Bach, The Art of the Fugue, Part II

The Art of the Fugue closes in spectacular fashion, with two mirror fugues. As one musicologist explained:

A mirror fugue is a pair of fugues in which each voice (or line) in the second fugue is a mirror image of the first – where the first goes up, the other goes down. In the previous movements only the theme was inverted; in the mirror fugues the entire piece is inverted. This requires Bach to play even more difficult games with his themes, since everything must be designed with its inversion in mind. Bach actually manages to achieve six different types of mirrors in these two pairs of fugues – a particularly stunning feat in that no matter how much Bach is bound up by the mirror fugue’s strict techniques, he still manages to make the music dance

While some consider these fugues to be too mathematical to be truly musical, they are marvels of composition—among the most difficult ever produced.  In the Twelfth, you get the main theme and then its mirror; in the Thirteenth, you get the main theme, which returns inverted, and then in its mirror.  The following graphical videos help to make sense of what is going on in the music. 

J.S. Bach, The Art of the Fugue

Contrapunctus XII (piano with graphic):

Contrapunctus XII (two harpsichords—use the links in the comments to skip to 1:09:21):

Contrapunctus XIII (piano with graphic):

Contrapunctus XIII (two harpsichords—use the links in the comments to skip to 1:14:44):

Bach left the final Fourteenth fugue unfinished—four themes, both upright and inverted, and then, presumably in mirror form.  Only three themes were completed before Bach died.  I like to think that he left this unfinished on purpose—as a challenge for every composer who followed him.

In the Art of the Fugue, a central mathematics is clearly at work.  Figure that out and you can compose mirror fugues for as many subjects as you choose.  Many composers have tried to finish it; all have failed, choosing to simplify rather than truly engage.  Bach’s core sequence remains a mystery: It is the great unsolved puzzle in music history.  At least that’s how I like to think of it (please don’t tell me I’m wrong and some stupid computer figured it out).

Magnificent Choices

Fellow blogger BigMikeHouston of Classical Music with Big Mike ( wrote this week about the singificant differences a conductor’s interpretation can make on how the music sounds. He’s absolutely right. And his observation gave me the idea of talking about the Period Instruments Movement, derided in some circles as being too egg-headed. Let’s see if I can make the case that period instruments and contextual interpretation can improve the music. And since we are still on Bach, this short entry gives me a perfect opportinity to look at yet another of my favorite Bach works: The Magnificat. No need to watch all of these vidoes, the first five minutes or so of each will be enough.

Let’s set a baseline, and this performance under the baton of Herbert von Karajan will do nicely. To my eyes, this is likely a late 70s performance (he did record the Magnificat in 1979 with the Berliner Philharmonic, but I can’t tell if this is a video of that recording or not). Regardless, this video presents one of the best, if not the best, conductor of the mid-20th century leading what was (and remains) one of the five best orchestras in the world, all playing on modern instruments and sounding very much like a work composed in the mid-Romantic period.

J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major

This next video presents one of my favorite conductors, Emmanuelle Haïm leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. This is better, bringing in a historically-inforrmed chorus, but paired with modern instruments. True to form, Haïm’s interpreation is spot on. Her Magnificat is taken a much better tempo and the singing is truly magnificent.

J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major

Moving on, let’s listen to Nikolaus Harnocurt, one of the high priests of the movement for period insturments, leading the Concentus Musicus ViennaWein and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. Listen the difference that, in particular, the period-appropriate brass makes to the opening. That said, this performance is taken at far too slow at tempo and, to my eyes, the strings are modern–I think I can spy some tuning pegs behind the bridges on the violins and the bows also appear to be modern.

J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major

Finally, we have a more recent recording of the Netherlands Bach Society under Van Veldoven. This, in my view, is the real McCoy. Period insturments down to those great Baroque bows, historically-informed singing, and a proper (fast) Baroque tempo. And recording this in a church certainly helps–Bach would have considered church acoustics when considering the harmony. This is the one to listen to in its entirety–absolutely thrilling.

Going back to Berg’s maxim, which I quoted in the very first entry in this blog–“music is music”. There are no wrong choices. Miles Davis stopped his sextet from rehearsing at some point, declaring that there is no such thing as a mistake, just an opportunity to explore other choices. And that’s fair. But for me, personally, I don’t Bach to sound like Mahler; Mahler is much better at that. And for that same reason, I don’t want Beethoven or Mozart to sound like Mahler either. That’s why I am drawn to historically informed performances. Communicating through music, across time and space, is a sufficiently difficult task without distrorting the artistic choices taken by composers hundreds of years ago. All four performances are beautiful, but I hear Bach most clearly in the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society. And for me, that’s what matters.

Bach, The Art of the Fugue, Part I

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 XI:

Contrapunctus VII (harpsichord):

Contrapunctus VII (brass quartet):  

Kommt, eilet und laufet!

Come, hasten and run!

