One thing is certain. Even if few truly appreciated it at the time, Bach was very aware of his genius. A humble Lutheran by nature and faith, Bach sought to cement his legacy at the end of his life through two monumental works. Sick, going blind and dying, Bach set about to compose on both a small and massive scale. In the Art of the Fugue, Bach delivers the ultimate summation on musical theory to date. Included in this set of compositions are the most intricate, detailed and complex music ever written. It’s as if Bach threw down his gauntlet, exclaiming “Decipher this!”
Bach did not specify which instruments should perform these fugues and instrumentation varies widely in recorded versions. I’ve selected a few here, but they are all worth careful listening and consideration, across multiple recordings. These may not be among my truly favorite works of music, but they’d be on my Desert Island Discs for sure—I’d never, ever tire of hearing them. For this first entry, I’ve selected two, the Eleventh and Seventh. The Eleventh is perhaps the most complex fugue ever written. Again, we have the familiar three subjects, which were taken from the Eighth. But, here, each of them is inverted and combined. In the Seventh, the themes are so dense I can barely figure out what’s going on. This is where my ear reaches a wall I cannot pass. As I said several weeks ago, Bach brought me to my knees musically, delivering a humbling realization that what mattered most to me was beyond my ability. Here, over 30 years later, he compounds that lesson. Every entry is in stretto—so each subject is imitated before it has even finished. I hear chords in this that are so new for the period they seem to anticipate jazz. And . . . that’s about all I can explain. Bach continues to elude me after all these years—what was that Einstein quote again?
J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue
Contrapunctus XI (harpsichord):
Contrapunctus VII (harpsichord):
Contrapunctus VII (brass quartet):