J.S. Bach’s The Art Of The Fugue

Les Voix humaines Consort of Viols :

Margaret Little, Mélisande Corriveau, Felix Deak & Susie Napper

Johann Sebastian Bach’s most sophisticated composition

In 1739, Johann Mattheson, musicologist and composer, challenged “the famous Mr. Bach of Leipzig, who is a great master of fugue,” to publish some triple fugues in invertible counterpoint, i.e. fugues with three subjects that could be combined in any permutation. Bach subsequently embarked on an even more ambitious undertaking that would occupy him, on and off, during the final decade of his life, and which he left unfinished: a monumental work to serve as a practical treatise, The Art of Fugue.

Bach had never been interested in theory textbooks preferring instead to place performance at the fore. He doesn’t enumerate rules, devise exercises or provide examples. Rather, he offers fully-formed compositions that illustrate both the expressive and technical potential of fugal writing. The work includes many moments of gravitas but each fugue is imbued with multiple affects, many popular styles including French overtures and various dances, throughout which Bach’s brilliant sense of humour shines out.

The last fugue was left unfinished at Bach’s death and the autograph copy includes a note in the handwriting of Bach’s son, C.P.E. Bach, stating that, at the point where his father introduced the name BACH (B flat, A, C, B natural) in the countersubject, he died. Musicologists reject this melodramatic statement claiming that Johann Sebastian most likely hadn’t worked on The Art of Fugue for months, considering his final health problems. Many other composers have subsequently written possible endings to the unfinished fugue. However Bach’s ending in mid-phrase remains intriguing and leaves all options open to the imagination of generations of music lovers!

Available at ATMA CLASSIC