Chaconne in D minor, after Partita, BWV 1004 Johann Sebastian Bach
(b. Eisenach, 1685; d. Leipzig, 1750), arr. Brahms

By far the grandest movement in Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas is the Chaconne that caps Partita No. 2. A chaconne is a set of variations on a bass line. From its roots in sixteenth-century Latin America as a lively triple-time dance, it was carried back to the Old World, where it became a favorite vehicle for improvisation from Spain to the northern countries. 

In 1877, Brahms was working on his Violin Concerto in close cooperation with violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim was the one responsible for bringing Bach’s Chaconne into the concert repertory, and Brahms must have heard his friend play it often. On vacation that June, Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann: “On a single staff, for a small instrument, [Bach] writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. In one way only can I devise for myself a greatly diminished but comparable and absolutely pure enjoyment of the work—when I play it with the left hand alone! The similar difficulties, the type of technique, the arpeggios, they all combine—to make me feel like a violinist! 

Concertgoers often hear the Chaconne in a grand and sonorous arrangement by Busoni. Brahms’s treatment is more faithful to the original. It is one of five studies for piano he published based on the music of other composers. As it happened, Brahms sent the “étude” to Clara just as she had injured her right hand. 

The first thing to note is that the music begins on beat two, a reflection of the chaconne’s bond with the sarabande. The next thing is the jerky “dotted” rhythms characteristic of the dance. Then how each variation develops unique features, and how the momentum snowballs! Halfway through, Bach summarizes—and pauses. Sun-lit major mode brings affirmation and renewal, and even a return to the minor feels conclusive and satisfying.

Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 J. S. Bach, arr. Franz Liszt

Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor were composed at different times. The Fantasia may be connected to Bach’s visit to Hamburg in November 1720, and thus to Johann Adam Reincken, the Dutch organist at the St. Katharinen Kirche and a renowned improviser. After hearing Bach extemporize in different styles on a chorale, Reincken is reported to have told Bach, “I thought this art was dead, but I see it still lives in you.” 

The imposing Fantasia unfolds in five sections, alternating improvisatory display with more contemplative material. An extraordinary, ear-bending sequence winds two-thirds of the way back around the circle of fifths. 

The Fugue is often called “The Great” to distinguish it from the “Little Fugue” in G minor, which you probably remember from elementary music class. It was composed before 1725. This four-voice fugue is based on a lanky subject that may draw on a Dutch folk-song as well as one of Reincken’s themes. There are two countersubjects, making it economical as well as great.

Like the comet that heralded his birth in 1811, Franz Liszt’s career described an arc quite unlike any other. Born in the remarkable four-year span that produced Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner, Liszt outlived them all. He coined the term “recital” for an 1840 concert at London’s Hanover Square Rooms. And he composed over 1300 pieces, many of them opera paraphrases and arrangements like this one, made before 1872, for his recitals. In imitation of the organ’s many couplings, Liszt bolsters the bass and reinforces octaves where appropriate. And he composes out the sustained organ tone in rippling figuration.

Prelude, Gavotte and Gigue, from Partita in E Major, BWV 1006 J. S. Bach, arr. Rachmaninoff

  1. S. Bach wrote some 40 suites or partitas for solo instruments, including harpsichord, lute, violin, cello and flute. The Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin were complete by 1720, during Bach’s tenure as Capellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, although they may have been composed at Weimar. The Six are arranged in a series of rising keys beginning with G, the lowest string on the violin, and ending with E, the highest. The three partitas are suites of dance movements. Not only is the E-major Partita the most brilliant, it is the freest in form, resembling an orchestral suite in the French style. 

There is no sunnier music than the Preludio, which springs from on high into a joyous dance. Bach was obviously proud of this movement, for he returned to it in 1730, recasting the violin part for solo organ—which he presumably played himself—and amplifying it with trumpets, oboes, strings and timpani. As the jubilant Sinfonia to Cantata 29, “We Thank Thee, God,” the music was performed on celebratory occasions in Leipzig. Bach’s transcription served as a model for composers like Schumann, who provided piano accompaniments to the sonatas and partitas, and for Rachmaninoff, who refashioned the Preludio, Gavotte and Gigue for his own use. 

