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Hyperion Records

CDA67980 - Bach: The Art of Fugue
On the theme of BACH (detail) by Andrew Novialdi (b1981)

Recording details: August 2013
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: October 2014
Total duration: 89 minutes 40 seconds

'I won’t mince words. This Art of Fugue is marvellous. The variety and beauty of tone alone make compelling listening, bringing contrasts, clarity and warmth to Bach’s intellectual marvels. The fugal subjects pile up; they are inverted, augmented and turned inside out—permutations neatly documented in the pianist’s typically detailed booklet notes. Yet her fingers never make the results dry triumphs of engineering' (The Times) » More

The Art of Fugue

‘Angela Hewitt’s performance on the piano over two recitals brought this apogee of musical thought to vivid life through sound … Hewitt’s achievement is to bring its abstract purity to memorable tonal embodiment by providing an emotional context that audiences connect with’ (Sydney Morning Herald)

‘Hewitt’s eloquent exposition of each fugue’s “formula”, the result of a lifetime’s immersion in Bach’s music, could hardly be bettered’ (Financial Times)

Angela’s much-awaited recording of Bach’s ultimate masterpiece, The Art of Fugue, is destined to be the crowning achievement of her Bach cycle for Hyperion—a revelatory recording and performing project which has taken her all over the world and won her international acclaim and millions of dedicated fans. With decades of experience behind her, she breathes fresh air into the most complex keyboard-writing of Bach, bringing it to life with crystalline clarity and thoughtful sincerity.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
I always knew that someday I would have to learn The Art of Fugue by Bach. I had rather purposely put it off while performing and recording all the rest of his keyboard music—which was enough of a challenge in itself. What I had heard of it never seemed to excite me very much. Neither could I believe that Bach in his final years had at last managed to write something boring. It was therefore with great determination that I set to work on it in 2012, spurred on by my engagements in London’s Royal Festival Hall to perform it during the 2012–13 season.

It was also good to approach The Art of Fugue with so many years of Bach-playing behind me. The 'Goldberg' Variations and much of the Well-Tempered Clavier seem like child’s play in comparison. In The Art of Fugue there are no Preludes for comic relief—just one fugal masterpiece after the other. Its severity can be daunting, but also completely overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally. And now I realize it is anything but boring.

Bach was sixty-three years old in 1748 when his handwriting started to change dramatically. By the end of 1749 it is doubtful whether he could write much at all. His last known signature dates from 11 December of that year. His eyes were giving him serious problems after a life (and especially a youth) of ‘unheard-of-zeal in studying’ (as written in his obituary). It is very likely he also had diabetes. At the end of March 1750 he was operated on by the London surgeon Dr John Taylor to remove cataracts in both eyes. A second operation followed a few days later. The after-effects of the surgery severely weakened his system and he never regained his health. Ten days before his death he briefly regained his sight, but only hours later suffered a stroke. He died on 28 July 1750 at the age of sixty-five.

At the time of this final illness the plates for the engraving of The Art of Fugue were being prepared. The work, however, had its genesis much earlier, most likely around the time of Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (c1739–42) and the 'Goldberg' Variations (1741). An autograph score containing twelve fugues and two canons and bearing the title ‘Die Kunst der Fuga d. Sig. Joh. Seb. Bach’ (written in the hand of his student and future son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol) was largely finished by 1742 and is now preserved in Berlin. Bach was always one to keep perfecting things, and when the plates were being prepared in those final years he added more pieces and changed the existing order.

It is interesting that at a time when composers were beginning to turn towards the simplicity and elegance of the galant style, Bach’s music became even more contrapuntally complex. Back in 1737 the composer Johann Adolf Scheibe had attacked Bach’s style in an anonymous letter, calling his music ‘turgid’ and ‘confused’, saying it was overladen and extremely difficult to play. Bach’s supporters came to his defence. Not surprisingly, Bach didn’t change his style one bit, but instead gave us glorious creations of even greater complexity.

In his advertisement for the publication of The Art of Fugue in 1751, C P E Bach wrote:

Those who are knowledgeable in the history of music will admit that such a work, in which the entire study of fugue is so thoroughly elaborated upon a single theme, has so far nowhere appeared. Since all the parts involved are singable throughout, and one is as strongly worked out as the other, each part has been given its own system, with the appropriate clef, in score … Nevertheless, everything has at the same time been arranged for use at the harpsichord or organ.

