludes and even more the four peculiar Duets with abrupt, chromatic and (sometimes) bitonal strands, accentuate the diversity. Says theorist Boyd, ‘The mere presence of the Duets still requires explanation, and Bach scholars are not in agreement even about the instrument they were written for.’

The Art of Fugue is universally upheld as a major intellectual tour de force of Western civilisation; one of the great wonders of musical art. Above all it summarizes the entire known potential of counterpoint.

Standard dictionaries define counterpoint thus:

n. the art of combining melodies. adj. contrapunt'al [Fr. contrepoint and It. contrappunto—L. contra, against, punctum, a point. points or notes placed against those of the melody.

Etymology is well and good. But the form is only understood when its principles are fully realised as they are within this masterpiece. No-one understood the workings of counterpoint more fully than Bach and in his final years the composer, then Cantor at St Thomas’s, Leipzig, was more and more preoccupied with contrapuntal music. He completed the ‘Goldberg Variations’ (1742), the Musical Offering (1747, see above) and variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ (1747).

By 1748 he was ready for a great, final summation; a work with every manner of contrapunct and canon based on one great theme. The following year work commenced and, despite the ravages of a fatal eye disease, this final profound undertaking was almost completed in the year of his death (1750). It proved a monumental revelation, an unfinished series of contrapuntal variations imbued with unfailing variety and limitless imagination.

While creating The Art of Fugue, the 65-year-old Bach embodied within the work unparalleled splendour and poetry. But his overriding aim was purely to exhibit the comprehensive possibilities of a single, simple ‘subject’ with various types of fugal and canonic writing. The debilitating final disease prevented its completion. But during his final months, work on publishing The Art of Fugue had already begun.

A complete version in Bach’s autograph predates the published one and the formal copper engraving was partially supervised by him. However, it could hardly be said to bear his imprimatur for at some point members of the family began passing pages to the ‘unknown’ engraver who continued working from the manuscript with no thought or understanding of the music or its true sequence. Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel eventually took charge of the publication and it appeared posthumously in autumn 1751. The results were messy and bewildering and performers looked at the work in utter confusion. The Art of Fugue was regarded as a labyrinthine exercise; a drily academic tangle of uncommon severity.

This widely held view meant that Bach’s towering masterpiece suffered undeserved neglect and obscurity for much of its history. Carl Czerny and Philipp Spitta regarded it as a keyboard work. But difficulties arose from the incomplete form. Bach had not finished the final fugue, superscribed ‘Fuga a soggeti’ in the printed version; Contrapunctus 14 in this recording (Graeser No 19, see below). And aspects of the original printing were the subject of unending speculation.

The opening four fugues pose no problems. Indeed there is no great stumbling block up to Contrapunctus 11. Most academics detect Bach’s influence in the ordering of the pieces to this point though several ponder over the use of three (not four) ‘stretto’ counter fugues; Contrapuncti 5-7.

Still greater difficulties arise with the remaining unnumbered items, so quixotically arranged in the first print. Until the present century many would-be performers remained doubly flummoxed as the score bore no directions about the work’s instrumentation. Credit for its twentieth-century revival must go to the young Swiss student Wolfgang Graeser (1906–28). He painstakingly unravelled the tangle and in 1924 prepared a running order with the canons and fugues set for various groups of instruments. The Graeser version was first heard in 1927 at a concert in the Leipzig church of St Thomas. Karl Straube directed.

Interest was enormous. Musicians everywhere took note and the academic fraternity considered the event a watershed in our understanding of eighteenth-century music. Beyond the hub of Bach’s continent, The Art of Fugue was now reconsidered with equal zeal, thought of less as the last disordered, creative gasp of a dying man and more the comprehensive, consummate summation of Bach’s immeasurable genius.

