Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bach Fugues

Johann Sebastian Bach is universally acknowledged as the master of counterpoint, which, generally speaking, is the musical practice of writing different yet complimentary lines of melody that, when played together, interact in harmony. Counterpoint places a strong emphasis on individual lines of melody and less on chords and simultaneous harmony. Bach elevated this art to a level that no other composer has attained. Bach's mastery of contrapuntal principles is best exemplified in his "fugues". Eric Wen explains the fugue:

In a typical fugue there is one principal theme, known as the subject, which is played on its own at the outset. This musical idea is subsequently stated by all the other voices in succession, and, as the subject's many further possibilities are then explored, a highly developed web of repetitions evolves. These sometimes follow in close succession, a process known as 'stretto', and are often varied in transitional passages known as episodes. Occasionally, the subject itself can be altered during teh course of the fugue: presented with its original melodic intervals going in the opposite direction (inversion), with lengthened or shortened note values (augmentation or diminution), or even backwards (retrograde).
Bach wrote many fugues for different types of instruments, particularly the keyboard (harpsichord in his time) and the organ. The complex nature of fugues is stimulating to the brain not to mention very enjoyable to listen to. You certainly don't need to understand the principals of counterpoint and fugue-writing to appreciate Bach's work! From my music library, two fantastic recordings stand out as great introductions to Bach's fugues.

Bach: Fugues

This CD is a recording of the fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, written for the keyboard, but transcribed by Mozart and Forster in the 18th century for string quartet. The fugues in the WTC are written for 4 or 5 voices, perfect for performance by a string quartet. Since each instrument in the string quartet takes a single voice, the interaction and development of the musical ideas between voices is easier for the ear to follow then when the same music is performed on a keyboard instrument. Interestingly, this CD is the world-premiere recording of these WTC transcriptions for string quartet. I think this recording is a masterful performance of these pieces and a great introduction to Bach's fugues.

If you like the above recording, you will no doubt be interested in this more advanced fugal work by Bach.

Bach: The Art of Fugue

Bach's magnificent work "The Art of Fugue" is an incomplete work that was begun less than 10 years before the composer's death. In many ways the work is a mystery: a compilation of increasingly complex fugues written for 2, 3 and 4 voices, the instrumentation of the voices is not specified, nor is the order in which the fugues should be performed. Thus, there are many different recordings available performed on many different instruments and ensembles. What is believed to be the final fugue, dramatically breaks off mid-measure - many scholars believe that Bach was unable to finish the work due to his deteriorating eyesight at the time of this death, or his unsteady hand. Others have suggested that he deliberately left off completion of the composition to encourage individual composition by musicians. Many Bach scholars and musicians have attempted to complete the fugue. In this recording by the Emerson Quartet, the final fugue stops abruptly where Bach did. The recording concludes with Bach's "Here Before Thy Throne I Stand", a revision of chorale he had written earlier in his life. Dictated while on his deathbed, this piece is believed to be Bach's last contribution to music before he left this world to be with his Maker. A fitting conclusion to an incredible musical experience!

Both recordings are widely available. You can purchase them from by clicking on the titles of each recording above. Personally, I recommend the Amazon Marketplace for finding great deals on used or discount new CDs. Never pay full price again!

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