The Art of Fugue BWV 1080 or “The Art of Bach”
Bach’s Art of Fugue
One of the regretably few performances of Bach’s music to be featured in the BBC Proms this year is one of his most fascinating – his Art of Fugue BWV 1080. Perhaps a better and more appealing title for this collection of fugues (each called Contrapunctus) and canons could be The Art of Bach. The content suggests that the instrument should be a keyboard (harpsichord or organ) with the work either intended for performance and/or study, although Bach did not specify.
With the flow of cantatas, passions, oratorios, instrumental works et al of the 1720s enough to occupy several lifetimes of study and performance, the events in the final decade of Bach’s life (1740s) could easily be overshadowed in our thinking and listening. Unwise move…it was a highly productive period and one where we see the composer perhaps putting his music in order, arranging it for posterity even, and for publication. The Musical Offering, Canonic Variations and the ubiquitous Mass in B minor for example all date from the 1740s..and so does the Art of Fugue.
Published posthumously in 1751 Die Kunst der Fuge, to give it the German title, was unfinished at Bach’s death in 1750. It didn’t sell very well either and successive performances have tended to be instrumental arrangements, rather than solo renditions. It had been surmised ere long that the work dated from Bach’s last few years, say post 1747, but now it has been established that most of it was completed by 1742 – which also happens to be Bach’s last year as Director Musices Leipzig Collegium Musicum. Therefore it is not surprising that Mahan Esfahani ‘s arrangement of the Art of Fugue for instruments will be performed at the BBC Proms in the ‘informal spirit’ of the Collegium’s' concerts…..but, be in no doubt, these weekly concerts were serious affairs to which Bach devoted a considerable amount of time preparing the programmes.
The Leipzig Collegium Musicum is the students musical society founded by Telemann in 1702 whose significance in Bach’s life gains evermore fascination for scholars and performers today. Bach and the students met on Friday evenings in Zimmermann’s Coffee House on Leipzig’s fashionable Katharinenstrasse in winter and in his garden on the outskirts of the city in summer. The concert evenings were a ‘cool’ place to be, with musicians visiting the city keen to take part. They were also important signposts for the musical life at Leipzig that burst forth in the 19th century and remains today.
The harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is a former BBC New Generation Artist and one of the exciting musicians emerging on the international scene today. He will present his arrangement of the Art of Fugue with the Academy of Ancient Music at a sold out performance at London’s Cadogan Hall on Saturday 21 July. The performances will be relayed on BBC Radio 3 from 3.00pm.
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