The Art of Fugue. Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715 –1750. Preface and Chapter 1.

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The Art of Fugue. Bach Fugues for Keyboard, 1715 –1750.
(Preface and Chapter 1)
by Joseph Kerman


© 2005 by The Regents of the University of California, Open Access edition © 2015.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND license.




This is a book of commentaries on selected Bach fugues— “essays in musical analysis and appreciation,” one might call them, to enlarge on the title of Donald Francis Tovey’s famous Essays in Musical Analysis. The fugues are keyboard fugues, written for clavichord, harpsichord, and organ. About half of them come from the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC), the other half from a variety of other sources, some of them less familiar: Bach’s comprehensive keyboard publica­tion Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice), Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), the English Suites, and other manuscript sources. The music stems from all periods of Bach’s career except for the earliest. The Chromatic Fantasy dates most probably from his Weimar years, around 1715, and the two contrapuncti from The Art of Fugue reached their definitive form when Bach revised the work just before his death in 1750.

Annotations of any extent on Bach fugues are hard to find outside of the technical literature, and I have taken the time to do justice, as best I can, to these short but very rich pieces. The discussion is geared to individual segments and bars within the fugues, so readers will need the sheet music with the bars num­bered. Most of those who come to this book will already own copies of the WTC, the source of many of the pieces, and some of the other selections too. This book includes scores of all but two of the works discussed in detail. [Two scores from Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 that were part of the original edition are not included here.—Ed.]

Also included are performances of five of the fugues discussed below, specially recorded for this book by Davitt Moroney and Karen Rosenak.

One inspiration for the present work was Tovey, whose lap­idary and marvelous annotations to his edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier are classics. First published in 1924, they were reprinted in 1994 to accompany an authoritative new musical text of the WTC, prepared by Richard Jones. As a publication of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Tovey’s contribution was appropriately didactic; his annotations read like a piano teacher’s docket of instruc­tions about touch, fingering, ornaments, and so on, for every place that needs them. But his instructions always rest on his understanding of the music, and what he has to say about that makes, or should make, his commentaries required reading for anyone interested in the fugues, not only students. My purpose is critical, not didactic. I write about reading and listening to fugues, not performing them—listening to them and understanding them.

Another inspiration for me was not a text but a musical anthology, Bach: The Fugue, an elegant collection of nine fugues, some with preludes, edited by Charles Rosen for the Oxford Keyboard Classics in 1975. We have not a few items in common. There are profound words in Rosen’s introduction:

The “pure” fugue, the meditative fugue, is basically a keyboard work for Bach. Of course the fugal texture can be adapted to many forms: the dance, the concerto, the aria, the chorale-prelude. But the fugue tout court . . . is almost without exception conceived for keyboard in the early eighteenth century. Only the performer at the keyboard is in a position to appreciate the movement of the voices, their blending and their separation, their interaction and their contrasts. A fugue of Bach can be fully understood only by the one who plays it, not only heard but felt through the muscles and nerves. Part of the essential conception of the fugue is the way in which voices that the fingers can feel to be individual and dis­tinct are heard as part of an inseparable harmony. The confusion of vertical and horizontal movement is one of the delights of fugue.

And again:

The keyboard fugue, for Bach, is essentially private. . . . The proper instrument is what one has at home: harpsichord, clavichord, organ or piano. There are few of these fugues that exploit the resources of any particular instrument; many would go equally well with sonorities as different as organ and clavichord.

What I have in my home is a piano, and I expect most readers of this book will be pianists too. The music in the recordings is played on all of these instruments.

The fugues that I have selected are, to me, also select; the com­mentaries attempt to convey something of what makes them particularly beautiful, powerful, intriguing, witty, or moving. This can only be done, I believe, by following the music closely, seeing, hearing, and Rosen would say feeling how the melodic lines are shaped and combined, how the harmonies unfold, and how time spans are articulated. My hope is to reach the broadest range of musicians: not only performing artists—harpsichordists and pianists—students, and musicologists, but also amateur players: home pianists who have often found themselves drawn to Bach over the years, often to pieces they have known for as long as they can remember, and whose deep pleasure in them is not blunted too much by cautious tempos, uneven articulation, or even a certain amount of stumbling. This community is said to be dead or dying, but I reckon the reports are exaggerated.

