“In this work are contained the most hidden beauties possible to the art of music.”
Such was written in 1752 by F.W. Marpurg, a leading musical scholar of the day. He was referring to a work that was published in an unfinished and disorderly form, its true order lost due to the death of the man whose life vision this work epitomized. Yet, in spite of its haphazard collection by this man’s heirs, the colossal beauty of this work shone through, like a beacon in the darkness. Even after music such as this lost public favor over the course of years, the writer of this piece was never forgotten, nor was this piece, the climatic achievement of his prodigious career.
The writer of which we speak is Johann Sebastian Bach, and the masterwork referred to here is his Kunst der Fugue, or “Art of Fugue”. This is one of several works that Bach attended to during his final years (along with the two Passion works, the B Minor Mass and his Wohltemperierte Klavier, the “Well-Tempered Clavier”), revising, reordering and refining. While the exact circumstances surrounding the composition of Art of Fugue are not clear, it is believed that Bach began writing on the piece during the early 1740s, with the first surviving edition dated 1745 (with 12 fugues and 2 canons). It was eventually revised, over time, to include 14 fugues and 4 canons, plus the legendary unfinished fugue, which was the only one of the fugues to not be in D minor, and which scholars believe was intended to summarize the rest of the piece, with a restatement of the original theme as part of what was left unwritten.
One of the interesting things about Bach was his ability to combine teaching and pedagogy with artistic beauty, often while simultaneously making deep statements of faith in a living God. There are numerous examples where Bach used his art to make distinctly intellectual statements about the possibilities that were available to the interested composer and player (for example, his Musical Offering, or his Goldberg Variations, in addition to the aforementioned Well-Tempered Clavier). Such was the case with Art of the Fugue. Here, Bach took a simple 4 bar theme, heard most clearly in the very first fugue, then pulls and twists the theme like a candymaker twists taffy. He inverts the theme (turning it “upside-down”), applies stretto passages (the imitation of the subject in close succession, often done at the end of a fugue, that makes the texture of the piece more intense), uses counter-fugues (where the regular and inverted forms are played simultaneously), adds diminution (where the note lengths are halved), augmentation (where the note lengths are doubled), separates the two voices by an octave, plus numerous combinations of the above. There are mirror fugues (where the complete score, not just the theme, is inverted), places where the theme and its inverse are played back-to-back, and a mirror fugue in 3 voices. This goes on for 18 sections. Then we get the closer – a 4 voice fugue, probably intended to be a quadruple fugue (in 4 sections), with the third subject set up to spell the word B-A-C-H in musical notation (a favorite technique of Bach’s, done numerous times over the course of his career). The piece is left off right where the third section is preparing to transition into a fourth section, which is believed to have been a summation of the main theme. Truly, there is hardly a more brilliant workout in the existing musical theory of the day than what is provided here.
Art of Fugue was roughly an hour and a half – so, I have a little bit of time to play with at the end of the show tonight. A little bit of St. Vincent is a nice way to spend some of that time. St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark, a talented musician who played most of the instruments on her 2009 release Actor. As talented on stage as she is in the studio (she does some cunning guitar parts in concert), I feel that this is a talent with much more to say in the coming future – in fact, her new album, Strange Mercy, comes out in mid-September. From Actor, we heard Save Me From What I Want, Marrow and The Party.
Below, I include a sampling of St. Vincent, from a 2009 appearance on Austin City Limits, an absolutely transcendent performance of The Party, and a performance of a song, Your Lips are Red, that we did not hear on the show, but which serves as a fine example of her guitar work:
We close the show with some Deftones. It is hard to resist the call of some Deftones, and it has been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to do something from this fine band, a longtime Galaxy favorite. Tonight we heard Feiticiera (from their excellent 2000 disk White Pony), and Deathblow (from their equally excellent self-titled disk from 2003.