"Because of the great dearth of examples, the mystery of fugue has for some time been rather scantily maintained . . . The present work, which we announce to the public, is throughout practical and indeed accomplishes what many skillful men have suggested in their writing over the years . . . I do not believe it is saying too much to call this publication a perfect work, since it contains all good types of fugues and counterpoints in two, three, and four parts with one, two, or more themes. . . composed upon one and the same principal subject, and in the same key."
With these words Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach unveiled in 1751 the last printing project of his late father Johann Sebastian, whose death the year before prevented the completion of the monumental compendium of counterpoint we now know as the Art of Fugue. Emanuel and other family members were faced with finishing the publication as best they could. The senior Bach left a manuscript workbook, several loose sheets of music, and a set of partially engraved printing plates. But the precise order of the pieces, the ending of the last fugue, and even the title of the collection remained unresolved.
Johann Sebastian Bach had begun the project a decade earlier, around 1740, with the intention of assembling a manual of pieces that systematically illustrated the combinatory possibilities of imitative counterpoint. As a keyboard player, composer, and cantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, Bach chose to instruct through practical examples rather than lengthy written descriptions, such as those of Johann Joseph Fux in his famous Latin treatise Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), which was published in Leipzig in 1742 in a German translation. Following the conventions for learned keyboard works established in the 17th century by Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Jacob Froberger, and others, Bach wrote his illustrative pieces in open score, with each voice allotted its own staff—a notation that displays part-writing and contrapuntal devices to best advantage.
By 1742 or so Bach had compiled a nicely rounded set of fourteen examples, preserved today in a manuscript workbook located in the Berlin State Library. The generally neat appearance of the handwriting suggests that Bach drafted the pieces elsewhere and entered them into the workbook once they had been well worked out. One piece, a complex augmentation canon, appears in three forms: an early version, a one-voice version in enigmatic notation, and a revised version. In the manuscript the music consists of twelve fugues and two canons of increasing complexity. All fourteen pieces are based on a single principal subject, which is gradually varied and supplemented with additional subjects and countersubjects. The fugues are arranged in a logical order of development: simple fugues → counter fugues (pieces in which the principal subject appears in upright and inverted forms) → double fugues → triple fugues. One can also observe increasing animation in the pieces, produced through the systematic introduction of smaller note values. While the work begins in stile antico—the conservative “old style” of 16th- and 17th-century contrapuntal music—the mood slowly shifts to more modern modes: French dotted writing and instrumental dance idioms.
But Bach did not stop at this point. The project seems to have held a special fascination for him, and over the next five years or so he continued to refine and expand the music. Finally, around 1748, just two years before he died, he decided to bring the work to print, possibly as the fifth installment to his successful Clavier-Übung series. In the process he revised the collection considerably, writing new conclusions for the three simple fugues and adding an entirely new piece to the group, penning a new opening to the second double fugue, and composing two new canons. He also decided to change the order of the pieces and to crown the work with a culminating quadruple fugue, in which the principal subject would be combined with three other themes, including one based on his own name, B A C H (in German, B-flat, A, C, B-natural). But blindness from cataracts forced him to break off work before he could complete the final fugue and place the pieces in a definitive order. In the spring of 1750 he underwent two unsuccessful eye operations, and a few months later, on July 28, he died from complications of the surgery without having finished his grand contrapuntal masterpiece.
Carl Philipp Emanuel, his young half brother Johann Christoph Friedrich, and his brother-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol completed the print as best they could, issuing it in the spring of 1751. The title “Art of Fugue” appears on the cover of Bach’s workbook in Altnickol’s hand; Johann Christoph Friedrich seems to have supervised the engraving of the final plates; and Emanuel dealt with the unfinished quadruple fugue, deciding to provide as compensation an unrelated chorale prelude that his father had revised on his deathbed, “Wenn wir in höchsten Noten sein” (BWV 668a). In spite of their efforts the publication did not sell well, and for a second edition issued a year later the theorist and composer Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg added a Preface extolling the virtues of Bach’s work and the merits of contrapuntal study. But sales did not improve, and in 1756 Emanuel offered the copper printing plates for sale, lamenting that only 30 copies of the Art of Fugue had sold. Sebastian Bach’s last word on fugue and canon had to wait until the 19th century to receive proper recognition.
