How to Listen to The Art of Fugue

By any measure, Art of Fugue is a formidable work, with twenty sections (counting the canons and the inversus performances of the mirror fugues) of intense counterpoint, and taking some eighty minutes to perform. Although Bach devises a wonderful variety of ideas and variations, the whole thing is planted in D minor and is derived from the first twelve notes of Contrapunctus I. Thus AOF’s reputation for being severe, inaccessible, even (for listeners not as contrapuntally addled as I) monotonous.

I’ve heard many recordings of AOF, and while a few capture the real breath of Bach, many are duller than dishwater. Yes, AOF was probably conceived for keyboards alone. Yes, to some extent, the music is didactic. But underpinning the intellectual rigor is art with an extraordinary emotional sweep, and to miss this is to miss the point of AOF. Hardly by accident does Bach take us directly from the growling pathos of Contrapunctus III to the joy of Contrapunctus IV; or transform the confidently striding Contrapunctus VIII into its stern triple inversion in Contrapunctus XI, with two carefree delights in between; or conclude the cycle with a monumental edifice. The key to interpreting AOF, I believe, is to take Bach’s lead: he coded himself into this music, and not merely in Contrapunctus XIV. In similar fashion, I have coded what I feel as I listen to AOF into my synthesized orchestration, and hopefully it captures the emotional span present in the score. If you are new to AOF, here are a few listening suggestions.

The Whole Thing

To experience AOF in its fullest, you should just start at Contrapunctus I and listen to the whole thing, but it’s a heavy assignment. By all means go for it, and I’ve tried to help by ordering AOF the way I have done here, with the canons interspersed between the fugal sections. As wonderful as the fugues are, listening to them all in a row is taxing, and the same applies even more acutely to the canons. Here the canons are like recurring mouthfuls of sorbet between the main courses. If you listen to the entire work at once, do so with the large scale structure always in mind. The canons are clearly telegraphed in the orchestration, and they “break” the flow of the fugues at logical points in the cycle.

Sections of Four

An alternative way to enjoy AOF is to listen to any one of the sections headed in boldface in the program at right. Each provides about fifteen minutes of listening enjoyment, and forms a satisfying mini-whole.

Simple Fugues. The four simple fugues will take you from a somber beginning, to the darkness of Contrapunctus III, to the brilliant sunshine of Contrapunctus IV. Since they all employ easily recognizable variants of a single subject, it’s easy to follow the contrapuntal web.

Stretto Fugues. For a more complex listening assignment, try Contrapuncti V through VII. In a stretto fugue, entries of the subject do not appear sequentially, but are overlapped. Note the intense use of stretto in Contrapunctus V, which has the character of multiple waterfalls tumbling over one another. And then in Contrapuncti VI and VII, just to make things even more complex, Bach introduces diminution (halving the note values of the subject) and augmentation (doubling them). Now you have to keep track of the subject and its inversion in 1X, 2X, and 4X incarnations! I’ve tried to telegraph it all in the orchestration, but it’s still a lot to keep track of. However, these three contrapuncti make a satisfying trio to listen to; Contrapunctus VII builds up a serious head of steam as it marches to its conclusion with regular, diminished, and augmented stretti swirling through the voices.

Double and Triple Fugues. This is a delightful quartet, with massive triple fugues anchoring the outside and lighter double fugues on the inside. As the central section of AOF, these fugues are bursting with motivic links to each other and other parts of the cycle. For example, the three subjects of Contrapunctus XI are the reordered and inverted subjects of Contrapunctus VIII.

Mirror Fugues. These pieces are short and technically astounding. In both Contrapunctus XII and Contrapunctus XIII, you will first hear the fugue, and then its mirror…meaning the entire piece is turned upside down. Voices and intervals are precisely preserved, but they are switched and inverted. That Bach could achieve this with such complex textures defies comprehension. Technical miracles aside, though, these are arguably the most immediately enjoyable and bounciest of AOF’s fugues, providing sort of a divertissement between the gigantic structures of Contrapuncti XI and XIV.

Contrapunctus XIV. All by itself, this piece approaches or exceeds the length of the other “sections of four.” It is the last word in contrapuntal wizardry, and a fitting conclusion to the cycle. The version here includes a completion of this erstwhile “unfinished” work; for more about this, read my introductory page about the piece.

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