The master architect’s counterpoint legacy

Infinity. © Charles Thibo

Composing a fugue – I imagine an architect building a tower. A tower with a solid base. I imagine a fearless architect putting one building block upon the next until the tower reaches a vertiginous height. I imagine an ambitious architect decorating the tower with elaborate artwork. The master architect of fugues was Johann Sebastian Bach. Nobody succeeded in building a higher tower, nobody devised more artful decorations without falling into the trap of cheap effects.

Around 1740 Bach started to write a set of 14 fugues and four canons revolving around one main theme: The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080. By definition a fugue is polyphonic composition (i. e. for several voices) based upon one, two, or more themes, subjected to contrapuntal* treatment, and gradually built up into a complex form having somewhat stages of development and a marked climax at the end. Bach’s initial four fugues are amended by three counter fugues, two triple and two double fugues, four mirroring fugues, a quadruple fugue and four canons.

Complete or incomplete?

Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” is an unfinished work; the composer died in 1750 and left a fragments of which his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel said they could not be achieved by the composer due to his decreasing eyesight and his death. However, other documents suggests that by 1784, Bach had planned to have the cycle printed and the version usually performed takes into account the parts completed up to 1746.

Bach’s first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel judged with “The Art of the Fugue” Bach had illustrated “what possibly could be done with a fugue theme. The variations, all of them complete fugues on one single theme, are called counterpoints* [in this work]”. One theme, one tonality, one exhaustive explanation of the subject “fugue and counterpoint”. At no time before or after Bach has a composer shown such an ambitious idea. While Bach’s contemporaries deemed the strict contrapuntal style interesting and instructive from a technical point of view only, it was already out of sync with the taste of time.

L’art pour l’art

Bach certainly was aware of this. So why did he devote so many years to this composition? The piece has no purpose. It cannot be used in liturgy, nor has it any particular entertaining value. As a matter of fact, it was too intellectual and too long to possibly please any audience except other composers. So what is “The Art of the Fugue”?A nostalgic look back on an unparalleled career in the field of composition? Was Bach driven by what some may call “an old man’s vanity”? I like to think of Bach writing “The Art of the Fugue” just because he could do it. Because nobody except Bach could do it. L’art pour l’art. One last challenge.

And if I started this post with the architects allegory, this is more than just a rhetorical trick. Once we start speculating about the purpose of the piece, we need to remember that Bach’s conception of art had a strong religious dimension. Bach considered it his duty as a musician to do his utmost in the field of composition to praise God. All his striving towards excellence had only one finality: the praise of God. From this perspective Bach’s calling is comparable to the one that motivated the builder’s of Europe’s splendid Medieval cathedrals: to deliver a supreme piece of art as the ultimate expression of an artist’s faith.

Grigory Sokolov has recorded “The Art of the Fugue”.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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