The technical level of my discussions will not be high enough for some professionals. I hope it will not seem unduly high to amateurs. At a few points where the discussion gets detailed I format the text in smaller type with bullets. It is not possible to deal properly with fugue without employing techni­cal language—a language in which anyone who has had music lessons is already a beginning speaker. We know words for pitch and rhythm, chord and key, if not for stretto and inversion (yet). A glossary has been carefully compiled to explain technical concepts and exemplify them, by means of bar numbers in the scores. For intrepid readers the glossary can serve as a self-tutor.

The commentaries are independent and can be read sepa­rately. The first two can also be read as a pair laying out the basic facts of fugue.

No commentary is provided on the preludes that introduce many of the fugues discussed below, or the fantasy from the Fan­tasy and Fugue in A Minor. Fugue is the topic here; the Prelude in E-flat Major from the WTC, book 1, is discussed only because it includes, exceptionally, a fugue (an exceptional fugue). This lacuna will seem to some a dereliction, even an outrage, and no doubt a more methodical author would have made it his busi­ness to “cover” the preludes. Or a less self-indulgent one; having written several books about entire repertories before, this time I only wanted to write about music that engages me wholly, and that I feel I can write about effectively. I chose my fugues. Bach chose the preludes.

But scores for the preludes and the A-Minor Fantasia are available, like the fugues, so one can see them, study them, and play them together with their fugues. [ … ]



Chapter 1

Fugue in C Major. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.


The Well-Tempered Clavier is 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 be viewed, and in the manifold aspects they can assume. What seemed schematic may reveal new freshness; what seemed dull emerges as merely misunderstood; what seemed limited displays new dimensions; to what by its very richness and concentration has become indigestible, we return after days, months, or even years, to receive new and unanticipated nourish­ment and revelation. One may occasionally lay aside the WTC, but never because of its exhaustibility.

These are words by Ralph Kirkpatrick, the leading harpsi­chordist, after Landowska, of the mid-twentieth century, who recorded the WTC twice and wrote a book about it. Few musi­cians have engaged with this music more deeply.

A particularly exemplary function is usually adduced for the pair of concise fugues at the head of book 1 of the WTC. The Fugue in C Major, preceded by a famous and also exemplary prelude, displays maximum learning: a stretto fugue fitting two dozen entries of a one-and-a-half-bar subject into little more than two dozen bars of music. Strettos come at many different time and pitch intervals.

The importance that Bach attached to stretto is evident from The Art of Fugue, another exemplary work, which requires a whole series of stretto fugues to exemplify this most widely used of the so-called fugal devices. Stretto is formed when one voice carrying the fugue subject is “answered” by the subject in another voice before the first voice has finished. It heightens the subject in a complicated way—or, rather, in one of many com­plicated ways; the effect can be peremptory, intense, majestic, or serene. The Fugue in C Major uses an array of strettos to build intensity, to unsettle a fundamental rhythmic pattern, to gen­erate modulations, and to prepare a registral climax. Another stretto brings the composition to rest.

Not even the stretto fugues of The Art of Fugue are as single-minded as the Fugue in C Major, whose twenty-seven bars include no episodes and, apart from subject entries, no more than a total of two bars of transitional music preparing the fugue’s three cadences . . . plus a miniature peroration in which the whole thing gently goes up in smoke, up to a high C we have never heard before. The three cadences—structural cadences—terminate and define the fugue’s large sections, or phases, as it sometimes seems better to call them. The word “section” suggests something carved out in space, as with a pizza, and while “phase” is not a term usually employed by music theorists for a unit of time, the dictionary definition is suggestive: “a stage in a process of change or development.”

