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Art of Fugue

Art of Fugue: Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715–1750 OPEN ACCESS

Joseph Kerman
Copyright Date: 2005
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ffjn2z
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  • Book Info
    Art of Fugue
    Book Description:

    Fugue for J. S. Bach was a natural language; he wrote fugues in organ toccatas and voluntaries, in masses and motets, in orchestral and chamber music, and even in his sonatas for violin solo. The more intimate fugues he wrote for keyboard are among the greatest, most influential, and best-loved works in all of Western music. They have long been the foundation of the keyboard repertory, played by beginning students and world-famous virtuosi alike. In a series of elegantly written essays, eminent musicologist Joseph Kerman discusses his favorite Bach keyboard fugues -some of them among the best-known fugues and others much less familiar. Kerman skillfully, at times playfully, reveals the inner workings of these pieces, linking the form of the fugues with their many different characters and expressive qualities, and illuminating what makes them particularly beautiful, powerful, and moving. These witty, insightful pieces, addressed to musical amateurs as well as to specialists and students, are beautifully augmented by performances made specially for this volume: Karen Rosenak, piano, playing two preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavie - C Major, book 1; and B Major, book 2--and Davitt Moroney playing the Fughetta in C Major, BWV 952, on clavichord; the Fugue on "Jesus Christus unser Heiland, BWV 689, on organ; and the Fantasy and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 904, on harpsichord.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-96259-0
    Subjects: Music
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  1. The Well-Tempered Clavieris an exemplary collection of twice twenty-four preludes and fugues for keyboard in which Bach exhibits his unsurpassed contrapuntal virtuosity and also the seemingly infinite types, forms, and characters that may emerge—at his hands, and at his hands alone—from the art of fugue.

    Some pieces are sketches for jeweled miniatures, some for vast frescos. Some are intimate and lyrical; some quiver with the intensity of passion that is equally intensely controlled; some fringe on the pedantic; and some are frankly sublime. Part of their fascination resides in the many possible attitudes from which they can...

  2. Bach’s very best-known fugue must be the Fugue in C Minor from book I ofThe Well-Tempered Clavier.It has become standard teaching material in advanced and elementary textbooks alike, for courses in canon and fugue as well as lowly Music Appreciation. It was the first fugue to be jazzed and the first to be switched on. Heinrich Schenker, lord and master of modern music theory, settled on it as the example to expound in a classic essay, “Organicism in Fugue,” which recently provoked an entire critical chapter from Laurence Dreyfus in his bookBach and the Patterns of Invention....

  3. This appears to be one of the fugues that did not make the cut forThe Well-Tempered Clavierwhen Bach reviewed earlier materials, in the early 1720s, as a first step in planning his project. It is a slight piece, no doubt, but amusing and clever—though cleverness is not the same thing as sophistication, and there is a certain impudence about it that probably would have ruled it out in any case. Bach is certainly willing to embrace comedy as well as the grander modes of expression, but only high comedy finds its way into theWTC.

    On the...

  4. Among the special features ofBachanalia: The Essential Listener’s Guide to Bach’sWell-Tempered Clavier—a well-meaning effort, though badly misconceived, in my view—are the author Eric Lewin Altschuler’s picks for the Top Ten Fugues, the Top Ten Subjects, the Superstar Four, and so on.

    Well, among the Four Most Pithy Subjects (C-sharp Minor and A-flat Major in book 1, C-sharp Major and E Major in book 2), C-sharp Minor ranks as the Superstar—the shortest, the most constrained, and the most obsessive. The subject consists of only five notes, drawn from four consecutive pitches, and it holds to the...

  5. Bach preparedThe Art of Fuguefor publication in open score, after having composed it on two staves, in the usual keyboard-music format. The work is a staggering compendium of nearly twenty fugues and canons all based on a single theme, and open-score format—with each voice on its own stave—showed off the contrapuntal devices applied to this ur-theme as clearly as possible. Technical exploits on this scale were unmatched in his own earlier work or that of any other composer then known (then or ever, perhaps). Bach died in 1750, before signing off onThe Art of Fugue,...

  6. Contrapunctus 10 fromThe Art of Fugueis a strange composite work of rare beauty, with two subjects.

    The singular rhetoric of the first subject—clipped three-note utterances, inverted and contrasted, sinking down/springing up, circuitous/direct, dark/light, with the springing motion retraced, softened, and overshot by a rising scale: this fascinates and mystifies. Also mysterious is the subject’s trajectory, beginning on the seventh degree C#, away from the tonic or dominant notes, the positions taken up by virtually all Bach fugues, and ending—where? Roger Bullivant remarks of this “vague” subject, “left to its own devices the result would hardly be...

  7. This accolade in 1802 by Bach’s first biographer, J. N. Forkel, as translated into English only six years later, is echoed by George B. Stauffer, a musicologist who has studied the forty-odd surviving early manuscripts of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue to find out what he can about its chronology—not too much, as is usually the case with Bach’s early music. An early version of the fantasy dates back to Bach’s Weimar years; the fugue may have been written later.

    Stauffer reminds us that this is one Bach composition that never fell out of sight. Its flamboyance and freedom,...