In contrast to the proto-sturm und drang of his two Passion-based oratorios, Bach’s Easter Oratorio reflects pure joy. Written between the two Passion oratorios, but substantially revised a decade later in 1735-40, the Easter Oratorio is a comparatively brief work. Written for, and debuting on, Easter Sunday 1725, the change of setting from the solemnity of Good Friday makes all the difference in Bach’s music. This is a festive occasion and is treated as such. The first part of the Sinfonia is a fine example of festive Baroque composition–bright brass supported by timpani, winds and strings. The opening chorus (Kommt, eilet und laufet) picks up the festive mood, followed by alternating dramatic recitatives and arias, before a rousing, if not brisk, choral finale.

In 1725, having heard the St. John Passion on Good Friday, this extremely fortunate congregation in Leipzig was treated to this gem on Easter Sunday. Bach’s music is inseparable from his Lutheran faith. Here, his very human sense of joy is intertwined with deep faith in the miracle of the Resurrection. His music, particularly in the finale, reflects this perfectly.

Praise and thanks
remain your song of praise
Hell and the devil are overcome
their gates are destroyed
Shout and cheer, you loosened tongues,
so that you are heard in heaven

Open up, you heavens, the splendid arches,
the Lion of Judah comes drawn in victory !

Happy Easter.

Bach’s St. John Passion

In 1724, Bach unleashed his St. John Passion on Good Friday. Solemn music for the most solemn day in the Christian calendar. While Lutheran congregations would have expected an austere service, with a handful of Lutheran hymns, Bach had something new up his sleeve. As John Eliot Gardiner observes: “What greeted worshippers that day, however, was music of overwhelming descriptive and emotional power that would surely have shattered their perception of music itself.” More raw and unpolished than the St. Matthew Passion, which featured in this blog earlier in the week, this is for me the ultimate music for Easter. Goosebumps, right from the opening, Bach doesn’t relent during this two hour tour de force, an emotional rollercoaster for the ages. Fear, empathy, sorrow, despair, and, finally, transcendence.

Melt, my heart, in floods of tears.

J.S. Bach, St. John Passion:

John Eliot Gardiner and his frequent collaborators, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, recently released a new and remarkable recording of the St. John Passion. Recorded live at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, during the height of the pandemic and with a socially distanced choir and soloists, the sound engineering of the recording replicates what must have been a truly enveloping sound on the day.

From Gardiner’s liner notes: “The incredible force and beauty of Bach’s music creates an extraordinary effect, a huge impact, and it offered us a chance to aspire to something much bigger than us and beyond us–the divine.”

Bach for Easter

Last Christmas, I published a playlist that looked at Christmas music over nearly 1,000 years. At Easter, it is all about Bach.

As mentioned earlier, Bach’s faith ran deep; while his great and frequent personal tragedies were never worn on his sleeve or visage, they poured out of him and into his music. The St. Matthew Passion is the second of his two Passion settings (his first, the St John Passion will feature later this week).

Here, Bach lets fly his full genius and grief: The flutes used to express the anguish of the apostles at Jesus’ revelation of his impending death (Buss un Reu), the relentless repeating savage diminished chords to symbolize the strokes of the lash during the Scourging (Erbarm es, Gott), and the anguished salvation of its finale (Wur setzen uns mit Tränen nieder).

It’s a brilliant work, which began developing the advanced harmonics of the Romantic Period. No wonder Mendelssohn and Schumann tirelessly promoted Bach’s music. And if the man’s opinion matters, Bach considered this to be his best.

In the comments to the video, you can find links to jump to the sections referenced, but the entire oratorio is worth a few hours of your time. Here is Bach approaching his zenith as a composer, melding religious and personal sorrow and loss into music like no one before or since.

J.S. Bach, St Matthew Passion:

Music History, by Guitar

Classical guitarists get comparitively little consideration and wrongfully so. We will have much to say about the classical guitar, particularly when we get to Benjamin Britten much further down the line. Compared with rock gods and jazz freaks, classical guitarists operate in a world where they are largely shunned by classical audiences and ignored by fans of other genres.

Not so here. Like the piano, the guitar is a wonderful instrument to convey the development of harmony across the centuries, tracing how the harmonic line evolved vertically through to the late Baroque period, rich as it was in counterpoint. Sean Shibe’s recordings present a wonderful chronicle of these developments and present, pardon the pun, a counterpoint to the lengthy written description here.

Let’s start with Shibe’s 2017 album “Dreams and Fancies”, on which Shibe presents a history of the English School, contrasting John Dowland (Renaissance) with more modern composers such as William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Malcom Arnold, and Lennox Berkeley.

I’d advise listening to the Dowland works, especially Praeludium, and then picking up a more recent release, “Bach”, which presents Bach’s works for solo lute, before moving on to “Camino”, and Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies, before closing with some Benjamin Britten (off “Dreams and Fancies”) and Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint off “SoftLOUD”.

To paraphrase one critic: Bach may have been singular, but he contained multitudes. We will pick of this theme in the coming weeks.

While all of these albums are available in the entirety on your favorite streaming service, here is a curated playlist in Spotify, which is presented roughly in chronological order.

