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Classical Music

Art of the Fugue JS Bach Revisited

Stephen Gislason arranger and performer on synthesizers.

The Art of the Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV1080)is a collection of Johann Sebastian Bach' last compositions. Bach was the master of counterpoint and his fugues were showcases of his mastery of counterpoint.  His son, Carl, published the work in 1751, still incomplete. One theme is introduced in the first fugue and then developed through contrapuntal variations. Much speculation and controversy has arisen as musicologists analyzed the pieces. The last fugue 14 has been of special interest as presumably the last music that Bach wrote and because his hand written score is unfinished at bar 239. His son, Carl, wrote on the score:" At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died."

Glenn Gould recorded his versions of the Fugues (piano and organ) and I have enjoyed and followed his approach to studio recording -- the essence of which is creativity and minute attention to detail, In an online review of Gould's recording, David Bryson stated:" One of the most extraordinary things about Bach is how popular he manages to be for all his seeming severity. The Art of Fugue is innocent of the lyricism that was also part of Bach's infinite musical gift, it makes no compromises with us, but I would say to newcomers to the work that Gould's accounts, partial as they are, would be the best place to start to know this unique and towering masterpiece... Gould chose to play the Art of Fugue on the organ, giving the separate voices, indeed, every note, dynamic equality... with sound powerful and regal enough to do it justice but with the clipped, clavichord rhythm that brings out the playful personalities of which these fugues consist, emphasizing as Gould always does the conversational diversity and harmony that is the essence of counterpoint."

While both Bach and Gould receive a lot of attention from fans and scholars with attendant arguments, my approach is (with due reverence) to follow my own instincts, preferences, and creativity. I wanted to achieve versions of the Art of the Fugue that are different from previous versions. I have spent countless hours developing my arrangements and could issue several albums with quite divergent interpretations. One melodic theme repeats thru many variations. Four voices interact in contrapuntal relationships that develop quite differently in each fugue. I have orchestrated many of the fugues using synthesizer voices that are both instrumental and also create novel sounds. The basic instruments are grand piano, electronic pianos, vibraphone, trumpet, oboe, acoustic and electric basses. Some purely synthesizer sounds are used in a voice or string like manner for sustaining sounds. I believe I have reached an understanding with Bach and Gould, that these pieces have an infinite quality that cannot be contained in any individual's opinion of them. "

Art of the Fugue 4

Art of the Fugue 5

There are different versions of the Art of Fugue, for example:

Part 1: 14 Fugues (Contrapuncti)

Contrapunctus 1 (simple fugue)

Contrapunctus 2 (simple fugue with 'French rhythm')

Contrapunctus 3 (simple inversion fugue)

Contrapunctus 4 (simple inversion fugue with countersubject)

Contrapunctus 5 (stretto fugue)

Contrapunctus 6 ('in stilo francese')

Contrapunctus 7 ('per augmentationem et diminutionem')

Contrapunctus 8 (triple fugue)

Contrapunctus 9 ('alla Duodecima'; double fugue)

Contrapunctus 10 ('alla Decima'; double fugue)

Contrapunctus 11 (triple fugue)

Contrapunctus 12a ('mirror' fugue 1: rectus)

Contrapunctus 12b ('mirror' fugue 1: inversus)

Contrapunctus 13a ('mirror' fugue 2: rectus)

Contrapunctus 13b ('mirror' fugue 2: inversus)

Contrapunctus 14 ('Fuga a 3 Soggetti'; unfinished)

Canons, labeled by interval and technique:

15. Canon alla Ottava: Canon at the Octave. The two imitating voices are separated by an octave.
16. Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza: Canon at the tenth, counterpoint at the third.
17. Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta: Canon at the twelfth, counterpoint at the fifth.

Art of Fugue

Digital Bach for the 21 Century A Persona Digital Production, Stephen Gislason Arranger & Performer