One of the problems facing the interpreter is that the whole work is in the key of D minor and most of it is in the same alla breve time signature. It would be terrible to play all the movements in the same mood. Each must have its own character and say something different. What C P E Bach writes above—about all the parts being ‘singable’—is, I feel, extremely important. The painstaking work I did during the learning process involved singing each voice in turn and marking in the breathing points—which come at different times in different voices. There is no escaping that if you want it to make musical sense.

Contrapunctus 1: For a work that is so complicated, Bach could not have chosen a simpler beginning. There are no fugal games in the first contrapunctus, only entries of the subject (as indeed is the case with the first four contrapuncti). Ties and syncopated rhythms play a big role in the accompanying material, but there is no formal counter-subject. We have one overlapping entry at bar 32 (1'15—note how Bach always includes the tail of the subject, those final four descending notes, something he never neglects to do in the whole Art of Fugue); one false entry in the alto in bar 48 (1'51); a pedal point at bar 63 leading to a quasi-cadenza-like passage with dramatic pauses (2'24); and the final entry of the subject in the tenor over an extended pedal point 2'53). These last five bars were an afterthought and didn’t exist in the original version. Much of the episodic material has the same up-and-down movement (for instance in bars 17–23 (0'40–0'54) and 44–49 (1'42–1'53)), giving it a beautiful sense of line, and allowing for satisfying breathing spaces between entries. The mood is lyrical and expressive.

Contrapunctus 2: By the simple addition of some dotted notes to the tail of the subject, Bach completely alters the character of his theme. By continuing this dotted rhythm throughout the entire contrapunctus, he gives us a piece that really has some swing! At the beginning he slurs each group of four notes in this dotted rhythm. To me this has always meant that they should not be interpreted as notes inégales (in the French manner) but played exactly as written. I don’t think it means you have to play them completely legato. Especially when there is a tie to the next group (as in bar 5 in the left hand—0'08), a slight lift before the syncopated note makes the whole thing a bit jazzier. Not surprisingly, this dotted tail forms the basis of all the accompanying material. In bar 44 (1'16) we have an ascent into the subject in the soprano, presented in F major, changing the colour in a very attractive way. The entrance in the bass in bar 61 (1'46), having found itself back in the key of D minor, needs special emphasis. The tenor in bar 69 (2'00) presents its subject off the beat, gradually finding its way back home. It is interesting that in the original Berlin autograph, the piece ends in the dominant at bar 78 (2'16). It is then followed by what we know today as Contrapunctus 5. As Tovey points out, this must mean that Bach envisaged at least some of the work being performed in sequence.

Contrapunctus 3: The third contrapunctus is a beautifully expressive piece. Quietly assured, chromatic and very vocal in character, it was originally placed second in the cycle. By changing it to third position and inserting Contrapunctus 2, Bach gives us the chance to alternate moods more effectively. It presents the subject only in its inversion, now accompanied by a chromatic counter-subject, crawling up and down. Unusually he inserts a two-bar episode (bars 13–14; 0'30–0'34) before the last entrance of the subject in the exposition. The subsequent episode (bars 19–22; 0'44–0'53) has the upper two voices exchanging motifs while the bass provides accompaniment. A variation of this same episode will be repeated in bars 39–42 (1'31–1'41), providing a nice symmetry. In bar 23 (0'53) we have the first appearance of an ornamented version of the subject using syncopation and passing notes. Its third appearance in F major (bar 35 in the tenor—1'21) adds some beautiful warmth to the harmony. From then on, the ornamented version is presented alongside its original. The fugue takes six bars to wind down after the final entrance of the subject. In its original version there were only four bars at this point, the piece ending in bar 70 (2'44). Bach really knew how to improve things even more.

