On a recommendation from my friend Carolyn Morton I’m listening to a program on Bach’s Art of the Fugue originally broadcast yesterday on the BBC3’s Early Music Show. (There are 5 days remaining to listen to this particular show from the BBC3 website.)
It is deeply satisfying. The host, Lucie Skeaping, is spinning discs and chatting with an early music expert named Simon Heighes about Art of the Fugue. Heighes comments that “Fugal writing was considered by Bach and his contemporaries to be sort of timeless, really, standing above and beyond fashion…”
Fugues are well suited to winter mornings. They are introspective, austere, intellectually rigorous, and not sensuous in the way that we generally understand the word “sensuous.” (It was interesting to learn on this radio program that in the second edition of Art of the Fugue published in 1752, the engraver may have felt that the austerity may have need some softening. Heighes tells us that “on the blank pages that are not used up by music, the engraver has put a whole garden of flowers. Absolutely beautiful. I think it’s the most florid of all his publications.”)
I have always loved fugues and, counter-intuitively perhaps, feel as if they are the musical form that most closely mirrors human life.
Indulge me in this comparison. Fugues are typically constructed with a distinct principal subject, a contrasting counter subject, and some “connective tissue.” The main thematic elements may be turned upside down, subjected to rhythmic or melodic compression or expansion, or as many other kinds of manipulation as the composer’s imagination can bring to bear on the subject material. To state the obvious, in fugues, the better the material and the greater the skill of the composer in realizing the potential of the material, the more interesting the fugue.
So too in life. Think of DNA as the “fugue subject” of a human life. One’s DNA gives a person’s life the strong forward impulse and characteristic personality profile that is then subjected to all sorts of manipulations by the environment in which you grow. Dominant genes, easily expressed, are the features by which most people recognize you, but there are subtle genetic influences, again influenced by environment, that provide interesting contrasting counter-subjects – talents, vulnerabilities, personality quirks – that combine to create the complexity of a fully-realized human life. The result is not something that we would call merely beautiful or handsome, or smart or clever, but something that we recognize as the beautiful, complex creation of nature.
So it is with Art of Fugue, which for most listeners is not beautiful in the sensuous way that a simple song is, but satisfies as a evocation of the infinite variety in music, and as a mirror of ourselves in nature.
Organist Herbert Tachezi’s performance of Art of Fugue is a fine one, available on YouTube here.