Johann Sebastian Bach

The Art of Fugue

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 70–90 Minutes
Genre: Cycle
Time of Creation: Uncertain, Probably Between 1740 and 1749
World Premiere: Unknown

Table of Contents

Bach's Art of Fugue in 5 Sentences

Also in his Art of Fugue Johann Sebastian Bach shows us his music pedagogical side (as for example in the Well-Tempered Clavier): He vividly demonstrates what can be developed from a single musical theme. Bach concentrates entirely on the artful polyphonic compositional principles based on the technique of imitation – fugues and canons. The various types of fugue (simple fugue, counterfugue, double fugue, triple fugue, mirror fugue, canon) are combined with the most diverse forms of processing (see the “Highlights” below). For a long time, the question on which instrument the Art of Fugue should be played gave rise to speculation (more on this below in the “Questions and Answers”).

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Bach's Art of Fugue

Highlight 1: Simple Fugue

Bach begins quite “mildly” 😊 Namely, with simple fugues in which the theme appears in its original form. At most, there are small rhythmic changes, as here in Contrapunctus II (“Contrapunctus” is the name of the individual parts from the Art of Fugue):

Highlight 2: Simple Fugue with Inversion

Then Bach makes a first combination. It is still a simple fugue in Contrapunctus III, but the theme occurs in “inversion”. Thus, what was previously a leap up is now a leap down and vice versa:

Highlight 3: Counterfugue

What is wrong with combining the original shape (as in “Highlight 1”) and the inversion (as in “Highlight 2”) of the theme? Exactly: nothing, certainly not if your name is Bach 😊 The result is called a “counterfugue”. An example of this is Contrapunctus V, in which Bach also fills the leaps of the theme with steps:

Highlight 4: Triple fugue

Contrapunctus VIII is an example of a so-called “triple fugue”. Here, two new themes are added to the varied “original theme” and are processed together:

3 Questions and Answers about Bach's Art of Fugue

Question 1: What is a fugue in music simply explained?

The fugue (literally, “escape”) is a polyphonic compositional principle in which a musical theme is presented successively in different voices and at different pitches. The fugue is considered a particularly artistic compositional principle. Fugues in Bach’s Art of Fugue and in his Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, are famous.

Question 2: Why is the fugue called escape?

The fugue is called an escape because the same theme is presented in different voices, staggered in time: the voices seem to pursue or “escape” each other.

Question 3: On which instrument should one play The Art of Fugue?

For a long time there was speculation about this, mainly because Bach wrote each individual voice of his composition on a separate stave – as one usually does when writing for several instruments. In the meantime, however, it is considered almost certain that Bach wrote The Art of Fugue for a keyboard instrument. Writing with several lines was firstly for (pedagogical) illustration and secondly had a long tradition. Nevertheless, playing the same composition with different instrumentations was also not uncommon in Bach’s time. It is therefore not completely “wrong” to play Bach’s Art of Fugue in other instrumental combinations as well – great results come out of it in any case (see for example the recommended recordings below).

2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's Art of Fugue

Recording 1: Holland Baroque (video production, 2020)

Holland Baroque plays The Art of Fugue in a scoring that is often chosen – harpsichord plus string quartet:

Recording 2: Netherlands Bach Society (video production, 2022)

I think the realization of the Netherlands Bach Society is just brilliant: Each part from Bach’s Art of Fugue is played by a different instrumentation, even singers participate. You get to know Bach’s masterpiece from a completely different perspective:

1 Quote about Bach's Art of Fugue

But this Bachian art of fugue was too high for the big world; it had to retreat to the small world, populated with very few connoisseurs. [...] If a work of this kind had been published outside of Germany by such an extraordinarily famous man as Bach, and had also been recommended as something extraordinary by a writer who had public faith in this subject, perhaps ten magnificent editions of it would have been sold out of sheer patriotism.

Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1802)

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