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In his magisterial study Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff treats at length Bach’s The Art of Fugue. He writes: “The Art of Fugue, though linked to earlier fugue compositions, moves to a level that is utterly novel.” Wolff expounds further: “The governing idea of the work . . . was an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject. The carefully constructed subject would generate many movements, each demonstrating one or more contrapuntal principles and each, therefore, resulting in a self-contained fugal form.”

Upon first hearing, the work appears abstract, even academic. It certainly fails to qualify as “music to relax by.” However, attentive listening reveals an enthralling world of musical subjects, contrasts, and resolutions that are strangely affecting. As it proceeds, the patterns become more complicated, the fugal form assumes configurations at once dense and luminous. The pianist Andrew Rangell writes in the album essay of his fine recording: “The language is austere, the tone serious. . . . And yet! Such is the triumph, and the mystery, of this impossible enterprise that its slow evolution yields not so much a drama as a vast and moving meditation. Mirabile dictu: the textbook is a poem!”

Indeed, like a poem, The Art of Fugue manifests a disciplined order that does not impede but fosters creativity. It offers counterpoint that is not oppositional, but respectful, dialogical, fulfilling.

Though most likely conceived for keyboard instrument, The Art of Fugue can be performed on a variety of instruments. The Emerson String Quartet’s interpretation of the piece is currently my favorite. The different instruments supply distinctive coloration that allows different voices to be heard and savored. For, ultimately, it is about voices, about listening to others and, unless I completely err, about listening to the Other. Lawrence Dutton, the Emerson’s violist, shares his impressions on performing the work: “It unlocks a yearning that all of us have, to be connected to something bigger, something spiritual. History has proven that Bach was making music that would connect people to God.”

Fuller appreciation of the work benefits from knowledge of its compositional history. Its first appearance dates from the early 1740s, the last decade of Bach’s life. It was a time when he also began the compilation of the magnificent Mass in B Minor, which Wolff holds to be “in many respects the vocal counterpart to The Art of Fugue.” 

The first manuscript of The Art of Fugue bore no title, and it was only late in the decade, as Bach prepared the much revised and amplified manuscript for printing, that the eventual title was affixed to it. However, at his death in 1750 the work remained incomplete. The last fugue (the longest Bach ever wrote) was still unfinished. 

This crowning fugue was to consist of four subjects, the last being the theme that originated the entire work. The composition would thus end with a mighty recapitulation. Moreover, Bach wove into the development of the fugue’s third subject the notes equivalent to the letters of his name: B-A-C-H. Thus, even in its incomplete state, the Art of Fugue stands, in the words of Christoph Wolff, “as the most substantial and also the most personal instrumental opus ever to issue from Bach’s pen.” 

That “personal” quality is not lessened, but rendered more striking and poignant, by the fact that the work ends abruptly, in mid-phrase. Stunning silence ensues. Andrew Rangell confesses: “the shock of this sudden silence remains undiminished at every hearing.” Yet, with each hearing, the silence “sounds” ever more resonant, not empty but full, endlessly fertile.

Whether through compensation for the work’s unfinished nature or (as I prefer) a genial providence, Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, appended to the first print edition of 1751 the music from a revised organ chorale by his father. Its unrevised version was based on the hymn “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” (“When we are in greatest distress”). But when Bach revised the chorale, seemingly on his death bed, he instructed the copyist to amend the title to invoke a hymn far more appropriate to the reality of his condition. 

So, after the sonorous silence closing The Art of Fugue, one hears arise, in some performances, the soft chords of “Vor deinem Thron tret ich hiermit.” And the affected listener will long ponder the words of the hymn.

Before thy throne I now appear,
O God, and bid thee humbly,
Turn not thy gracious face 
From me, a poor sinner.

Confer on me a blessed end,
On the last day awaken me,
Lord, that I may see you eternally,
Amen, amen, hear me.

Thus, an added reason for recommending the Emerson String Quartet version of the Art of Fugue is that it concludes with the chorale as C. P. E. Bach transcribed it. If not scholarly correct, it is spiritually right and just. For, at the end of his life, as at the end of all his musical offerings, Bach had, in effect, inscribed this testament to his faith: Soli Deo Gloria.

Now it is manifest, from the “Credo” of the Mass in B Minor as well as from Bach’s church cantatas’ sublime journey through the liturgical year, that the God to whom alone Bach ascribes glory is the Triune God of Christian faith. But if, as Wolff suggests, the Mass in B Minor is “in many respects the vocal counterpart to The Art of Fugue,” might one propose that the inverse is also true? Can one also hear The Art of Fugue as the instrumental counterpart to the Mass in B Minor? Can one discern Trinitarian intimations there as well?

The original subject of the fugue, that prodigally generates an entire musical universe, is imaged in many and varied ways by the dialogical other. And this fecund duet gives rise to a participatory chorus embracing multitudes without number. Can one catch in the glimmering chords of The Art of Fugue echoes of Wisdom’s exultant song in Proverbs as she plays in God’s presence, delighting in his world, rejoicing in the sons of men (Prov. 8:30–31)? Is one drawn to detect in its resonant harmonies the Trinitarian rhythms of grace, love, and communion (2 Cor. 13:13) that permeate the plērōma, the whole of Bach’s musical score as well as the entire cosmic order? And encountering that tremulous silence, is one led finally toward surrender to the ever-beckoning Triune Mystery?

Fully consonant with Bach, the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson closes his Systematic Theology with these alluring reflections: “The enlivening telos of the Kingdom’s own life is perfect harmony between the conversation of the redeemed and the conversation that God is. In the conversation God is, meaning and melody are one. The end is music.”

No wonder, then, that the majestic final chorus of the “Gloria” of the Mass in B Minor, sung to the words “cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris,” ends—how else could it?—with a fugue.

Father Robert P. Imbelli is author of the forthcoming collection Christ Brings All Newness.

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Image by Steven Pisano. licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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