Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of Fugue was begun in the last decade of his life and represents the last great collection by the master composer. In this work, Bach explores various contrapuntal possibilities through the construction of several fugues and canons which show a level of sophistication and variety that remains unparalleled to this day.
By the time of his death in 1750, Bach had overseen much of the engraving of the work, however, his family still made some critical errors in delivering the first publications early in 1751. Today, most scholars agree that The Art of Fugue is a harpsichord work consisting of fourteen fugues and four canons all in the same key (originally D minor) and all utilizing the same motto theme.
Contrapunctus I through IV are simple fugues. Contrapunctus V through VII make extensive use of the technique known as stretto along with melodic inversion, and are appropriately called stretto fugues or counterfugues. The next four fugues are double and triple fugues in invertible counterpoint. Following these are Contrapunctus XII and XIII which are called mirror fugues. Each one of these fugues is actually a pair of fugues, the first begins called "rectus" and the second "inversus." Each fugue in a pair is the perfect mirror image of the other, not only melodically, but harmonically and contrapuntally as well. Contrapunctus XIV, a quadruple fugue, remained incomplete at the time of Bach’s death. In the autograph manuscript, there is a note written by C.P.E. Bach stating, "N.B. While working on this fugue, where the name B.A.C.H. appears in the countersubject, the composer died."¯
Whether Bach died before completing the work or the last section of music was somehow lost is not known for sure. Bach’s family decided to include the chorale, Wenn wir in hochsten Noten sein, written in the final days of the composer’s life, as sort of compensation for the incompleteness of the last fugue. Since the chorale has no place, technically or aesthetically, within The Art of Fugue, it is not included with this transcription. Alternatively, a plausible completion to Contrapunctus XIV has been provided here by Kenneth Amis.
Three of the canons show imitation at the intervals of an octave, tenth and twelfth, while one of the canons displays remarkable ingenuity by presenting imitation in both contrary motion and augmentation. Bach’s original rendering of this canon is almost completely different and possesses its own unique beauty. Although this older version is generally not considered to be a part of the final collection, it has been transcribed and included in this publication for use at the music director’s discretion.
By 1750, fugue writing had gone out of style and The Art of Fugue did not receive the commercial success that his family had hoped. Nevertheless, The Art of Fugue took the idea of contrapuntal design to a new level and represents the work of a seasoned composer at the height of his artistic and intellectual genius. Never before nor hence has there been such a fusion of beauty and logic in the exploration of the principles of counterpoint.
Other than a few slur markings and the text "in Stylo Francese" at the beginning of Contrapunctus VI, Bach gave very little indication on how selections from The Art of Fugue were to be performed. He did not indicate tempi, dynamics or even the instrumentation. This score has been prepared with dynamics, articulation markings, tempo indications and text instructions. However, this music can work at many different tempi. Subsequently, a wide range has been indicated at the start of the score. This gives conductors a certain degree of flexibility when formulating their own interpretation and working with the resources they have at their disposal. However, tempi outside of the indicated range may prove incompatible with the instrumentation and other various markings of this particular transcription.
The instruments used in this transcription have been assigned to one of the three or four voices that form Bach's counterpoint. The unorthodox layout of the score and what it suggests can have four major benefits. First, it immediately shows the conductor which instruments share the same voice (There are some key moments where the instruments of a single choir split into counterpoint). Second, if the players are physically grouped into these choirs, cueing players who are playing the same voice becomes much easier (and the look of the score will reflect the geographic grouping of the players). Also, with the musicians seated next to players of the same part, they will be better able to hear each other and therefore in a better position to blend and match their sounds, articulations and intonation. Finally, even though The Art of Fugue is not antiphonal music, arranging some physical separation between the choirs will allow the audience to more easily hear and enjoy the contrapuntal genius of Johann Sebastian Bach and to fully appreciate his art of fugue.
When performing one or more of the fugues from The Art of Fugue, one may choose to use any of the canons as an introduction or interlude. Also, one may consider introducing a fugue with an aesthetically compatible prelude by Bach transposed, if necessary, into C minor. An even more ambitious programming option is to construct a toccata or sonata-like scheme by adding aesthetically compatible movements from other works of Bach transposed into C minor, E flat major or A flat major. Contrapunctus XIV is, by far, Bach’s longest fugue, yet its completed version benefits greatly by being prepared by another one of the fugues in the collection. The entrance of the main Art of Fugue theme at the end of Contrapunctus XIV loses much of its dramatic impact if a listener does not recognize it or its relevance to the entire collection. This is of no concern if one chooses to stop the performance where Bach’s manuscript ends. Whether a movement from The Art of Fugue is performed alone or is made part of a larger programmatic design, after the performance, a listener should be thoroughly convinced of the absurdity of the antiquated notion that this work was only meant to be heard in one’s mind and not performed.
Special thanks are to be given to Professor John Harbison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for first suggesting this transcription project and for his guidance through the completion of Contrapunctus XIV. Also, a debt of gratitude goes out to Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr. and the 2003-2004 M.I.T. Wind Ensemble for their work in preparing and premiering many of the movements in this collection.