The open scoring of the Art of Fugue raised suspicions in later times that Bach intended the music for instrumental ensemble—a movement culminating in Wolfgang Graeser’s orchestral arrangement issued in 1926 as part of the Bach-Gesamtausgabe. In the 20th century the music was commonly performed by string quartet, saxophone quartet, recorders, and many other instrumental combinations. The open scoring was a traditional way of notating contrapuntal keyboard music in Bach’s time, however, and in his advertisement of 1751 Emanuel confirmed that the work was intended first and foremost for study but at the same time arranged for performance “on the clavier or organ.”
In the present recording Joan Lippincott performs the Art of Fugue on the organ, using Chistoph Wolff’s Peters Edition (1987) that is based largely on the text and order of the original print. Omitted are the miscellaneous pieces that do not seem to belong to Bach’s concept of the original print. In this form, the music consists of fourteen fugues, each termed “Contrapunctus,” and four canons
The work opens with four simple fugues that focus solely on the principal subject:
Contrapunctus 1 (BWV 1080/1) is the most straightforward of the group and features the principal subject in a continuously unfolding contrapuntal web. The fugue is almost improvisational in style, with no predictable order of entries, no lasting modulations, and no full cadences until the close, which features dramatic pauses before the principal subject sounds a final time over a sustained tonic pedal point. Bach’s goal in Contrapunctus 1 is clear: to introduce serenely and unequivocally the theme that will form the basis of every subsequent piece.
Contrapunctus 2 (BWV 1080/2) adds dotted rhythms to the counterpoint, greatly animating the expositions of the principal subject. Towards the end Bach introduces a syncopated version of the theme, hinting at the melodic manipulations that will take place in later pieces. He quickly restores the principal subject to its normal form in the coda, however, where it appears in the soprano against dotted counterpoint in the lower voices.
Contrapunctus 3 (BWV 1080/3) introduces the inverted form of the principal subject, which is soon varied together with the countersubject that appears against it. The episodes between expositions of the subject become more clearly defined and travel to new modulatory areas. An increase in chromaticism adds to the growing complexity.
Contrapunctus 4 (BWV 1080/4), newly composed for the print of the Art of Fugue, is less antiquated in style than Contrapunti 1, 2, and 3. Also based on the inversion of the principal subject, it is more tonal in harmony and features the regular alternation of exposition and episode that one associates with Bach’s mature clavier and organ fugues. But there are new twists: in the middle of the piece Bach presents the subject in an unusual sequential order (rather than tonic-dominant pairs) before returning to the tonic for the close, where the theme sounds out several times against syncopated counterpoint.
The four simple fugues lead to a group of three counter fugues.
Although Contrapunctus 5 (BWV 1080/5) is the most conventionally shaped of the counter fugues, it displays complexities that take it beyond the realm of the simple fugues. Bach alters the principal subject through the use of dotted rhythms and employs the device of stretto (overlapping entries) throughout, at distances ranging from one measure to three measures. In addition, the principal subject appears in upright, inverted, and counter forms. The movement ends with a climactic coda in which the texture expands to six parts at the close.
Contrapunctus 6 (BWV 1080/6), composed “in Stylo Francese,” displays the dotted rhythms and bold flourishes of French style. The principal subject appears in diminution, or shorter note values, and in strettos that often combine the normal and diminished forms. Bach’s extensive revisions in the manuscript workbook suggest that these effects were not easily achieved.
In Contrapunctus 7 (BWV 1080/7) the label “Per Augmentationem et Diminutionem” signals that the principal subject will appear not only in its normal and inverted forms but in augmentation (that is, larger note values) and as well as diminution. The four appearances of the subject in augmentation—in the bass, tenor, alto, and soprano, respectively—serve as markers in a movement filled with dense counterpoint.
In the printed version of the Art of Fugue, the simple fugues and counter fugues are followed by four multiple fugues—two triple fugues framing a pair of double fugues. In all four the principal subject is combined with new themes, introduced through separate expositions.
