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Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op 60

composer
1845

 
It was during the first half of the 19th century that Bach began to assume his rightful place as a central figure in the history of European music, after years of neglect. The ongoing Bach Revival had no supporters more devoted than the three great romantic composers who were born in 1810, and who all helped to further the cause in various ways—Mendelssohn through his conducting of the choral works and his influential performances on the organ, and Schumann and Liszt through their involvement in the founding of the Bach-Gesellschaft in1850, and their own performances and arrangements of Bach’s music. Both Schumann and Liszt were also inspired to compose a tribute to the Master in the form of a work based on the musical motif derived in German from the letters of his name (in English, B flat –A–C–B natural).

“The work which, I believe, will longest outlive my others”—this was Schumann’s own verdict on his Six Fugues on B-A-C-H when he completed this monumental work in November 1845 after working on it for almost a year, striving to “make it worthy of the great name it bears”. Schumann is generally regarded as the quintessential romantic composer, and this makes his achievement in these fugues all the more remarkable: this is a work of supreme contrapuntal mastery that recreates and redefines the discipline and structural logic of Bach’s music in nineteenth century terms. The six pieces are very varied in style, and together they form a great fugal symphony, an epic journey through ever-changing landscapes of simplicity and complexity, darkness and light.

The first two fugues together form a kind of symphonic first movement, consisting of Introduction and Allegro. The slow first fugue introduces the four-note B-A-C-H theme, and gradually builds in speed and volume from a sombre exposition to a majestic conclusion. In the second fugue Schumann compresses the four-note theme and creates a new subject by adding some typical baroque semiquaver figures (compare the famous Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV565). With propulsive dotted rhythms and exciting virtuoso writing for both hands and feet, this is the most energetic and least cerebral of the six fugues, and represents the composer in his most fiery and heroic mood.

The short third piece is a meditative slow movement “for soft stops”, which serves as a prelude to the more substantial fourth fugue. Here Schumann transposes the last two notes of the theme an octave down, creating an angular fugue-subject that is strangely prophetic of Franz Liszt’s B-A-C-H fugue, which was written ten years later. This fourth fugue makes extensive use of the Bachian devices of retrograde and stretto, and the intricate musical texture grows from a sober start to a grand conclusion.

In the fifth fugue the severe chromatic theme is transformed into a dancing staccato scherzo of typically Schumannesque delicacy. The final movement is a magnificent double fugue, worked out with a sense of leisurely inevitability. In the winter of 1845 Schumann was also working on his C major orchestral Symphony, and a relationship between these two very different works can clearly be heard in some of the harmonic progressions of their final pages. The fugue begins with a new exposition of the main theme, accompanied by countersubjects of rolling triplets, and this is followed by a second exposition of a new theme; in due course the two themes are combined, and the music accelerates into a final climax of aspirational and soul-stirring grandeur.

from notes by David Gammie © 2006

Recordings

Royal Albert Hall Organ Restored
Studio Master: SIGCD084Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

No 1: Langsam
Track 2 on SIGCD084 [5'03] Download only
No 2: Lebhaft
Track 3 on SIGCD084 [5'25] Download only
No 3: Mit sanften Stimmen
Track 4 on SIGCD084 [3'39] Download only
No 4: Mäßig, doch nicht zu langsam
Track 5 on SIGCD084 [4'21] Download only
No 5: Lebhaft
Track 6 on SIGCD084 [2'43] Download only
No 6: Mäßig, nach und nach schneller
Track 7 on SIGCD084 [6'34] Download only

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