Samantha Hankey: Aural Ambrosia

We’ve had the distinct pleasure of following mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey’s career ever since her senior year at the Juilliard School. A very deserved winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions (coming out of the NY region!) in 2017, Samantha’s career has taken off spectacularly, debuting at many of the world’s greatest opera houses including The Metropolitan Opera (six roles in her debut year–unprecedented?), Barcelona’s Gran Theatre, and the Bayerische Staatsoper, among others. Along the way we’ve watched Samantha grow from college student to star.

And what a star she is! Last night’s recital at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center was a relevation. Opening with Haydn (Arianna a Naxos) and Debussy (Chanson de Bilitis), the evening moved into ground zero for Samantha’s art: Richard Strauss, served in two delectable courses before and after intermission. Alban Berg (7 Lieder) and Manuel de Falla (7 canicones populares españolas) completed the evening. For those scoring at home, that’s four different languages over the course of the evening (the Haydn is in Italian), all sung with perfect diction I might add. Samantha’s golden tone and natural were on full display all evening, but her artistry is what stood out clearest. Sensitively accompanied by Brian Zeger, Samantha dug deep into Debussy’s hazy sonic landscapes, creating an intimate world where music is at its most natural and unexpected. But it is, as always with Samantha, the Strauss that leaves the most lasting impression. One of the great songwriters in history, Strauss’ vocal line was clearly communicated, at once echoing Wagner and anticipating 1920s German cabaret. Often described as a composer out of time, Samantha’s performance rooted Strauss clearly in, if not at the center of, the development of the German School. Her lone encore, the Composer’s aria from Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos provided a fitting bookend for the evening and a tantalizing glipse at the future.

A truly great Straussian is on the verge of international superstardom. This May and July, she returns to Munich to sing Der Rosenkavalier (Octavian). And she will reprise a version of last night’s concert at Wigmore Hall in London on May 22nd. Opera fans taken note.

More on Samantha at

J.S. Bach, Hitmaker

Bach could do more than write intellectual studies and heart rendering music. Here was a composer who gave the people what they wanted too–a hit maker supreme. Want proof? Here are two examples.

Everyone here knows Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 (Air). It is, hands down, the #1 butchered piece of music ever written—I’ve heard it at weddings, communions, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. What I haven’t heard is it played well (unless it is recorded—and, even then, folks tend to pick a crappy version). My band offered to play it during my wedding ceremony. I told the band leader that if he so much as thought about playing Bach, I’d break his arm (well, perhaps not exactly in those words). If you want music to bring peace to your life, play Bach. And start here.

J.S. Bach, Orchestral Suite No. 3, Air on the G String:

Bach’s Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is one of the most popular and familiar works of music ever composed. Recussitated by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, it hasn’t fallen out of favor since. It has featured in hundreds of films, from Fantasia, Sunset Boulevard, and La Dolce Vita to B movies like Rollerball. And it has proven to be a fruitful source of inspiration for many more popular musicians in the 20th century.

J.S. Bach, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor:

Here’s a fun cover by the prog rock band Sky:

Sky, Toccata:

Bach’s Motets

I have recounted many stories in this blog, some of which have been proven to be apocryphal. This one has the benefit of being absolutely true.

One Sunday morning in 1789, the boys’ choir at St. Thomas in Leipzig, Germany shuffled to their feet to sing a dusty old motet that had been in the Church’s possession for generations. Doubtless, the boys considered the work to be both diffuclt and woefully old fashioned. In the middle of their performance, a young man stood up and demanded to know what the boys were singing, provoking gasps of outrage among the devout Lutherans around him. Faced with such a reaction and, perhaps, the realization that his outburst had been exceedingly rude, the man reseated himself for the duration of the service. At the end of the mass, the man strode briskly up to the cantor and demanded to see the score. Although no unified score existed, the church had a collection of the several parts, which the man proceeded to spread out across the church floor. Getting down on his hands and knees, the man began several hours’ study of the work, after which he asked permission to copy them. Permission granted, the man proceeded to create a unitary score, which remained in his possession for the rest of his life.

The motet, naturally, was by J.S. Bach. The young intemperate man was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

By the late Baroque period, motets had become a general classification for choral works that did not fit naturally into any other category. They were typically sung after the organ prelude at the start of the service. While the old motets of the Rennaisance had been sung a cappella, Baroque motets, particularly in Germany, were accompanied. Intrumental parts, including a figured bass in Bach’s own hand, survive to this day, laying to rest the debate as to whether the orchestral bits were added later. Debate still swirls around the number of instruments Bach intended and the motets have been performed with every conceivable option over the years.

Frankly, I don’t care. The motets are one of the singular glories in Western music. It is here that polyphony reaches its absolute zenith. The voices, true to Bach’s style, are all independent, moving from key to key seemingly without a break for the chorus.

The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, under the direction of René Jacobs, gets it the balance exactly right. Here they are performing the motet that so captivated Mozart. I find this music so stunning, I can only imagine what the effect of hearing it live had been on someone who could delve the very depths of the compositional technique that provoke such powerful human emotions.

Bach may have been best known during his lifetime as a peerless virtuoso at the organ and subsequently for his many keyboard compositions, but for me his real genius is revealed in his many choral works. These motets are a great introduction to what, for me, might just be the greatest music ever composed.

J.S. Bach, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied: