Isolde Ahlgrimm

J.S. Bach: The Art of the Fugue
for harpsichord or pedal-harpsichord.
Including a note by Isolde Ahlgrimm

“The Art of the Fugue” (Die Kunst der Fuge), as its name implies, was intended and effectively provides, a complete treatise on the art of fugal composition, dealing with every type of fugal treatment from the simplest to the most complex.

It may be supposed that Bach had intended to have this work published under his instruction. He had since 1720 been publishing periodic treatises on different styles of composition “for connoisseurs and amateurs” under the series title Clavierübung or Keyboard Exercise. The 1749 Musical Offering, though dedicated to King Frederick and based on a Royal Theme, in fact became under Bach's hands a treatise on Canonic Composition. Of the significant forms of composition current in baroque times covered by Bach, only the Fugue, perhaps the most important, was left outstanding. The Master died before he was able to publish the work. Indeed some scholars believe that the work was left unfinished, as Bach was working on a complex fugue when he died, and although the editor of the original “Complete Bach Edition” regarded this fugue as having no connection with The Art, Gustav Nottebohm showed (“Die Musikwelt” Berlin, 1880/1) that with some manipulation the main theme of The Art could be made to fit, thus adding to the already existing uncertainties regarding instrumentation and the order in which the fugues should be performed.

When in 1922 Wolfgang Graeser brought "The Art of Fugue" into the limelight of publicity by promoting its first public performance in Leipzig, he did something memorable. Thanks to Graeser, this extraordinary work has taken its place in the public consciousness alongside of Bach's greatest, and a number of practical arrangements have appeared in addition to Graeser's. Orchestration can indeed provide an additional clarity of part-writing together with a variety of tone-color. However Graeser's, and some other arrangers' justification that Bach did not indicate what instruments he intended to use, was erroneous.

The fact that "The Art of Fugue" was originally published in 3- or 4-part open score (most of this work, though left unfinished by Bach, was engraved under his supervision), was no indication that an orchestral, or even a chamber music performance was intended. He did the same, for example, with the six-part Ricercare in “A Musical Offering ", written for pedal harpsichord or organ. His "connoisseurs and amateurs" during the baroque period were quite accustomed to read from an open score, and the advantage of this system was that the player/student could clearly see the individual voices. Ability to play from open scores died out in the 1800s.

Bach implied without any ambiguity that "The Art of Fugue" was written for the keyboard. Nor had anybody ever doubted this until the appearance of Graeser's edition. As Tovey put it in his edition of this work (Oxford University Press), “no rule of counterpoint is kept more meticulously by Bach than the confinement of the part-writing to the stretch of two hands throughout."

Many serious scholars had already supported this stand. Gill, Husmann, Rietsch, Schmieder, Steglich, to mention only a few, had produced convincing arguments demonstrating beyond all question that "The art of fugue" was originally composed for a keyboard instrument, i.e. the harpsichord. Both Schmieder and Steglich explicitly advocate the use of a pedal. The only problem with this assertion is that it is somewhat subjective: it depends on the hand-span of the individual player, for this work does contain a number of chords which the average hands cannot span. However, the fact that this applies to other keyboard works by Bach (The Well-tempered Clavier, Sonata in D, Aria Variata alla Maniera Italiana) led Ms Ahlgrimm, herself being endowed with only an average medium hand-span, to conduct her own researches. She was in fact able to establish that Bach's hands were large enough to cope with the spans occurring in "The art of fugue".

During the subscription concerts which Ms Ahlgrimm held in her Vienna apartments, see illustration from 1952, she dealt with these issues in detail, and we quote below from her extensive notes which she provided for her recitals of this work.

In his "historic-literary manual of famous personalities" (Leipzig 1794), Hirsching made the following remarks in regard to Bach: "His fist was enormous. He was able, for instance, to span a twelfth with the left hand, while playing grace notes with the middle fingers." It is strange that no one has mentioned this fact to date in connection with "The art of fugue", especially as the widest span necessitated by this work is actually a twelfth for the left hand. As far as Bach was concerned, therefore, the argument that it is unfeasible has been refuted once and for all. Although such large hands are rare, there have always been musicians renowned for their extraordinary spans. Bach's pupil Goldberg, for example, is said to have had very large hands and, reporting on J. Wölffl's competition with Beethoven, Seyfried commented that both possessed the same technical skill, but Wölffl had the advantage of having large hands (he played twelfths with the same ease as octaves). César Franck was one of the few who could play some of his own compositions without having to resort to arpeggios. Many contemporary pianists can also span a twelfth with the left hand.

It is quite clear therefore that Bach experienced no difficulty with the spans of "The art of fugue" and was able to perform the work manualiter. On the other hand, "The well-tempered Clavier" (the final passage of the fugue in A minor, as well as in the Aria variata alia maniera italiana and the Sonata in D, last movement) contains passages which could not possibly be performed by any human hand, yet no one has ever questioned the fact that these works were written for the harpsichord, as has been the case with "The art of fugue".

What were the instrumental possibilities at Bach's disposal? He owned a pedal harpsichord and it may be justifiably assumed that many of Bach's organist contemporaries likewise possessed such instruments. Those passages in Bach's works, which can only be performed by recourse to the pedal, offer proof that Bach took the use of the latter into account in his compositions. It goes without saying that the pedal - its application having thus been presupposed - was used more frequently than was strictly technically necessary for mastering wide spans. The limited span of the average hand cannot possibly have been the only reason for introducing the pedal, which possibly also served to enhance artistic expressiveness. The assumption that Bach presupposed the use of a pedal in "The art of fugue" (although he himself was capable of executing the requisite spans) is demonstrated most conclusively by the way in which he handles the final passages of the individual counterpoints, often ending in seven parts. The pedal is almost indispensable for a true artistic interpretation, while it also permits an artist with smaller hands to perform passages formerly considered "impracticable".

Moreover, Bach's contemporaries and direct descendants classed this work among the important literature for keyboard instruments, a fact discussed in an article entitled "Fugue" by Kirnberger in the "General theory of the fine arts", edited by J. G. Sulzer (2nd edition, 1792), one of the most popular German books on art at that time. The author mentions 17 composers of clavier fugues, while Bach's "The art of fugue" ranks first among the works expressly written for the clavier. The composers were listed in the following order: Bach, Kirnberger, Kuhnau, Pachelbel, Froberger, Pisendel, Telemann, Mattheson, Handel, C.P.E. Bach, Schale, Marpurg, Graun, Königsberger, Fr. Couperin, Clairembault and Dandrieu. Our library includes two editions of the "Organ and harpsichord school" by Father Sebastian Prixner (1789, and one of a later date). The study of Bach's "The art of fugue" is recommended in both editions of this work. The 1789 edition makes the following remarks: "As far as the practical performance of a fugue is concerned, we would suggest Eberling's fugues as being the most suitable for imitation. Furthermore, we would recommend Friedr. Wilhelm Marpurg's treatise on fugues in the Quarto Edition Berlin 1754 (containing more than a dozen references to "The art of fugue"!), as well as 'The art of fugue' by Sebastian Bach in the Quarto Edition, Leipzig 1752. Using the Eberling or Bach pattern the beginner - much to his benefit - will be able to elaborate a short and pleasant theme and subsequently play it on the organ."

These passages in the Sulzer and Prixner books are most revealing in their references to the keyboard instrument. Moreover, they serve to disprove the widespread belief that the publication of Bach's last work found no echo. "The art of fugue" exercised considerable influence among wide circles during the course of the 18th century - Prixner, for example, lived at St. Emmeran (Landshut - Bavaria) - and it was only the romanticists of the early 19th century who were at a loss to know what to do with this work. By that time fugue-playing had fallen into disuse and pianists were unable to perform this work without a pedal. "The art of fugue" was revived again in the 20th century, this time in symphonic disguise. We believe that with the present performance on the pedal-harpsichord, "The art of fugue" can finally be understood and appreciated in its original form. (Isolde Ahlgrimm-Fiala).

The order in which the fugues (“contrapuncti”) were to be performed was likewise left unclear by Bach, though he gave indications in an earlier MS of 1742. Here, Bach arranges the fugues in order of growing complexity, a process which seems thoroughly logical and in accordance with what might be assumed as Bach's intention. We have interspersed the Canons in order to provide groups of convenient listening length.

The Unfinished Fugue on a theme BACH, though of dubious association with The Art, has been added since many who enjoy The Art are accustomed to hearing it, and it is a fine piece of music in its own right, albeit incomplete. We complete our recording with another “irrelevant work” following the example of Bach's sons in their own edition hurriedly prepared after their father's death. The following words are to be found on the inner cover of the original edition: "Due to his eye complaint and sudden death, the composer of this work was unable to finish the last fugue, the theme of which features his name (B-A-C-H). To make amends for this shortcoming, we have added, for lovers of Bach's music, the four-part chorale, dictated extempore by the blind master to one of his friends."

Though the appreciation of fugal writing and counterpoint in general was overtaken by the rococo style of Haydn and Mozart, moving thence into the romantic period, the following sentence, quoted from Marpurg's "Treatise on the fugue" (1753), provides convincing evidence of what musical circles thought of "The art of fugue" shortly alter Bach's death: "The harmony and melody of the themes, the main composition and the inversion in this difficult work, flow as naturally as if it were a free composition."

Bach's Art of Gugue and Musical Offering recorded by Isolde Ahlgrimm, pedal-harpsichord, with the Amati Soloists (Musical Offering) available as downloads from the The Baroque Music Library

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