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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Bach's Art of the Fugue

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Bach wrote his instruction book about the special musical technique known as fugue originally for his 9-year-old son, Wilhem Friedemann. A fugue, simply put, has two or more voices introducing a theme, each entering in their own time, almost like a round, but each then wandering about in its own path while still sounding completely composed. Eventually the individual voices all come back effortlessly to make a grand ending chord. The expanded "Die Kunst der Fuge" was the last project Bach worked on before an ill-fated eye operation led to his death at 65 years of age.

Fugues go back to medieval times, but J.S. Bach was a master of the art, and his Art of the Fugue, though not quite finished, is a good way to learn just why Bach's music matters and thrives to this day.

This Nonesuch version was orchestrated from the original keyboard music. Orchestrations had been accomplished before, but Marcel Bitsch and Claude Pascal, instead of going for 19th-century style grand arrangements meant to glorify Bach, wanted to use whichever instruments needed in each piece to elucidate the composer's thinking. The result is astoundingly clean and clear. This album cemented my understanding of Johann Sebastian Bach's music. It helped me see him as almost modern, and certainly avoided some of the provincial trappings found in Mozart, Beethoven, and dare I say it, Haydn.

I have included the long final--unfinished--fugue. Where it ends, the manuscript contains a note from Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel:

"At the point in this fugue where the name of BACH is introduced as a counter subject, the author died." In English the notation "BACH" would be B-flat, A, C, B-sharp. This arrangement does not attempt to complete this fugue. 

To hear how it ends is like stepping into a world without anything.