Monday, October 6, 2014

Art of Fugue, cont'd: which instruments?

Of the many mysteries surrounding the Art of Fugue, perhaps the most practical regards the instrumentation: Bach leaves no indication of what instrument(s) he had in mind in composing the piece. Perhaps it was just an oversight, or perhaps he thought it was so obvious, he didn't need to even write down the instruments. More likely, though, Bach was purposefully evasive and ambiguous, leaving the door open for numerous readings.

There's evidence to support multiple sides of the debate. The piece is written entirely in "open score," instead of on a grand staff as was most typical for keyboard music. On the other hand, various details suggest that Bach heard it on a keyboard (the fact that it's possible to play). For many people, Bach’s failure to explicitly commit to an instrumentation—along with his failure/reluctance to indicate tempos/dynamics/phrasings in the vast majority of his compositions—is a weakness or an unfortunate omission, opening this work, and all the works of Bach, to “wrong” interpretations and gross manipulations.

But for me, it’s a strength, and maybe even a sign of Bach’s foresight and growing wisdom in his old age. Why commit his final masterpiece to any single instrument or ensemble when the world of music is always changing, adapting to new trends? If a piece is to be timeless, it should adapt too, and this is exactly what the Art of Fugue, and all of Bach’s music, has aged so magnificently well. It’s the difference between “No state shall discriminate on the basis of race” and “No state shall deny its citizens equal protection of the laws.” The former may have been essentially what the drafters of the 14th Amendment had in mind, but it would have been overly rigid, with no room for an evolving standard of equality.

Questions of history and constitutional law aside, though, the practical question remains: what instrumentation best suits this piece? Few works have been the subject of more variety of interpretation. You can hear the Art of Fugue played on piano, harpsichord, organ, harmonium, string quartet, brass quartet, and recorder quartet, guitar and trombone duo (seriously), among others. 


The advantage of the quartet versions is obvious: each player can give his full attention to a single voice, giving them each an independence that should—in theory at least—be impossible for a single keyboard player to execute.

On top of that, compare moments like 0:38 in the video below to 0:34 in the video above. On the piano (though not the organ, to be discussed next time), you can't sustain notes. Once you play a note, it immediately starts to disappear. This is a huge disadvantage, in general, but even more so in the Art of Fugue, in places like this one. This moment brings back the main theme for the entire piece in a soaring soprano line, but on piano, it can be a little, well, disappointing.




Then again, what we gain from hearing from four instruments' individuality and attention, we can easily lose in unity of vision and overall coherence. It's mighty difficult for one person to keep track of four voices, but at least that person is in full control and able to present one single vision of the music in question.

And then there’s the inescapable fact (for me, at least) that this music just doesn’t quite sound right played on strings or brass instruments. The main difference is in the quality of articulation on these instruments vs the piano, harpsichord, or organ. On the latter instruments, it’s impossible to play with a true legato, or smoothness between the notes. Every note is marked by a clear and definite beginning, unlike in string instruments (where the bow can continue moving between notes), or winds and brass (air keeps flowing). This fact is something we pianists work incredibly hard to overcome or compensate for, but it’s this place in between, the illusion of legato that’s not quite there, that makes our instrument perfect for contrapuntal writing. The quick-moving notes in the string parts have to be separated to be heard at all, but as such, they're too articulated, where on piano they can be with a more singing quality.


There are lots of other considerations, of course, and it depends on a lot on which number of the Art of Fugue we're talking about, as well as who exactly is playing. But perhaps not surprisingly, as a pianist, I think this music sounds best on a keyboard (and apologies to all brass player friends, but the brass quintet just doesn't work, at least not the one I linked above). But where I’m firmly convinced that much of Bach’s keyboard music sounds best on piano, specifically, I can’t say I’ve come to the same conclusion for the Art of Fugue. More on that next time.

For the record, this is my favorite non-keyboard version yet:

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