The Death of JS Bach: Introduction to The Art of the Fugue
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The Death of JS Bach: Introduction to The Art of the Fugue

Introduction to Bach's Art of the Fugue, his incomplete and final work, defining counterpoint for hundreds of years to follow.

The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080: Contrapunctus I - IV

The Art of the Fugue is considered by many as Bach's spiritual and artistic testament.  It is his last work, unfortunately, left unfinished.  Just as in most cases he did not specify for what instrument he intended his keyboard compositions - harpsichord, organ or clavichord may well be interchangeable - he left no indications as to the mode of execution for The Art of the Fugue.  However, the work's nature has such a metaphysical quality that musicians have found innumerable possibilities of interpretation. Transcriptions for various combinations of instruments, ranging from solo organ to full chamber orchestra, have been performed since the work was "rediscovered" in the nineteenth century, all of them equally legitimate.

Bach wrote this unsurpassable treaty of counterpoint, during his last year, knowing that death was imminent. The work encompasses four canons and fourteen fugues, all based on a single fugal subject. The crowning quadruple fugue, based on the principal subject and the three themes that evolve in the preceding sections, breaks off at measure 239. Here on the autograph of the score appears a note, presumably written by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel: "N.B. At this point in the Fugue, where the name BACH appears in the countersubject [the notes B- flat, A, C, B], the composer met his death." On the other hand, it has been established that in the last hour of his life Bach dictated to his pupil Altnikol the final Chorale Prelude, Vor Deinem Thron tret ich hiermit ("I walk before Your throne").

The title Art of the Fugue was given to the work later (and not by Bach himself) in order that one might compensate for the missing end.  Whether the composer ever envisioned a complete performance of this work is not clear, particularly in the lack of specific instrumentation.  It was the endeavor of the then eighteen-year old Berlin student Wolfgang Graeser to substantiate the plan of The Art of the Fugue and to offer a first alternative for instrumentation. In this form, with strings, woodwinds, trumpets, horns, harpsichords and organ the work received its first performance in Leipzig, 175 years after its composition. Today, most musicians agree that a more modest instrumentation, such as strings or just organ, may be more in keeping with performance practices during Bach's time.

And for addiional audio consideration of the first Fugues, this audio without video is exceptional:

The composer called every passage Contrapunctus and the attentive listener will feel how, gradually, the fundamental idea is changed and enriched. This sense of construction, growing richer as it progresses, is constant as the work evolves.  This discussion concerns itself only with the first four sections. Contrapunctus I and II are simple fugues on the principal subject in its original form, while the Contrapunctus III and IV are fugues on the inversion of the principal subject.

Gould, in his preferred location:  the piano/recording studio.

*  Author's addendum:

*  The cover image is the original manuscript of Bach's first page of Contrapunctus 1, BWV 1080

*  The first audio file embedded above is the first of 14 fugues in this unfinished work.  This first fugue is so dense, not to mention, definitive of the Art of the Fugue and can stand alone as a singular work.  This recording is a distinctive example for a number of reasons.  First, the late Glenn Gould may be the greatest interpreter of contrapuntal music of the 20th century, not to mention keyboard fugues or the works of Bach.  It is difficult to explain why, in so short a space, but the fact that he can play a cantus with one hand, no printed music on the stand and present so many voiced lines with this level of melodic understanding and clarity, is not far from a superhuman comprehension of sound, phrasing and harmony in a timeless manner.  This transcends the instrument he is playing (keeping in mind the "piano" of 1750 looked, sounded and played very differently from a present day, modern Steinway.) Granted, I am not impartial: Gould is my favorite 20th century pianist. He was an eccentric with a capacity for musical intellect that few could understand.  His work immediately preceding his untimely death in 1982 embarked on a new understanding of harmony as we now interpret it in the 21st century.   

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Comments (8)


Yes, James, it is. Thanks for your vote, too.

Bach is a genious with counterpoint. Excellent review of this important work!

This uplifts my spirit, thank you so much.

Another interesting historical figure in music, Ileen.

Thank you, Will! The thing about collections of works like this is how their aural perceptions change over time to most classicists. Most of us play them for a number of years, drop them and re-start with often completely different interpretations over the course of a lifetime. The final 14 fugues exemplify this. I would like to recommend another video - this link is a much more mainstream interpretation by Cory Hall. I like some of his videos more than others, but this music is so complex it's difficult to qualify many things about it. In conclusion, this is intellectual music - those who can actually stretch to find the beauty and enjoyment in it understand true perfection. Link to Cory Hall video at

I feel kind of sad listening to this music. Music touches something within ourselves. I could see the passion given by the musicians in composing these pieces.

Came back for more Ileen. Are you familiar with the contrapuntos as found in many if not most Argentine tangos? If I find one on YouTube I'd like your opinion on them since of course they are not as intricate as Bach's nor come from such genius but they are contrapunctos nevertheless . Really enjoyed other night. Sorry, I just ran out of votes...will get you next time.