Contrapunctus 8 (BWV 1080/8), in three parts, falls naturally into two halves. The first half begins with the exposition of the first new subject—a leaping, twisting idea that ends with a signature trill. This is soon joined by a second new subject—a contrasting, highly animated, repeated-note motive. The second half begins with the appearance of the principal subject of the work in an inverted and syncopated form. The two new themes then reappear, and, in the fugue’s climax, are combined with the altered form of the principal subject.
The contrapuntal tension of Contrapunctus 8 is relieved in Contrapunctus 9 (BWV 1080/9), an extroverted, virtuosic double fugue “alla Duodecima”—with imitation at the twelfth. It opens with a new subject marked by an octave leap and instrumental running notes. After this theme appears in all four voices—alto, soprano, bass, and tenor—it is immediately combined with the principal subject, which enters dramatically in long note values, sounding much like a cantus firmus. The two subjects appear in various combinations that lead to an emphatic conclusion.
Contrapunctus 10 (BWV 1080/10), another double fugue, now with imitation at the tenth, opens with the exposition of a new, off-beat subject, which appears in all four voices. It is followed by the exposition of the main subject, inverted and with dotted rhythms. The two themes are then combined in various ways.
Contrapunctus 11 (BWV 1080/11), the second triple fugue, opens with a fragmented and syncopated version of the principal subject. Two other themes are introduced and gradually combined with the principal subject. At the peak of the fugue, the altered principal subject appears against itself, in upright and inverted forms.
After the double and triple fugues come two mirror fugues, in which the themes and parts are inverted in mirror fashion. This was a type of counterpoint more often discussed than composed in the 18th century, as Emanuel pointed out, and Bach’s examples took the genre to a new level of sophistication.
Contrapunctus 12 (BWV 1080/12, 1 and 2), for four parts, features two variations of the principal subject: one in slow, white notes, the other in fast-moving eighth notes. Notated in 3/2 meter, the style is that of the retrospective stile antico.
Contrapunctus 13 (BWV 1080/13, 1 and 2), for three voices, is entirely different in spirit. It features the principal subject and its inversion in a leaping, running, gigue-like form. Bach seems to have had a special fondness for this piece, making a special arrangement of the music for two harpsichords (BWV 1080/18) in which he added a fourth part for good measure.
The mirror fugues are followed by four two-part canons. They are longer and more ambitious than any other canons written by Bach, and in spirit they are quite like the four duets (BWV 802-805) of Clavier-Übung III, published in 1739.
The Canon all Ottava (BWV 1080/15), a gigue-like piece in 9/16 meter, features imitation at the octave. While learned in technique, it has a progressive rounded structure, with a repeated middle section and a conclusion that recapitulates the opening bars.
The Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza (BWV 1080/16), in 12/8 meter with imitation at the tenth, also has a gigue-like feel. A gradual accelerando leads to a close in which the principal subject is doubled in speed and syncopated. The score calls for a free cadenza before the final chord.
The Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto all Quinta (BWV 1080/17), with imitation at the twelfth, is the shortest of the group but the most intricate in design. It contains a repeated middle section, in which the two voices exchange roles at the center.
The Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu (BWV 1080/14), a canon featuring augmentation and contrary motion, forms the natural climax of the canonic group. The dux, or leading voice, presents varied statements of the principal subject in diminution; the comes, or follower, imitates the dux in augmentation and inversion. Bach tinkered with the piece considerably, revising it several times and changing its title during the printing process.
Contrapunctus 14 (BWV 1080/19), the famous unfinished fugue, was intended to serve as the culminating piece of the collection. According to the Obituary, it was to include four themes, each inverted at the end. Bach seems to have decided to add it to the Art of Fugue at the last minute and began composing it after the engraving process had begun. He completed the writing through the exposition of the third theme, the famous B A C H motive, but was then interrupted by his growing blindness. Emanuel published the incomplete torso as a “Fuga a 3 Soggetti”—Fugue with Three Subjects—in the printed edition, since Bach had not yet introduced the fourth theme, the principal subject of the Art of Fugue. That the principal subject fit contrapuntally with the three others was first demonstrated by the well-known Beethoven scholar Gustav Nottebohm in 1881. However, this discovery only partly solved the still-remaining riddle of how Bach intended to conclude his monumental compendium of counterpoint.
— George B. Stauffer