A little over a year ago, I was driving along unsuspectingly when I switched on the car radio. Immediately I was taken, entranced by the incessant, interwoven lines of a four-part fugue played on the organ. I knew it could only be Bach, and moments later, when the original theme emerged in sustained and soaring whole notes in the soprano line, I knew it was from the Art of Fugue. Somehow, I had never heard any except the first, second, and fourth movements, or "Contrapunctuses," from one of Bach's last, culminating masterpieces. Sitting in city traffic is not usually the time or place we associate with profound experiences, but such was the power of Contrapunctus 9—and of Glenn Gould's playing—that I'll never forget those few minutes.
I went home and listened to more of the same recording, and was shocked at what I'd been missing. I know a lot of Bach's music, and have been lucky enough to perform a good chunk of it as well: the Well-Tempered Clavier, many of the dance suites, the Italian Concerto. When I played the Goldberg Variations, I kind of thought I had conquered the most difficult, the most complex, the pinnacle of them all. Little did I know the Art of Fugue is like the Goldberg Variations on steroids. In the words of Angela Hewitt, "it makes the Goldberg Variations sound like child's play."
These pieces are different from anything Bach wrote. They are beautiful, yes, and they can entertain, certainly. But at their best, they overwhelm, they awe, and they mesmerize.
The whole project consists of eleven fugues, plus four canons, plus six more "mirror" fugues, plus the final, colossal-yet-tragically-unfinished quadruple fugue, all labeled with the somewhat more generic Latin "Contrapunctus," for "counterpoint."
Why the obsession with fugues? Bach was the unquestionable master of counterpoint. No one has been (or will for all eternity be) able to combine music of multiple independent parts to better entice and challenge the human brain. That's why listening to Bach's music can sometimes be "difficult": there's usually no one thing going on (no "melody") that draws your ear to the exclusion of other parts of the music; there is, rather, a bunch of melodies all at once, constantly vying for your (and the poor keyboard player's) attention.
But the payoff is enormous. To the extent that our enjoyment of art comes from subtly recognizing patterns, contrapuntal music provides a whole layer or dimension on which to built those patterns. And fugues—pieces defined by one (usually) to a few recurring musical ideas, twisted and transformed to varying degrees of recognizability—provide the perfect medium for a true craftsman to demonstrate his mastery of counterpoint. And Bach was the greatest craftsman of all.
The first fugue is smooth, filled with a feeling of emptiness and desolation. It never departs from the key of d minor yet never stands still, continuously in flux, with no clear structural boundaries or moments of repose. It is in one sense the simplest piece of the whole set, yet it is mysteriously elusive. Whereas the other fugues will draw heavily on increasingly elaborate technical feats of fugal style—stretto, inversion, augmentation and diminution—as well as an elaborate chromaticism that was a hundred years ahead of its time, this fugue is propelled by nothing more than its simple subject, which serves as the inspiration for all that follows.
After that, the the music grows in technical and harmonic complexity, as well as sheer density, culminating—at least temporarily—in the obsessive, relentless and truly manic Contrapunctus 11.
The four canons and six mirror fugues are even more esoteric in style, but underscore Bach's incredible ability to mold his music to his thematic ideas. (The mirror fugues, by the way, are kind of exactly what they sound like: each has a right-side-up version, and an upside-down version, to be presented separately in their completion...pretty incredible!).
But none of them matches the dignity, solemnity and profundity of the final fugue (Glenn Gould's all-time favorite, by the way)....
Perhaps it is not the easiest piece to become acquainted with, and doesn't exactly make for easy listening. But be careful: the Art of Fugue is apt to consume you as it has done for me over these past couple of months. And the best is yet to come!