To work many different strettos on a relatively long subject, such as this one, must also be considered an achievement. Fourteen notes is long for a subject designed for multiple strettos. The typical stretto-fugue subject runs to about half that length (six notes in the Fugue in E Major from the WTC, book 2).

The number fourteen carried special resonance for this com­poser, being the total of numbers derived from his name: 2 (B) + 1 (A) + 3 (C) + 8 (H). He chose a number to sign the beginning of the WTC, just as later he would personalize the end of The Art of Fugue with a theme: B♭ (in German terminology, B) A C B♮ (H). He also chose to open his exemplary collection of twenty-four preludes and fugues with a fugue that brings its subject twenty-four times.

Then the next fugue in the collection has no strettos or other artifice at all, beyond contrapuntal inversion at the octave. The Fugue in C Minor is a very knowing fugue but it is not a learned fugue; it flaunts minimal learning. As Hermann Keller writes in his book on the WTC, it “owes its extraordinary popularity with players as much to the charm of its subject as to its easy com­prehensibility and transparent polyphony. . . . This fugue is in everything the complete antithesis of the first one”—as we will hope to see on pages 11–15.

First Phase: Bars 1–13

In spite of the technical prowess that one might suppose this fugue was meant to demonstrate, as the flagship fugue of The Well-Tempered Clavier, more than one commentator has exclaimed over its natural, spontaneous quality and quiet eloquence. Cer­tainly the piece wears its learning lightly. What it really demon­strates is that learning and eloquence are not mutually exclusive: a fundamental lesson. Bach, “the deepest savant of contrapuntal arts (and even artifice), knew how to subordinate art to beauty,” a leading literary journal declared in 1788. (The anonymous writer was almost certainly Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.)

Fugues start up slowly and methodically. After one voice alone announces the fugue subject in the opening exposition—here it is the alto voice—the others enter one after another, enriching the texture from a single melodic line to two-part polyphony, three-part polyphony, and so on. Bach omits the short links usually found between some of the later voice-entries of an exposition (“merely interstitial episodes,” Tovey calls them), serving notice that this is to be a very compressed fugue. Since the subject extends over a bar and a half, its four appearances establish a definite hypermeter of three half notes’ duration.

Donald Tovey, though now a distant figure, will be cited again and again in this book. Though the center of his uni­verse was Beethoven, as I have written elsewhere, Tovey did some of his most penetrating scholarly-critical work in refer­ence to Bach.

The continuation of the original subject in a fugue, called the countersubject, probably deserves that name only when it is maintained as a functional feature later in the composition, along with the subject. The fluent continuation material here does not quite reach that status; yet it plays an elegant role in the fugue’s exposition and conclusion. The sixteenth-note sequential figure of bars 2–3 (A G F E ∫ F E D C ∫ D C B | A) emerges from the subject’s opening figure as a diminution and is itself treated to melodic inversion. Basic tools of Bach’s work­shop, sequence, diminution, and inversion can be applied almost unobtrusively, as here, but also more pointedly for a variety of expressive effects.

The Fugue in C Major, a four-voiced fugue, brings the sub­ject successively in the alto, soprano, tenor, and bass and then goes on at once to a fifth entry in the soprano with a close stretto entry on its heels (saturation!). This stretto is a strict canon in the tenor at the time interval of a quarter note and the pitch interval of an upper fifth; in one contrapuntal inversion or another—that is, with the second voice entering above or below the first, in any octave—this is the main stretto that Bach will make use of throughout the piece. The fifth entry itself confirms the macro-metrical pulse of three half notes, and if the stretto (the sixth entry) breaches it, the break seems calculated to allow the next entries to march all the more strongly in the modular slow triple meter. They modulate first to G and then to A minor.

The key of A minor, the submediant, is affirmed by the fugue’s first strong cadence—though as often happens with structural articulations in Baroque music, the music starts up again at once in the tonic key C major without any modula­tory process. Bach prepares this cadence as briefly as possible, or just about. It is interesting that he also wanted to make it as expressive as possible, as though to counteract the rather dry, abstract nature of the basic material. He did the same with the next cadence (in D minor).

