Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge
Johann Sebastian Bach : “The art of the Fugue”
The “Art of the Fugue” is J. S. Bach’s last major work and it represents without any doubt the culmination of his creativity. Bach was involved in its composition in the last 2 years of his life – he was unable however to complete it, as he was forced to stop working, because he lost his vision, whilst composing the last fugue shortly before his death in July 1750. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote the following emotive note on the manuscript of this “quadruple” fugue: “During the composition of this Fugue, and at the point where B-A-C-H appears as a counter-subject, the composer passed away.” We should remind that in the German notation the letter B represents B flat and the letter H represents B natural).
In this monumental work, both in sheer dimensions and in content, the condensation and coding of all the experience and technical inventions of more than three centuries polyphonic musical thinking is realized. A short, austere and extremely well balanced and ceremonially expressive Theme, becomes the subject of multiple permutations, which continuously transform it, creating an endless wealth of different characters. The abstract conception of the composition leads to the creation of certain forms, which can be executed also in “reverse” (see “rectus-inversus”) without loss of their musical essence.
The “Art of the Fugue” has been deeply appreciated by many great composers (Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and others) who studied it deeply and were able to obtain valuable information. This very “didactic” aspect of the work, this unending wealth of invention and innovation, as it happens with every masterpiece, became a guide for future creators but also led certain “theorists” to the misunderstanding that the work was conceived solely for pedagogical purposes. In reality however, it represents the culmination of a purely “musical” thinking of incredible variety, wealth and expressivity. And this is definitely the most admirable aspect of the work: the conversion of an exceedingly complex combination of structures to a natural and unforced flowing stream of melodies.
Because, of course, there would have been a good number of learned composers, who could carry out with ease even the most complicated contrapuntal proceedings; the remarkable thing about Bach lies in his ability to exploit and to project the e x p r e s s i v e possibilities of the complicated polyphonic combinations, and the most useful lesson that can be obtained from the “Art of the Fugue” lies undoubtedly in the way the connection between the s t r u c t u r a I and the e x p r e s s i v e element is highlighted. And there is no doubt that in no other musical work does it become so clear the relationship between form and emotional content: every transformation of the original idea is also a transposition to a different emotional situation.
This brief introductory note does not aim to analyze the work in depth – this has been done in the past repeatedly in specific studies (See Walter Kolneder “Die Kunst der Fuge” – Heinrichshofen Verlag” Wilhelmshaven). Very typical is of course (something that one can appreciate even through simple listening) the gradual increment of both the degree of transformation of the first Theme, and of the complexity of the structures in the succession of the work’s sections. It is worth mentioning also, that the various altered forms of the initial Theme and the use of Counter-themes do not appear and characterize each Fugue separately and exclusively, but they appear scattered in different Fugues – each time within a different musical context, having therefore multiple meanings. Furthermore however, (and more importantly of course) they elevate the work from being a simple series of “variations on a theme”, to the higher level of a complex and formidably coherent and tenacious musical construction.
The “Art of the Fugue” was considered as a “swan-song”, despite of the fact that when Bach composed it, or at least when he wrote the biggest part of it, he was in good health, with no warnings of imminent death – which occurred following an infection after a failed eye operation. Thus, a veil of mystery was formed surrounding the work with references to its monumental character and even to metaphysical ideas, leading to the view that this was an “abstract” composition, a work that is not aimed for live performances, and similar things. The main purpose of this present recording was to move away from this notion of the monumental, supernatural and static, and to present the work for what it really is: a living, dynamic and vigorous human work, which speaks to every one and is received both as a highly intellectual creation, as well as a pure and complete aesthetic enjoyment.
Bach did not specify which instrument or instruments should be used to perform the work (not even in the part of it which was published when he was still alive) a fact that led to different hypotheses and different arrangements, instrumentations, orchestrations and adaptations. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that it was written for a keyboard instrument, primarily a Cembalo or an Organ – without excluding the Pianoforte, even in its primitive state, like the one he himself had encountered in the palace of Frederic the Great in Potsdam, during his visit there in 174 7.
The contemporary piano is undoubtedly the most appropriate instrument, capable of projecting the expressive and melodic characteristics of the work. The present performance with two pianos is not a product of arrangement, but an absolutely accurate reproduction of Bach’s autograph. This is perhaps the most suitable solution in order to portray unimpededly the individual “voices” and their melodic flow, but also in order to maintain the correct rhythmic and agogic relationship between all the various side Themes as to the main Theme, from which all the rest is derived.
The “voices” were set in this performance in the following way: In the four-part Fugues, Piano I (M. Efstratiadis) plays Soprano and Tenor and Piano II (Y. Ioannidis) plays Alto and Bass. In the three-part Fugues, in Nr. 8 Piano I plays the two lower “voices”, and Piano II the highest one, whilst in Nr. 16 and 17 Piano I plays the two external and Piano II the middle “voice”. In the last Fugue Piano I plays Soprano and Alto, and Piano II Tenor and Bass Finally, the Canons are played as follows: Nr. 12 and 14 by Piano I, and Nr. 13 and 15 by Piano II. All the pieces, Fugues and Canons, carry the general title “Contrapunctus”. In the present recording the arrangement of Contrapunctus XVII for two pianos made by Bach himself (as Contrapunctus XVIII) is omitted, as it essentially does not blend with the purely polyphonic nature of the whole work.
Maria Efstratiadis, born in Athens, studied at the Athens Conserνatoire, from which she graduated with an award and special distinction. She continued her studies at the ‘Ήochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien” in Hannoνer, Germany, from which she also graduated with top marks and distinction. She holds diplomas in Harmony, Counterpoint and Fugue.
She has appeared in solo recitals and chamber music concerts in Greece, France, Germany and Hungary. She has recorded for Greek, German and Hungarian radio. She has made solo performances with the National Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Athens State Orchestra.
Her discography includes works of J.S. Bach, C. Ph. Ε. Bach, W.A. Mozart and Υ. Ioannidis. Her recordings with all sonatas for piano and two concertos (ΚV 271 and ΚV 453) for piano and orchestra of W. A. Mozart, in collaboration with the Athens Music Society Chamber Orchestra (conductor: Yannis Ioannidis), received an award in December 2010 from the Union of Greek Theatre and Music Critics.
Maria Efstratiadis is a professor of piano and chamber music at the Athens Conservatoire.
Yannis Ioannidis was born in Athens, where he studied Law and Music. He completed his studies in music (Organ, Composition, Harpsichord, Conducting) at the Music Academy of Vienna. He has made a successful carrier as a conductor (artistic director of the State Chamber Orchestra of Caracas, Venezuela, 1969-1973, general director of the Athens State Orchestra, 1982-89), as a composer (with many performances and recordings of his works in Greece and abroad), as a pedagogue (Metropolitan University of Caracas, Athens University, professor and director of studies in various Conservatories) and as an author of many writings on education, aesthetics and philosophy of music.