'Music of extraordinary beauty and poise. Strongly recommended' (Fanfare)
'An impressive recording' (Fanfare)
'Terrific performances … magnificent' (Amazon.co.uk)
Movement 1: Contrapunctus I [3'23]
Movement 2: Contrapunctus II [2'38]
Movement 4: Contrapunctus IV [3'21]
Movement 5: Contrapunctus V [4'45]
Fed up with endless Bach recordings this year? Hyperion have added some variation to all of the releases for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death by recording Robert Simpson's arrangement of the well-known Art of Fugue for string quartet. The Art of Fugue has been arranged for many media, even for orchestra, but Simpson believed it was essential that the four parts should retain their identities throughout (not possible with colourful orchestral mixtures), and saw the string quartet as the ideal medium for conveying the beauty of four-part counterpoint with perfect clarity and sensitivity.
Sleeve notes are by Robert Simpson, written before his death in 1997, and Howard Smith.
Other recommended albums
Simpson: String Quartets Nos 3 & 6 and String Trio
Archive Service OnlyCDA66376
Bach’s 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. contrapuntal [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 understood only 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 and variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ (1747).
By 1748 he was ready for a great, final summation; a work with every manner of counterpoint 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. Bach’s 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 soggetti’ in the printed version, Contrapunctus XIV in this recording. 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 XI. 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 V, VI and VII.
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 (1906–1928). 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 as 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 Sir Donald Francis 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?
The 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 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’. Albert 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 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 counter-fugues 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.
The tracks on this disc can be detailed as follows:
(1) Contrapunctus I: The first of four simple fugues. Here it is played straight and serves to introduce the basic shape and character of the theme.
Howard Smith © 1992