  8. “This Prelude is nothing less than a Toccata and Double Fugue,” Tovey states at the beginning of his annotation to the Prelude in E-flat Major from book 1 ofThe Well-Tempered Clavierand later, on the fugue that occupies bars 25–70 of the Prelude: “The only theoretical irregularity in this four-part Double Fugue is the extra semiquaver figure in the soprano of bar 26 which anticipates the genuine answer in bar 27.” Tovey’s instinct was to defend this fugue from unspecified charges or suspicions that it lacked theoretical “regularity”—this from a writer who campaigned tirelessly against false premises...

  9. The conventional form diagrams and tables of music pedagogy give or can give the wrong impression of an art we experience as a process (or stasis) in time. Diagrams intrude on listening by asserting their own kind of direct linearity. They announce major articulations and endings ahead of time, before they have been suggested in sound, and offer unambiguous ground plans for patterns in time that are existential and often tenuous. But with some misgivings I do offer a tabular analysis in this case, to make what seems to me a capital point about this famous and famously beautiful fugue,...

  10. The Fugue on the chorale “Jesus Christus unser Heiland” counts as the rogue fugue in the present selection, perhaps, though one likes to think of every Bach fugue as rogue or phoenix orunicumin its own special way. It comes from the organ volume of theClavierübung,Bach’s comprehensive publication of his keyboard works, which he issued serially and at leisure over the years 1726 to 1742. Volumes 1, 2, and 4 transmit wellknown works like the Partitas, the Italian Concerto, and the “Goldberg” Variations.

    In volume 3, less well known, a massive organ prelude and the grand “St....

  11. This fugue stands out among Bach’s more celebratedaffettuosofugues in F-sharp minor and related keys, such as the imposing Fugue in B Minor later inThe Well-Tempered Clavierand both Kyries from the Mass in B Minor, for its immediacy as well as its brevity. The countersubject with its ceaselessly sobbing figure has reminded many—indeed, most—commentators of the chorus “O Mensch bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß” from the St. Matthew Passion, and the chromatically tinged subject too practically cries out for words, words in the affective poetic language of Bach’s cantata librettists Salomo Franck, Marianne von Ziegler, or...

  12. The characteristic Bach gigue can be considered (that is, heard) as a special type of fugue in a strictly prescribed, hypersymmetrical binary form—hypersymmetrical because these fugues come to a dead stop in the middle, allowing for an exact repetition of each of the two sections, or strains. Such gigues make very satisfying endings for about half of Bach’s keyboard suites, the English Suites, the French Suites, and the Partitas, which also include some terminal gigues of a different, nonfugal type.

    All but one of the fugal gigues are written for three voices, though they often use the full texture...

  13. This fugue, among the more concise pieces inThe Well-Tempered Clavier,is much loved by players and admired in the literature, though what seem to be its special, perhaps unique, features have not been remarked on or discussed. One of these is the way the answer in this fugue tends to cleave to the subject. As the piece proceeds, one feels more and more that its basic material has to be the subject together with its answer, which may be called the “subject-pair”—the subject-pair, not the single subject. The linkage is a consequence of the “open” ending of the...

  14. Where to start is with two pages at the center of the Fugue in A Minor—the essential pages, containing a second, free fugue within the three-part sectional form (A B A’). In section 3 of the work, A’, new themes developed in section 2 will combine with the subject of section 1.

    This central fugue circulates a familiar-sounding chromatic subject twice through each of the four voices. This seems a better way of describing the overall plan than to speak of two (irregular) four-part expositions, for the entries all come in pairs—with substantial and specially important episodes between...

  15. Writing on the Fugue in B-flat Major, Hermann Keller found the countersubjects “handled in an indolent, almost casual manner, in no way disturbing the serene unconcern of this fugue.” These adjectives work rather well for the character of the piece in general, not only for the treatment of the countersubjects, though it’s important to supplement them with another set of adjectives, adjectives like artful, elegant, and sly. Keller says that its performance should be “lightly animated, with grace and some humor.” This work is one of Bach’s more subtle inventions—a light-hearted fugue for connoisseurs, we should probably acknowledge, one...

  16. An entrée to the Fugue in B Major, one of Bach’s most beautiful fugues, can be gained from a composer who learnedThe Well-Tempered Clavieras a boy and at the end of his life found himself drawing on it again and again. When Beethoven took the subject of the B Major Fugue as the model for that of theGroße Fuge,the fugal finale of the Quartet no. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130, he turned Bach on his head. The upward corkscrew thrust of theGroße Fugesubject generates an emphatic climax, driven home by a characteristic late-Beethoven...

  17. AFTERWORD (pp. 135-140)

    There is a good deal to interrogate, as today’s critics like to say, in this assertion. Hugo Riemann was so committed to the idea of the organic work of art that he elected to post a dream ofThe Well-Tempered Clavieras a “work,” a coherent cycle—like Schumann’sKinderszenen,likeDichterliebe,like (perhaps) the Chopin Preludes—with a carefully calculated termination, though of course he knew perfectly well it was not. What he did know was that the deft, low-key Fugue in B Minor, next in order and the last inThe Well-Tempered Clavier,refused to round it out...