Contrapunctus 4: Contrapunctus 4 is one of the best fugues in the whole cycle. It didn’t exist in the early version, so it must have been written in Bach’s final years. The subject is again inverted, this time with its initial entry starting on the dominant A instead of the tonic D. The episodes are mainly based on two motifs: that four-note tail is everywhere—right way up and upside down; and along with it, often combined together (such as in the episodes which begin at bar 53 (1'38) and bar 103 (3'10)), is what Tovey calls a ‘cuckoo-like figure of a descending third’, which Bach inverts in bar 69 (2'07), turning it into a leap of a sixth. Special attention must be given to an enhanced form of the subject beginning with the entry in bar 61 (1'53). The fifth note is pushed up a step, bringing about a series of modulations that peaks at bar 79 with the G natural in the soprano (2'26). Pop music picked up that trick long ago. Knowing he couldn’t outdo that for a while, Bach then gives us an episode that lasts an amazing 26 bars (bars 81–107; 2'29–3'17). He has one more trick up his sleeve in this tremendous fugue, even though he still doesn’t allow any serious games. Beginning at bar 107 (3'17), the subject is presented in syncopated doubling—first in the lower voices in thirds, and then answered by the upper ones in sixths. One more enhanced subject in the tenor voice is followed by the original in D minor in the alto, bringing this fugue to a perfect close. The tempo should be more flowing than the preceding fugue, not solely as a contrast but because a lot of the material (especially the episode beginning at bar 53 (1'38), for instance) demands it.

Contrapunctus 5: Now the fun begins. Contrapunctus 5 uses a variant of the subject (which includes passing notes but no syncopation), presenting it in both the original and inverted forms. The tempo needs to be flowing but not hurried in order to sing all the parts well. At bar 33 (1'05) Bach introduces his first stretto of The Art of Fugue, and he begins with a close one: in contrary motion, the soprano enters one beat after the bass. You can see why he chose the variant with the passing notes for this initial stretto. The part-writing is so smooth and perfect—anything but stilted. Two more pairs of stretti enter, bringing us to the first of two ‘mirror’ episodes (bar 53; 1'46). Here the initial part of the subject is used in a four-part canon, at an even closer distance than the first stretto since the opening note is shortened in length. It is very ingenious and very much in the style of old-fashioned vocal counterpoint. Another stretto, this time not in contrary motion, has its tail lead us downwards to a close in the dominant. Then at bar 65 (2'10) we have the mirror image of the episode at bar 53. For the final five bars of this fugue (2'51) Bach expands the texture to six voices and gives us simultaneous entries of the subject in mirror image over a tonic pedal and tierce de Picardie (i.e. a cadence in the tonic major).

Contrapunctus 6 ‘in stylo Francese’: Contrapunctus 6 is a hard nut to crack. Not only do you have to deal with a very dense stretto fugue with inversions and diminutions piled on top of each other, but you also shouldn’t play exactly what is written in the score. Bach gives this piece the subtitle ‘in stylo Francese’, meaning that the rhythmic alterations so loved by the French should be adopted. In the opening four bars, for example, I play the first entry in the bass as written (I tried double-dotting it but for me this didn’t work—it led to all sorts of complications that didn’t make sense), but I double-dot the diminished version in the soprano, and then in the alto. This means that the two Gs in the right hand at the end of the third bar do not fall together (0'11). Now apply that to all 79 bars (over six pages) and you’ll see what I mean! Some ornamentation is also necessary, as well as notes inégales and proper articulation (tiny lifts in the right places). The demisemiquaver flourish that first appears at the end of bar 7 (0'25) is typical of the French manner and needs to be shortened even further. Once you have mastered the note values and sorted out all the entries, you still need to make sense of the fugue as a whole and find its road plan. The amazing thing is that the first closure in the piece comes only at the very end, and not before. If the whole fugue were played in the same dynamic range it would be boring beyond belief. Finding points where the sound needn’t be forced (such as bars 20 (1'14) and 62 (3'57), to take just two examples) is crucial for the overall impact. Contrapunctus 6 is terrifying in its magnificence, and is perhaps the one point in The Art of Fugue where I wish my piano were instead an organ.