Second Phase: Bars 14–19

In this small stretch of music much happens. Starting in C major with the “default” stretto we already know—it therefore sounds as though we are starting all over again—Bach lays down a barrage of further stretto entries at different time intervals and different scale degrees. Several entries are reinforced by dou­bling in thirds [bars 15, 17, 19].

This classic pileup is one of the passages Laurence Drey­fus has in mind when he refers delicately in his book Bach and the Patterns of Invention to the “irritations” in Bach’s voice leading—awkward sounds in certain of the canonic dispositions “that he attempted to eliminate, perhaps without achieving an unqualified success.” But these attempts, by adding ingenious covering counterpoint in the noncanonic voices, contribute to some of the most expressive moments in the fugue, as Dreyfus points out.

He cites bars 17–19. The A-minor cadence in bar 14 had acti­vated a run of subject entries all starting from the pitches C and G in one octave or another, but now they are topped by a tenor entry starting from A [bars 17–18]. The melodic line moves up to D and then to F, the tenor’s highest note in the fugue so far. The upper voices also rise to the top of their ranges around now; the soprano, as usual, is the voice to watch, for the curling eighth-note scale that it traces invests the registral climax with special power and radiance. This scale merges two entries, one incomplete and the other complete [bars 15–17], advancing from G above middle C up to the higher C and then to high F, A, and ultimately B♭, just one note short of the top of Bach’s keyboard.

The harmony tilts expansively to the subdominant, as the tex­ture opens up in bars 16–17—where I always hear a spectral fifth voice, according to the model in example 1. (It is not uncommon for Bach to divide a fugue subject, clearly heard, between two voices.) What I am hearing is the dazzling eruption of high trumpets and drums in the Gratias of the B-Minor Mass, a fugue with evident points of contact with the present WTC fugue.

Third Phase: Bars 19–27

The climactic high B♭ in the soprano echoes a moment later in a bass entry pointed toward the next cadential goal, D minor [bar 18]. D minor balances the previous minor key, A minor. (The large-scale tonal progression from here to the end of the fugue, the circle of fifths A–D–G–C, will be articulated by pedals in the bass.) But a “default” stretto at the upper fifth overlaps the actual cadence and casts a strange filtered light over it. A novel effect, this seems to arise from a compound of the unexpected D-major harmony—with F♯—the pause on the pedal D, brief as it is, and the way the two inner voices ease their way or glide across the cadential downbeat. B♮ also rather pointedly contra­dicts the climactic B♭s heard earlier [bar 19].



It initiates a beautifully calculated slowdown. After the stately momentum of the first phase of this fugue, and the whirl of virtuosic exertion in the second, the concluding phase brings a peaceful stretto that feels like a duplication, stretto without sforzo, without stress [bars 20–24]. This stretto is drawn out at the lower sixth over a pedal G.

One more, final stretto comes above the third and longest pedal, a prolongation of the cadential note C [bars 24–27]. Tinges of subdominant harmony relax the music further—how precisely the B♭s are positioned in bars 24–26—and relax­ation also extends to the form of the subject. As a general rule, the statement of the subject that comes at or near the end of a fugue makes a definitive statement, sometimes aphoristic or witty, sometimes climactic or monumental. Not here. What we get here is a very informal and mild free entry in the soprano, which skips a few beats while restoring (with some help from the alto) its long-forgotten continuation, that sequential figure in sixteenth notes (A G F E ∫ F E D C). With which the soprano guides the melodic line back down to its opening note, the tonic, C [bars 24–26].

The music is coming to a close—heretofore the subject has ended less conclusively, on the third degree, not the tonic—and on C the subject converges with C in the pedal, two octaves below. Still, this turns out to be rather fragile as a place of rest, and the wispy upward scales at the end do not contribute much to stability. Perhaps they are Bach’s way of nudging us to move right along to the next number, the antithetical Prelude and Fugue in C Minor.

(A recommended YouTube recording: Prelude and Fugue in C Major; WTC Book 1)




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