News of this event spread through Europe like wildfire. It crossed the Atlantic and within two years Stokowski presented Graeser’s orchestral version at Mrs Coolidge’s Chamber Music Festival in the Library of Congress, Washington. By 1930 and 1931 New York audiences were witness to performances by the Juilliard Graduate School under director Albert Stoessel.

In fact Graeser had simply split the work into two parts, each one beginning with limited forces (string quartet or harpsichord). From this base the instrumentation was progressively enlarged, first to chamber ensemble proportions and then to full orchestral dimensions. In the first eleven fugues Graeser adopted the order of the original; his first half comprised the four simple fugues, the three inverted fugues and the four double/triple fugues. His second part had the canons, mirror fugues and the quadruple fugue.

Graeser’s arrangement was soon set aside in favour of more economical instrumentations. Weighty orchestral incarnations all but vanished. By this time the work was most usually heard with chamber orchestras or from string quartets. Bach’s four-part writing led to still more experimentation with a variety of groupings. Organists turned to The Art of Fugue and the work was re-examined yet again.

In 1932 Tovey endorsed the nineteenth-century belief that the work had been intended for the keyboard. He published an open-score edition as well as one for keyboard. Like other performers and academicians he also produced a ‘complete’ version of the final, four-part fugue which breaks off after measure 239. Whether Bach intended his variations for the organ or harpsichord, for chamber group or orchestra, remains unclear to this day.

Gustav Leonhardt contends that a mere glance at the compass of the alto voice in the first twelve fugues will reveal how none of Bach’s ensemble groups may properly be used in performing the work. ‘Every instrumentation must resort to a completely anachronistic group of instruments,’ he says. And he adds, ‘no single voice has a specific instrumental character. This … may account for the greater variety of instrumental attempts.’ The Dutch harpsichordist and scholar explains that Bach never used the soprano clef for flute, oboe or violin. But the clefs he does specify were widely accepted for classical polyphony and equally for keyboard instruments.

As we have seen, the nature of instrumentation is not documented. Moreover it appears to have been submitted as an abstract counterpoint, independent of any particular instrumental setting. Such observations have led to a paradoxical theory that Bach was wholly unconcerned about the eventual performance. Which raises the question—was The Art of Fugue merely set down as an elaborate intellectual exercise?

German scholar Friedrich Blume reasoned that Bach saw his work as an esoteric activity, a disinterested transmission of purely abstract theory: ‘Bach wanted to continue a tradition of consummate contrapuntal skill … inherited from the (Roman) school of Palestrina’s period by way of Sweelinck, Theile, Werckmeister and Vitali.’

C P E Bach himself thought the work’s greatest value was as a teaching aid. He declared, ‘Every student of the art … cannot fail to learn from it how to compose a good fugue and will therefore need no oral teacher, who often charges dearly enough.’ Schweitzer took a similar view in his J S Bach, le musicien-poète (1905).

By 1756 The Art of Fugue had sold only thirty copies and 120 years later it was similarly overlooked but for the sporadic publication of a few keyboard editions. After the attentions of Graeser and Tovey in the late ’20s and early ’30s, a number of keyboard artists revived the work. Each one argued persuasively that The Art of Fugue was most properly suited to his/her own instrument.

Leonhardt put the case for the harpsichord and Helmut Walcha claimed it as an organ work. Today’s music dictionaries usually espouse a diplomatic, less self-serving viewpoint, merely noting: ‘a keyboard performance would seem most obvious.’ The fact that it was published in score is immaterial. F W Marpurg’s added preface (1752) explains that this was to facilitate reading. Charles Rosen says eighteen (twenty as recorded here) of the most complex contrapuntal works do not fall by chance within the compass of two hands. He also comments, ‘The Art of Fugue was meant to be studied by playing it, to have its marvels seen, heard, and felt under one’s fingers … it must indeed, be played many times before its deceptive lucidity can be penetrated. There are almost no dramatic effects; the most fantastic modulations take place discreetly, and the sequences are continually varied with a delicacy unparalleled in Baroque music.’

Bach began his monumental task with four fugues, two presenting the theme, the others running in contrary motion. Added to this were counterfugues where the first statement is inverted and recombined with its original form. Then there were double and triple fugues, four canons and two pairs of mirror fugues. Karl Geiringer notes: ‘To make the mirror reflection doubly realistic, the treble of the first fugue becomes the bass of the second, the alto changes into a tenor, the tenor into an alto and the bass into a treble.’ The inversus appears like the rectus standing on its head.

In fact the order of pieces on the autograph differs from that established from the printed version. The autograph is demonstrably in Bach’s hand while details of the printed version are, even now, not finally authenticated. Numbering of the first (scrupulously engraved) pieces may be based on a second ‘lost’ autograph, changed from the original layout by Bach himself. Ordering of the mirror fugues remains the subject of prolonged and inconclusive debate. With this recording Tatiana Nikolayeva adopts a sequentially-patterned progression of related fugues and intervening canons.

Contrapuncti 1, 2, 3 and 4 are the four simple fugues as detailed below. The first of four canonical fugues; ‘alla Ottava’ takes its place between these introductory contrapuncti and three counter fugues viz. Contrapunctus 5, Contrapunctus ‘in Stylo Francese’ and Contrapunctus ‘per Augmentationem et Diminutionem’. The second canonical fugue; ‘alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta’ serves to heighten the distinction between Bach’s three counterfugues (as above) and the four fugues with several themes (Contrapunctus 8, 9 [‘alla Duodecima’], 10 [‘alla Decima’] and 11) occupying the first four tracks on CD. Two remaining canonical fugues lie between the fugues with several themes and the two mirror fugues. Canon ‘per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu’, with its forthright variation of the basic form of the principal theme, relates strikingly to Contrapunctus 11 which it follows in this recording. Then Canon ‘alla Decima, Contrapuncto alla Terza’ with the syncopated inversion heralds the first of the two mirror fugues. These are numbered Contrapunctus 13 (Rectus and Inversus) and Contrapunctus 12 (Rectus and Inversus) and are so ordered through a process of simple logic. Together they lead to Contrapunctus 14, the closing B-A-C-H fugue. The twenty tracks can be further detailed as follows:

Contrapunctus 1: The first of four simple fugues. Here it is played straight and serves to introduce the basic shape and character of the theme.

Contrapunctus 2: The four part fugue is played straight. Now the latter part of the theme appears in dotted rhythm.

Contrapunctus 3: The simple four-part fugue reappears. Its main theme is inverted and a chromatic counter-subject is maintained throughout.

Contrapunctus 4: Again Bach employs the same inverted form of his theme. This is a simple four-part fugue with a chromatically moody counter-subject. There is an oblique descending-third reference to a hymn utilised in the cantatas: viz. ‘Wer weiss, wie nahe mer mein Ende’ (‘Who knows how near my end might be’) by the Countess of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt (1637–1707).

Canon (in Hypodiapason) alla Ottava: One of four canonical fugues. In two parts; the main theme is at first inverted, then played straight with substantial rhythmic changes and embellishments. It develops as a simple canon at the octave and the lower part follows the upper at four bars’ distance.

Contrapunctus 5: A simple four-part fugue. Here the main theme is varied by two passing notes. Stretti are variously spaced, both straight and inverted.

Contrapunctus 6: In four parts (‘in Stylo Francese’). Once more the main theme is varied with passing notes. The response is inverted and diminished while variously-spaced stretti are straight, inverted, normal, diminished, double and triple. The theme takes on four seperate guises.

Contrapunctus 7: In four parts (per Augmentationem et Diminutionem). Additional to variants of the basic theme heard so far. The exposition with its inverted response passes from bass to soprano and the augumentations are enriched by the four versions of the theme from Contrapunctus 6. Stretti occur at a variety of intervals.

Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta: In two parts. Another (straight) version of the main theme with major changes of rhythm and embellishments. Within the first section the canon is in the upper duodecima. For the second section parts are interchanged with the canon now in the double sub-octave. The upper part follows the lower at a distance of eight bars to the middle of the fugue; then the upper part leads with the lower trailing by eight bars (at the octave).

Contrapunctus 8: A three-part triple fugue and one of the most outwardly attractive items of the entire work. Two new themes are heard in straight configuration and reappear in contrapunctus 11. Later these themes combine with the variation of the principal theme in its inverted from. Now the main theme is inverted and rythmically diversified.

Contrapunctus 9 (alla Duodecima): Following the exposition of this new theme, the main augmented theme reappears seven times at differing intervals as a fixed melodic accompaniment. On each occasion the new theme and principle theme combine in two different intervals.

Contrapunctus 10 (alla Decima): Another new theme is introduced. Its shift from straight to inverted form occurs after the exposition. Bar 23 brings a second exposition. This time passing notes serve to vary the inverted main theme. There is also a vital new counter-subject. The two themes are combined after bar 44 while passages of thirds and sixths further enliven both themes.

Contrapunctus 11: A four-part triple fugue. It begins with a variation of the rythmically altered principal theme (cf. the inverted form at Contrapunctus 8). The themes combine and recombine in both straight and inverted form; eight themes in all. This complex equation includes an ascending/descending chromatic line regarded as the fourth theme.

Canon (in Hypodiatessaron) per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu: A daring variation on the basic outline of the theme. Its lower part follows the upper in augmented inversion at four bars’ distance. The latter half has this same canon. But now, from mid-way its parts are interchanged.

Canon alla Decima (Contrapunto alla Terza): Bach’s technique repeats that on. Again there are two parts with the main theme changed. The fugue starts out as a canon at the tenth (upper decima). It is changed mid-way, becoming a canon at the sub-octave. The crux of this fugue is its simple, syncopated inversion.

Contrapunctus 13 (Rectus): A mirror fugue in three parts. The simple, basic form of the theme is constantly changed, embellished and inverted. Its non-thematic bass remains exempt. Both mirror fugues are extended for two harpsichords where required.

Contrapunctus 13 (Inversus): A complete (mirror) inversion of the preceding Rectus. The middle section of the former becomes the upper part. By the same token the lower part takes the middle, and the upper part is bass of the Inversus.

Contrapunctus 12 (Rectus): A mirror fugue in four parts. Its simple, main theme is inverted, varied and embellished in all four parts. A second variant of the theme follows.

Contrapunctus 12 (Inversus): The entire four-part fugue is mirrored with its bass becoming the soprano and so forth. Now the total inversion has its own autonomous validity. In our present century Fricker welds the mirror and its image (12 Studies for Piano) while Bartók’s ‘Chromatic Inversion’ (Mikrokosmos VI) allows for simultaneous or successive images on two pianos.

Contrapunctus 14: In this final triple fugue Bach chose to include the letters of his own name (B = B flat and H = B natural in German nomenclature). In this way he set his personal seal on the work as a whole. The first deliberate, ricercare-like theme reads the same whether backward or forwards. It is heard in stretto and in inversion. The second theme, principally in quavers, eventually combines with the first. The third (final) theme turns to the B-A-C-H motif, presented in minims. After a brief passage of counterpoint the print ends while the autograph continues for another seven bars. Hearing the BACH theme, the instant of unison with all three themes, then abrupt and sudden silence, gives the work a final shattering impact.

Bach’s crowning achievement is concluded. But Tatiana Nikolayeva should surely have the final word in this note. Between recording ‘takes’ at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, she recalled a concert in Kharkov, Southern Russia. When this work was over, a concert-goer told her The Art of Fugue had brought him to a closer understanding of life’s tragedies. ‘There is a great secrecy about this music,’ she concludes. ‘We shall never know Bach’s innermost thoughts—all we can do is try to discover the meaning.’

Howard Smith © 1992

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