Contrapunctus 7 ‘per augmentationem et diminutionem’: For this next contrapunctus, Bach has a grand plan. Besides presenting the subject in its regular and diminished forms, he also uses it for the first time in augmentation, taking eight bars to get through it. The augmented subject begins in bar 5 in the bass (0'19), and then works its way upwards to the tenor (bar 23; 1'37), the alto (bar 35; 2'29), and finally to the soprano (bar 50; 3'30), where it sings out triumphantly. Above, below and in between those entries, the other three parts are engaged in a constant exchange and stretto of the subject in its other forms, including a double diminution (first heard in the soprano in the second half of bar 7—0'30). There is only one three-bar episode in the entire 61-bar fugue (bars 32–34; 2'14). I choose to keep the opening very quiet for some time, because it is a long way to the end and the music needs transparency. The entrance in the tonic key in the tenor halfway through bar 36 (2'35) is the first big climax and brings the only point, two bars later (2'41), where we have all three forms of the subject at once (augmented, original, diminished). Bach gives us a deceptive cadence in bar 60 (4'10), delaying the only close in the piece by another two bars.

Contrapunctus 8: In Contrapunctus 8 we take a big step into the realm of double and triple fugues that will occupy Bach for the next four numbers. If you look at this great triple fugue without knowing anything about it, you might not at first see the motto theme anywhere in sight. Instead, at the beginning, you see a totally new subject—strutting firmly from one D to another an octave below. This is the first contrapunctus to have only three voices rather than four, but that doesn’t mean it has less strength. On the contrary, it has tremendous scope and grandeur. After 39 bars that deal only with this subject, in creeps a second one, underneath the first (1'13). It has more rhythm than melody, with its insistent repeated notes. At the end of this the bass comments with a new figure (bar 42; 1'18) that becomes significant material (also in its inversion) from now on. This second section, in which the first two subjects are constantly combined, is brought to a half-close in bar 93 (2'53) with something of a flourish. Then what happens? Introduced by that important motif in the bass, a third subject appears in the alto (bar 94; 2'55), which, in the manner of Brahms, has silences on every first beat. You could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the inverted motto theme.

I often like to show students in masterclasses how Bach chooses contrasting material for his subjects and countersubjects so that they easily stand out from each other (and this is why we must also choose a different articulation for each). This is a perfect example. One subject has leaps; another has repeated notes but remains tight; the third is expressive and legato. They all cleverly begin at a different part of the bar.

After the exposition of this third subject in all the voices, and more combinations of the first two, we finally come to the first triple counterpoint—all three subjects together (bar 147; 4'34). You might expect something grand for that. But no—they creep in very quietly, almost unnoticed. The first one starts off in A minor and ends up in F major. Before the end of this stunning fugue, Bach gives us four different positions of these combined subjects, gradually building up, with the help of another flourish and a pedal point, to the final triumphant entry of the motto theme in the bass.

Contrapunctus 9 ‘alla duodecima’: If virtuosity only means playing in a fast tempo then, up until now, it hasn’t been required. That changes with Contrapunctus 9. Nothing much, however, is gained by playing it presto. In fact Bach had second thoughts about this piece. In the original Berlin autograph, it was placed fifth and the note values were shorter (i.e. instead of quavers, there were semiquavers and the time signature was 4/4 instead of alla breve). In fact that is the case with all the double and triple fugues of the cycle (Nos 8–11). The last Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier (B minor, Book II) underwent the same change. No doubt these alterations were made to steer people away from playing them too fast. As Tovey rightly points out, bars 20–21 (0'22) in Contrapunctus 9 would sound ridiculous in too quick a tempo. The running first subject is combined with the motto theme beginning in bar 35 (0'39). With all the scampering around, there is no need for the motto theme to appear in anything but its original, simple version. In bars 85–88 we have two false starts in the soprano and alto (1'37–1'42) before it finally takes off in the bass. This contrapunctus is written in double-counterpoint at the interval of a twelfth, which means the two subjects can swap positions (the upper voice becoming the lower voice) and produce a whole new set of harmonies.

Contrapunctus 10 ‘alla decima’: In its original form, the double fugue of Contrapunctus 10 began in what is now bar 23 (1'02—with the bare subject, not including the bass). When you know only the later version, this is hard to imagine. The opening page is, to quote Tovey, ‘one of the profoundest and most beautiful [Bach] ever wrote’. The rests that we encountered in the variation of the motto theme in Contrapunctus 8 (and that we find again in Contrapunctus 11) return in this initial subject, which, along with two sighing figures, contains a row of gently undulating quavers. It is an expressive gesture, not to be hurried. And already on that first page Bach hints at the main reason for writing a piece in double-counterpoint at the interval of the tenth, which is the doubling in thirds and sixths that this makes possible (0'44). After two of the four voices enter, he then gives us the other two in stretto and in contrary motion. When he does get around to the motto theme in bar 23 (1'02), the voices are spaced to allow maximum clarity. In bar 44 (1'57) Bach combines both subjects together in the inner voices. After some very expressive episodic material, the motto theme is presented in sixths in bar 75 (3'15), with the first subject supporting it in the bass. Then at bar 85 (3'41) we have the first subject presented in thirds with the motto theme in the bass. He will do this twice more before the fugue is finished: in bar 103 (4'28—a particularly beautiful combination), and for the final entrance of the subjects in bar 115 (5'00). I take advantage of the possibility of doubling the motto theme in octaves for the last entry in this extraordinary piece. Note, too, the touching drop from F sharp to F natural in bar 98 (4'15), where the soprano must breathe while the alto holds the tied note.

Contrapunctus 11: When I began work on Contrapunctus 11, I was writing to a distinguished colleague on another matter, and mentioned the hours and hours I was putting into learning this piece. His answer: ‘Ah, our collective nemesis, and one of Bach’s most terrifying pieces!’ Another colleague, an equally distinguished Bach scholar, told me he simply gave up when he got to this point. Even Bach had a crisis with No 11. His plan was to take the three subjects of No 8 and write another fugue with them upside down. That’s exactly what he did, except he realized that it doesn’t quite work. In order to do so, he had to slightly modify the second subject of No 8 (in No 11 presented as the third subject) to make it feasible.

I think it’s important to give this fugue a different tempo from No 10. It is somehow more objective and shouldn’t linger. The first section of the contrapunctus uses the motto theme five times, with much use of its tail in the accompanying parts. The next section opens in bar 27 (1'00) with the entrance of the second subject—quite different in character in its inversion (this was one of Bach’s problems—it simply doesn’t resolve when it goes upwards). But at the same time comes a stroke of genius: Bach chose to juxtapose this second subject with a chromatic scale that from then on appears just about non-stop through the rest of the fugue, both ascending and descending. In that way it is similar to the great Ricercare of the Musical Offering (now known to have been written after this contrapunctus). At bars 57 (2'05) and 67 (2'29), Bach turns the second subject the ‘right’ way up again, bringing this section to a close.

The third section (2'37) has four entries of the motto theme, again turned the right way up as it was in No 8, and closing in F major. At the end of bar 89 (3'18), the third and final subject (that repeated-note one) is introduced, along with the second subject. Now the going gets complicated. For the next 57 bars the insistent repetitions of this subject become more emphatic, and, thanks also to the chromaticisms, the music pushes more and more at the limits of tonality. So it comes as something of a relief when we fall into C major at the beginning of bar 146 (5'20). This is the point (and within one bar of exactly the same point in No 8) where Bach combines the three subjects together for the first time. The most emotionally intense part of the fugue comes at bar 158 (5'45) where, as in the coda of Contrapunctus 5, he gives us the motto theme both the right way up and upside down simultaneously. He does that once more in the left hand in bar 164 (5'58), and then gives us two more combinations of the three subjects before resolving this rather tortuous piece on a major chord.

Contrapunctus 12 (Rectus and Inversus): Having got this far in his master plan, Bach wasn’t going to give up. Not satisfied with inverting only subjects, he decided to write two contrapuncti which could be completely turned upside down, from the first note to the last. These ‘mirror’ fugues couldn’t be more contrasting.

Contrapunctus 12, a four-voice fugue in triple time, is very archaic-sounding. David Schulenberg, in his book The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach, points out the similarity between this piece and a ‘mirror’ chorale setting by Buxtehude (Mit Fried und Freud) written in 1674. Much of the Rectus version is in the lower part of the keyboard, giving it a very dark quality. A slow tempo, resembling that of a sarabande, seems advisable and gives you the time needed for the unusually big stretches. Beginning in bar 21 (1'03), Bach fills in the intervals in the subject, giving it a greater sense of flow. There are some hints at stretto that don’t materialize. The pedal point in bar 50 (2'34) supports the last entrance of the subject in the tenor, with false entries in the upper voices. On the piano, played by only two hands, this piece needs a great deal of clarity if it is not to sound muddy. The Inversus is more filled with light, and the cadential flourish at the end, which in the ascending Rectus version is a gesture of hope, becomes one of finality when descending in the bass.

Contrapunctus 13 (Rectus and Inversus): Bach must have realized that he was demanding a lot in asking for No 12 to be played by only ten fingers. Perhaps had he lived longer he might have done what he did for Contrapunctus 13: he wrote a second version of it for two keyboards, four hands, adding a fourth voice to the already existing three. It is, however, not impossible for only one person to play it. It just needs a lot of lightness and agility, a few broken leaps, and, on the piano, some judicious use of the pedal. The variant of the motto theme is a dance-like, playful one in triplets—much needed after the sombreness of the previous contrapunctus (and a theme that inspired Brahms in the last movement of his Cello Sonata No 1 in E minor). Not only does Bach turn this fugue upside down, he also turns it inside out: the top becomes the middle; the middle becomes the bass; and the bass becomes the top!

Canon per augmentationem in contrario motu: Already with Contrapunctus 12 there is some discussion of which version is the Rectus and which is the Inversus (I choose the Rectus to be the one that starts with the subject in its inversion). But that debate is nothing compared to the problems we face at this point regarding what should come next. In the first edition the four canons are placed before what is now known as Contrapunctus 14, and in the order in which I present them on this recording. Many scholars think that the first one, the augmentation canon, should be placed last in the group. Perhaps that is true. But I can tell you this: when you are performing The Art of Fugue complete, it’s a very good idea to separate Contrapunctus 13 and the canon at the octave, unlike the order they advocate. Otherwise you have two lively pieces, both using triplets, next to each other. By placing the augmentation canon at the beginning of the group, we are afforded more contrast.

When you listen to this piece of music without looking at the score, you might wonder what on earth you are listening to. Looking at it on the page, you immediately see what Bach has done. A very beautiful variant of the motto theme, gently paced, starts off this canon in the top voice. Then the lower voice enters with the same music turned upside down and its note values stretched to twice their length (0'10). Halfway through he reverses the leadership role, giving the leading voice to the bass (2'06).

Canon alla ottava: It is good to have a brilliant movement at this point and the canon at the octave fulfils that role well. The jig-like motto theme variant in 9/16 time is inverted at bar 41 (0'50). This is a canon in perpetuity, meaning that it could go on for ever without finishing (emphasized by the repeat sign which I have chosen not to observe). Bach does, however, bring it to a close by adding a coda of five bars (2'04) in which the right hand dramatically crosses over the left.

Canon alla decima in contrapunto alla terza: The next canon has a double time signature, both 4/4 and 12/8. It begins in sombre mood with the inverted subject in the bass—now syncopated and with the tail dotted. When the right hand then enters, at the interval of a tenth (0'16), the left hand introduces triplets that provide a gentle accompaniment to the subject. These triplets are soon shortened to become sextuplets. They must stay light and unhurried if the piece is to maintain its gentle character. As in the augmentation canon, the parts are reversed halfway through at bar 40 (2'10). I choose not to assimilate the dotted rhythm with the triplet, so as to emphasize the dual time signature. To bring this canon to a conclusion, Bach diminishes the syncopated subject in bar 79 (4'19) in the left hand with two bars that are definitely in 4/4 and not 12/8. The music comes to a pause, at which point he writes the word ‘cadenza’ (4'27). I add a simple flourish in the right hand, giving the triplets a last chance to appear.

Canon alla duodecima in contrapunto alla quinta: This last canon uses a very attractive variant of the motto theme as its subject. It sounds rather like a two-part invention or one of the Vier Duette from Clavierübung III. It is another perpetual canon in which the leadership role reverses at bar 34 (0'54).

The canons of The Art of Fugue, unlike those in the 'Goldberg' Variations, have no third voice to accompany the dialogue. But there is beauty to be found in severity, and we should let them speak simply without trying to add too much in the way of ‘interpretation’.

