Johann Sebastian Bach [1685-1750] never wrote music for the string quartet. Joseph Haydn, usually known as the ‘father of the string quartet’, wrote his first string quartet in 1764, after Bach’s death, and Bach may not have been particularly aware of the form. It is commonly noted that Haydn believed his Opus 33 in 1781 was the real beginning of the string quartet. This was due to him successfully giving all voices of the quartet their own distinctive melodic lines.
Bach commenced composing The Art of Fugue in 1737, then after a break of ten years, went back to it in 1747. It was not completed when he died and the music just stops, in the middle of movement No. 20. Strangely, the music contains no tempo markings, no movement order and no mention of instrumentation required for the piece.
Given that most of Bach’s music can be played by any ensemble (an amazing concept in itself), it is no surprise that this work has been arranged for many different combinations of instruments. There are several arrangements for string quartet. Composers of some of these arrangements even ‘completed’ the piece but that does not occur in the version by the Keller Quartet that I will be discussing. It just stops dead.
Given that my glossary definition of a fugue is very limited, I feel I should elaborate here. A fugue is based around a short musical phrase, known as the ‘subject’. The piece begins with one instrument playing the subject. At the completion a second instrument commences to play the same phrase, not necessarily with the same notes, it may start on a different pitch closely related to the subject, possibly an interval of a fourth or fifth, above or below. This continues as other voices enter. By now, the voices are being constantly varied both rhythmically and harmonically. There is nothing trivial about Bach’s fugues.
I must confess that after about thirty seconds I have usually forgotten the melodic concept of the subject and just listen in wonder to the brilliant dialogues between the four instruments.
I only intend to give sketches of some movements, and hope that this gives you a flavour of the musical breadth of this work. No. 1 has a very simple subject, taken at a rather slow pace. It rapidly develops into a myriad of overlapping voicings. This is truly magnificent music and for me, illustrates the genius of Bach.
Some of the movements sound almost orchestral and evoke Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which are usually scored for moderately sized ensembles. Slower movements often have a plaintive feeling. Overall, I find that when the cello predominates, the music tends to be stately. When the violins take over, the music soars. Having said that, this is music for four equal voices; all have a role to play.
No. 11 is particularly beautiful. One of the longer pieces, it commences with a joyous mood before revealing a wonderful depth, particularly in the viola and cello parts. To me, the emotional content of this movement is overwhelming.
Movements 16-20 are marked as canons where only the cello and first violin are used. Movement No. 18 has a very long slow subject, at least three bars in length, played by the cello. It then moves into a dialogue with the first violin.
The final movement, No. 20, is possibly the slowest of all. It runs for just over ten minutes and features wonderful changes in tempo which are usually accompanied by a significant change in the melodic material. Being unfinished it just stops in the middle of a phrase. How appropriate!
I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the mysterious nature of The Art Of Fugue until I listened to it intensely several times in preparation for this review. Its expressive scope within the limits of a string quartet is very broad. Or maybe I’m just underplaying the power and presence of a string quartet. Heaven forbid…
As I mentioned, the version that I have is by the Keller Quartet, available on ECM. The disc comes with a marvellous essay. This CD is on Spotify. The Emerson Quartet have also recorded this and it is on earsense. I intend to discuss their recording of fugues from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in a future post.
For a more detailed description there are many articles about fugues on the Internet. My Google search for The Art of Fugue returned 420,000 pages.
There are many fugues from the work on YouTube.
Listenability: A little intellectual but ultimately very satisfying. Something different.