The Galaxy – Celebrating Bach, Part 1

Once again, we embark on my annual musical odyssey that is the celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.  As I’ve done this every year since shortly after I began broadcasting, and since I’ve written multiple blog entries that explore the wonders of his music, it is hard for me to write much without becoming repetitive.  Yet this music is so glorious that it begs for at least some form of mention.

J.S. Bach's The Art of Fugue, breaks off abrup...

J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, breaks off abruptly during Contrapunctus XIV due to his death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s show begins with a work that I often feature as a part of these birthday celebration, his Kunst der Fugue, or Art of Fugue, BWV 1080.  He began the work at some point during the early 1740s, and assembled an fair copy manuscript in 1742 that had 11 fugues and 2 canons.  Another assembly of the work was produced in 1745, often referred to as the Berlin Autograph, which contained 12 fugues and 2 canons.  As Bach was engaged in a process of revising a number of what he likely considered his key works (including the two Well-Tempered Clavier sets, the two surviving Passion works, and his B Minor Mass, among others), he also began a revision of Art of Fugue.  All indications are that this revision was largely completed at the time of his death in 1750, with the exception of a “colossal” unfinished fugue that was based on the four letters of his last name, B-A-C-H (a compositional device that he liked to use from time to time), of which he had completed all but the culminating section.  This revision was published by his heirs in 1751.  While attempts have been made to put together a completed version of this fugue, it is often performed as Bach left it, leaving us to wonder what Bach would have written for a coda had he had the time.  Yet this is but the ending to an already colossal work, an assemblage of movements of increasing complexity, all based upon a simple musical figure expressed in the first movement.  As Christoph Wolff puts it (in his excellent book, Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician – a great read for anyone with an interest in music history), it serves as “an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.”

English: Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in...

English: Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in Bruges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording also has some individual significance.  This 1953 recording by the late keyboard giant Gustav Leonhardt was the first complete recording of the piece.  The relative clarity of the recording is astonishing for a recording from such an early date.  Although there have been excellent subsequent recordings by some tremendous keyboardists, this remains one of the best available.  This also holds an important place in what was then a growing trend towards historically informed recordings of such important works, and it was also part of a series of early recordings that featured the clavichord in performance.  In that regard, Leonhardt was one of the great innovators, and deserves credit for helping establish the clavichord and its early keyboard cousins as a point of interest among fans of classical music.

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by Johan...

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by Johann Sebastian Bach, opening bars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We then continued with a hearing of a lovely rendition of the infamous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, by another excellent keyboardist, the great organist E. Power Biggs.  There is some question as to whether the work was actually written by Bach.  A number of theories have been suggested, both pro and con as to Bach’s authorship, but the reality is that, as so many of Bach’s pieces have been lost to the ravages of time and circumstance, the truth will never be authoritatively established.  But the question of authorship in no way detracts from the extraordinary beauty of the piece.  Tonight’s recording is a lovely 1973 rendition that was made in a rather unique 4-organ installation in the Freiburg Cathedral in Freiburg, Germany.

We finish the evening with another Leonhardt recording, this time with Leonhardt performing the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546.  Like with many of Bach’s organ works (see above), the origins of this set are also not entirely clear, although in this instance Bach’s authorship is not questioned.  It has been suggested that the fugue may have been written during his Weimar period (1708-1717), while the Prelude may have been added after his 1723 arrival at Leipzig.  It is a striking example of how essential Bach’s organ compositions are.

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