Contrapunctus 14 (Fuga a 3 soggetti): Now we come to the great enigma: Contrapunctus 14, or ‘Fuga a 3 soggetti’ (‘Fugue with three subjects’) as it was called in the first edition; the fugue that Bach left incomplete upon his death. Some scholars think that it doesn’t even belong in The Art of Fugue. For me it does. I only have to play the opening six bars, after all that has come before, and I feel this is its rightful place. The first subject is drastically simple, hugely expressive despite its bleakness. For 114 bars it is used, also in stretto and inversion, to give us some of the most beautiful and perfect part-writing in all the keyboard works of Bach. In bar 114 (4'40), in the alto voice, the second subject enters—more flowing to stand out easily against the first subject. In bar 148 (5'52) these two subjects are combined for the first time. I find the combination in bar 169 (6'37), in F major, particularly beautiful. The climax of this section comes when, beginning in bar 180 (6'59), the second subject in the bass supports two entries of the first subject in stretto in the alto and soprano voices.

After a cadence in G minor (7'26), in comes the third subject. This is no less than Bach’s name in musical notation: B in German being B flat and H being B natural. To the four notes are added a cadential gesture and trill. Its inversion in the bass in bar 222 (8'41) produces some especially poignant chromaticisms. The half-close in bar 233 (9'07) leads us to the point where Bach combines these three subjects together: the first one in the bass, the second in the alto, and Bach’s signature between them in the tenor. Then the music stops. At this point in the first edition, C P E Bach inserted the words: ‘NB. While working on this fugue, in which the name BACH appears in the counter-subject, the author died.’

But what of the main subject of The Art of Fugue? It’s not there. It wasn’t until 1880 that the German pianist, composer and musicologist (and friend of Brahms) Gustav Nottebohm discovered that these three subjects could be combined with the motto theme, thus producing a quadruple fugue. C P E Bach had already hinted at this in the obituary he wrote with Agricola (Bach’s student and son-in-law), published in 1754, in which he said of The Art of Fugue: ‘This is the last work of the author, which contains all sorts of counterpoints and canons, on a single principal subject. His last illness prevented him from completing this project, bringing the next-to-the-last fugue to completion and working out the last one, which was to contain four themes that would then have been inverted note for note in all four voices.’

So was there to have been yet another fugue after this one? Perhaps so. The eminent scholar Christoph Wolff believes that Bach finished this quadruple fugue, but that the end has been lost. Another possibility is that he simply was too ill to finish it. But what if he purposely chose to leave it unfinished? Laurence Dreyfus in his book Bach and the Patterns of Invention argues convincingly for that theory. He writes: ‘The result is that we, the fortunate inheritors of this work, are compelled to wonder at the conclusion to the final fugue at the same time that we reflect on the loss of someone so passionately dedicated to its cultivation.’

Several people have written conclusions to Contrapunctus 14, including Tovey. I have chosen to leave it incomplete. The effect created, especially in performance, when such eternally flowing music comes to a stop takes our breath away and creates an even greater sense of awe than if it were finished.

Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein ‘Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit’, BWV668a: C P E Bach was thus faced with an empty page when preparing the first edition. As a final farewell he decided to insert the chorale Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit, BWV668a, a cantus firmus on which Bach had already written a chorale prelude—Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, BWV641, in the Orgelbüchlein. Known as the ‘Deathbed’ chorale, legend has it that Bach dictated it in his last moments. Regardless of whether this is true or not (it was more probably revisions that he dictated), this music speaks for itself. Devices found in The Art of Fugue (diminution, inversion, stretto) are used with the utmost simplicity to produce a profound piece of music. The key is G major—the same tonality Bach used when writing the chorale prelude Alle Menschen müssen sterben (‘All men must die’). The chosen text gives us the words:

Before your throne I now appear,
O God, and bid you humbly:
Turn not your gracious face
From me, a poor sinner.
Confer on me a blessed end,
On the last day awaken me,
Lord, that I may see you eternally;
Amen, amen, hear me.

It creates an almost unbearably poignant moment in performance to play this prelude after the unfinished fugue, separated by a long silence. The composer who, perhaps more than anyone, wrote music that offers us solace in times of trouble was now facing his own end. He did so with the greatest strength, total acceptance, and even joy. Only in the final two bars do we hear a hint of sadness. There could be no ending more fitting than this.

Angela Hewitt © 2014

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