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Johann Sebastian Bach's Art of Fugue

Johann Sebastian Bach's Art of Fugue: Performance Practice Based on German Eighteenth-Century Theory

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Leuven University Press
Pages: 254
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  • Book Info
    Johann Sebastian Bach's Art of Fugue
    Book Description:

    With the Art of Fugue Bach delivered a polyphonic composition for keyboard of unprecedented proportions and complexity. Notwithstanding the vast existing literature on this brilliant work, a performer does not often find answers in it to practical questions such as ‘Why is this note not flatted?' or ‘How can one make this peculiar voice-leading work during performance?' This book by a leading Bach performer is designed to fill this void and provide a practical guide to the performance of the Art of Fugue. The first part contains an overview of four important Baroque topics related to the concept and performance of the Art of Fugue (rhetoric, metre, syntax, and keyboard technique). The second part basically demonstrates, with reference to the first four Contrapuncti, how the background presented in the first part often enables possible explanations for both text-critical and conceptual issues to be formulated. The final purpose is to achieve as eloquent a performance as possible of these pieces.

    eISBN: 978-94-6166-129-6
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents


      (pp. 17-52)

      In seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Germany, a considerable number of theorists elaborated on the similarity which the writing and delivery of a speech have with the composition and performance of a musical piece.⁴ By adopting linguistic precepts borrowed from the classical textbooks on rhetoric, their treatises aimed, principally with an instructional motivation, to codify the craftsmanship of musical composition from the initial idea (inventio) via the structuring (dispositio) to the full working-out with all the details (decoratioorelaboratio), and to provide guidelines for obtaining as convincing a performance as possible (executio).⁵

      In spite of the multitude of references to rhetoric...

    • 2. ON METRE
      (pp. 53-82)

      In seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Europe, the theoretical concept of metre with its hierarchic organization of notes seems to have been strongly embedded in the performance practice prevailing at the time. Depending on its position in the bar, a note could be ‘good’, and thus strong and/or long, or ‘bad’, that is weak and/or short.⁷⁵

      Although Johann Sebastian Bach did not leave us any information about his views on this matter, I argue that, since metric hierarchy is well documented in eighteenthcentury German treatises, and also in contemporary writings from Bach’s environment and possible sphere of influence, the concept of ‘good’...

      (pp. 83-130)

      Although we possess some information regarding Bach’s keyboard articulation, fingering, technique and sound production, many questions remain, which will always remain unanswered. In order to find some plausible ‘replies’, the treatises of his colleagues, students and admirers are again obviously an important source of information. Furthermore, we can gain more insight into the particularity of ‘the Bach technique’ by studying keyboard articulation and fingering from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, since those traditions (and compositions!) were still present in eighteenth-century Europe and, more particularly, in Bach’s entourage. Additionally, where keyboard tutors often formulate rather vague or ambiguous guidelines, wind and...

      (pp. 131-174)

      As already mentioned in the opening chapter of this book ‘On Musical Rhetoric’, Bach, being a pragmatist, never engaged in writing extensive treatises on music theory or performance practice. With regard to the few modest theoretical tutors he did write or dictate, they hardly offer us any insight into his personal views on music theory, only constituting the most basic rules of thorough-bass accompaniment. The least concise of these, so to speak, was theVorschriften und Grundsätze zum vierstimmigen Spielen des General-Baβ oder Accompagnement(1738), for which Bach based himself on Friederich Erhardt Niedt’sMusicalische Handleitung oder: Gründlicher Unterricht(1700/1710).¹₉² In...


      (pp. 177-186)

      Contrapunctus 1is usually described as the first of four ‘simple’ fugues of theArt of Fugue,the term ‘simple’ indicating that in these pieces Bach consciously avoided the contrapuntal techniques for which theArt of Fuguesubject was basically designed – stretto, diminution, augmentation, contrary motion, invertible counterpoint and subject transformation.²⁷⁵ Although these special devices, it is true, will be fully exploited later in the work, this assertion seems somewhat too categorical to me. In fact, Bach did use subject transformation and (incomplete) stretto in all four simple fugues, contributing to both the textural variety and an overall increase in complexity....

      (pp. 187-198)

      Contrapunctus 2,which also has a ‘disguised’ counter-subject,²⁹¹ establishes two new elements related to theArt of Fuguesubject. Firstly, the quaver tail of therectusform of theArt of Fuguesubject is altered to a dotted version (tied dotted quaver, semiquaver, dotted quaver, semiquaver). As Wolfgang Wiemer has shown, this dotted rhythm was actually an afterthought.²⁹² (Perhaps Bach felt that the version with quavers resembledContrapunctus 1too much.) Since this rhythmic modification was applied to every group of quavers inContrapunctus 2,it changes the style of the piece considerably, and confronts the harpsichordist with several specific...

      (pp. 199-214)

      InContrapunctus 3Bach introduced several new features with regard to both theArt of Fuguesubject and the general concept. Firstly, he exclusively used theArt of Fuguesubjectinversus,which occurs in its regular form as well as in a dotted form including passing notes, with or without syncopations. Secondly,Contrapunctus 3is the first piece in theArt of Fuguewith a regular, conventional counter-subject, which, in this specific case, has an additional quality in that it also accompanies the subject’s transformations.³⁰⁷ Thirdly, this fugue differs from the previous pieces with its overall chromaticism and tonal instability,...

      (pp. 215-230)

      Contrapunctus 4is the last fugue in theArt of Fuguewhich does not systematically exhaust one specific contrapuntal technique or concept. Like the precedingContrapunctusit employs the subjectinversus, starting, however, with an inverteddux. This opening thematic statement actually involves, for the first time in theArt of Fugue, a piece not beginning with an obvious D but with an A – a feature which, in a complete performance, adds emphasis to the opening ofContrapunctus 4.

      This fugue is substantially longer than the three previous pieces. It consists of 138 2/2 bars instead of the 78 of...

  3. APPENDIX 2: Musical-Rhetorical Figures
    (pp. 235-236)