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Daniel Herscovitch walk not occupational for, consult, very own shares in or receive resources from any agency or company that would benefit from this article, and has expose no relevant affiliations beyond 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 six works the not just encapsulated every the discoveries and accomplishments of the ahead 40 years, however extended come the outermost get of what was possible, the musical language bequeathed to him – which that had already done so much to develop.

The Australian composer Felix Werder once drily remarked that us cannot completely understand a job-related of art uneven we understand who paid for it. Remarkably, however, Bach was no paid for any kind of of the over works, and indeed barely made any type of profit by personally jae won the publication of four of them.


Thus about 30 duplicates of the arts of Fugue were bought, and later the copper plates supplied in the printing process were marketed by his sons as scrap, in the hope of recouping some of the costs. So plainly Bach was pushed by fierce personal inner necessity to create these late works.

He appears to have started working on The arts of the Fugue in 1742 and, with countless interruptions, ongoing working ~ above it until 1749. That was published posthumously in 1751, and also in that very first edition, the editors included Bach’s last composition, his brief Chorale Prelude before The Throne ns Stand together compensation for the missing ending of the last fugue.

It is easy to forget that the function of Bach’s keyboard output was mainly pedagogical. Similarly, his 3 Passions (one now lost) and around 200 church cantatas were likewise intended pedagogically, however naturally in a profoundly an ext meaningful way. Through this work, his primary purpose to be to demonstrate all the myriad possibilities that fugal composition.

What is a fugue?

The Oxford Dictionary’s an interpretation of a fugue is:

a polyphonic composition in i m sorry a brief melodic theme, the subject, is presented by one part or voice, and successively taken up by the others and also developed by their interweaving.

Bach lugged the fugue to the top of its development in the hundreds the he composed, and also this occupational represents the apotheosis of the form.

The whole work is based on a layout which is composed of the two structure blocks of west tonal music: the 3 notes of a D minor chord and a scale.


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

Nothing might be simpler, and also it strains credulity the Bach might erect together a monumental edifice v seemingly unpromising material.

But this simple theme undergoes many permutations throughout the 14 fugues and four canons (in baroque terminology, fugues also) i m sorry constitute this work. Hence in the third fugue he turns it upside down, that is, whereby the original melody descends it currently 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 rather jazzy, dotted rhythms.


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

Later still, us hear that syncopated and also in triple time. Beginning with the eighth fugue, brand-new themes space introduced, but they room all in fact obtained 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 final fugue was the last he was ever to write, and additionally his longest. Although that had often hidden the BACH motif in his music (in German nomenclature it consists of the notes B flat, A, C and also B) below – for the very first and only time – the overtly introduce it together the 3rd main layout of this huge fugue. It is this fugue which has come down to us incomplete, and the reasons for this space disputed.

We can now be details that it to be not due to Bach’s last illness, which was more than likely late phase diabetes, although us cannot it is in certain.

So the inquiry remains open up whether after his death, a last page go missing, or even if it is he had actually indeed composed it however not yet created it down, or even deliberately left the incomplete.

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

A quandary for performers

Its incomplete state create a musical, aesthetic, philosophical and also even ethical quandary for the performer. Most allow the occupational to trail off at the point where Bach’s manuscript ceases rather conclude with the chorale prelude mentioned above (a chorale prelude gift a brief contrapuntal elaboration that a timeless hymn tune). This way that after virtually 80 minutes of D minor, the occupational ends with a four-minute chorale prelude in G major.

As one doubter remarked, this provides no musical sense whatsoever, yet it does make substantial non-musical sense. To the level that music at some point deals with existential inquiries of person existence, come conclude hence is perfect valid. This writer, however, prefers come play one of the countless attempted completions, in this situation that by the famous British harpsichordist Davitt Moroney.

A further contentious concern is because that what tools Bach composed this work. It is written in open up score, that is, one stave because that each polyphonic voice and, unlike practically every other work by Bach, no instrumentation is specified.

Already in 1751 it was advertised together being i ordered it in such a method as to be playable by two hands top top a keyboard instrument, and this has actually led almost all scholars to conclude it was conceived because that the harpsichord. However, come assert that it is playable ~ above the harpsichord is an extremely different from saying that it to be conceived for the instrument.


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The Fugue is playable top top the harpsichord yet that go not median it has actually been conceived for that instrument. Shutterstock

The American pianist and also writer Charles Rosen has tellingly discussed that the inquiry of what tool the work was written for would not have emerged to a musician that Bach’s time. For the couple of fortunate purchasers the the initial print, the would have been played on every little thing instruments they could play and had easily accessible at home.

The truth that the an initial complete performance of this occupational did not take place until 1922 has often been the topic of scandalised comment. But Bach would certainly never have envisaged a public rendition of any kind of of these fugues, much less a performance of the finish work, which in any type of case was unthinkable in the paper definition of the performance practice of the time.

As the Hungarian musicologist Paul Henry Lang has actually said:

each ingredient of this occupational was to it is in painstakingly studied and also slowly soaked up at home.

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

As usual Bach gives us virtually no power indications whatsoever, so that is every performer’s responsibility to send to every component the this work-related its own distinctive character. Therefore although die Kunst der Fuga is a work-related of high arts of the utmost seriousness, this walk not median that every individual fugue should be played seriously.

Thus after the solemn opened fugue, the second fugue might nearly be felt as a parody. The fifth, sixth and seventh fugues, every featuring prominent dotted rhythms, can be feel as, by turns, skittish, pompous and also melancholy, when the 12th fugue borders on the tragic.

This is in maintaining with the late works of such diverse artists together Shakespeare, Beethoven and Goya, i beg your pardon exemplify just how pathos, humour, gravity, exuberance and also tragedy are inextricably enmeshed in the deepest recesses of the person psyche.

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This write-up is shows up in conjunction with upcoming performances through Daniel Herscovitch of The art of Fugue at Brisbane Conservatorium at 7.30 afternoon on April 5, Canberra ANU school of Music in ~ 6.30 afternoon on April 21 and also Melbourne in ~ Monash college Clayton Campus Music Auditoriumon in ~ 2 afternoon on April 28.