Rachmaninoff treats Bach’s one-line score as an incomplete canvas, to which he adds background and color. Every bar is there, but there’s much more: new countersubjects, fresh harmonies. And why not? A pianist has two hands to cover the entire keyboard. The effect is not unlike a hand-colored photograph; moreover, these arrangements reveal Rachmaninoff’s deep roots in Bach!

Rachmaninoff gave nearly twenty performances in Minnesota, from a January 1920 pair of concerts in which he played his own Concerto No. 2 with the Minneapolis Symphony conducted by Emil Oberhoffer, to a November 1942 performance of that work conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos. The Bach arrangements figured in recital programs from 1933 on.

The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 J. S. Bach

In his last years, Sebastian Bach composed a series of masterworks crowning his contrapuntal art: the Mass in B Minor, the Musical Offering, the Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue. That last work has perplexed scholars, composers and listeners for two and a half centuries. 

It’s only natural to think in summary terms at the end of life. While it’s funny to think that Bach at his death would today have only just qualified for Medicare, by the standards of his day, he was “Old Bach.” And consider his genealogy as one of a clan of musicians extending back seven generations. Bach also looked to the future, for many of his sons were composers. He knew that taste was changing, and he sought to preserve the old knowledge.

By 1742, Bach had completed a draft of The Art of Fugue containing twelve fugues (each called contrapunctus or “counterpoint”) and two canons. Not only is it a textbook in the fugal process; it is unified by a single theme, making it a study in variation as well. In the posthumous 1751 edition, there were fourteen fugues and four canons. (The canons, which illustrate often arcane applications of counterpoint, are not a part of this performance.) The Art of Fugue is a comprehensive guide to counterpoint as Bach understood it. And he understood it better than anyone before or since. But first of all, it is music, and the music therein contains sonorities never previously imagined. 

The word fugue comes from the Italian word fuggire, to run away. What is running away? The theme, called the subject. Fugue is not a form; it’s a binary process: either the subject is present, or it’s not. When the subject is absent—as in the episodes—other forces are in play, like sequence or modulation. To begin a fugue, the subject is treated by all voices in turn. Some subjects also have a countersubject, a complementary melody that always accompanies it. Countersubjects create unity and cut down on the number of notes you need to write. A fugue subject can be treated in many ways. It can be fragmented, inverted (turned upside down), or augmented (stretched out like taffy). No one fugue includes all devices; they are possibilities. Listen for the subject and you will follow the chase.

Questions about The Art of Fugue persist. 

For what instrument or ensemble is Art of Fugue composed? No instruments are specified. It was written in open score—each voice on a separate staff—in four vocal clefs: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. But Bach wasn’t thinking of human voices, and he cannot have been thinking of only four instruments, because several of the fugues end with sudden divisi. The work has been scored for a variety of ensembles, including string quartet and wind quintet. The Swingle Singers made a hit with Contrapunctus IX; Bitsch and Pascal orchestrated the lot; William Malloch even arranged it for percussion ensemble. But Donald Tovey, the eminent British musicologist, proved that it is playable at the keyboard, be it piano, harpsichord or organ.

What is the purpose of the volume? The Art of Fugue is a treatise, an in-depth discourse on the practice and possibilities of fugal writing. Bach clearly intended to stress the independence of the voices by writing in open score. And he sought to illustrate the possibilities inherent in a single subject. The subject is designed to allow the greatest number of solutions. (For variety of subjects, consult the 48 fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier.) 

Bach’s first task was to craft a rhythmic, recognizable subject with a clear sense of key. He chose D minor, which is related to Dorian mode, the historical Mode I. Bach’s four-measure subject outlines the tonic triad with a shape that touches high and low points only once. Furthermore, he uses this subject as a kind of motto-theme that appears throughout the work in every fugue. The subject works equally well right side up or upside down:

Did Bach intend for The Art of Fugue to be performed? The public concert arose in the generations after J. S. Bach, so he would not have dreamed of an Ordway-style recital. As a treatise, The Art of Fugue was meant to preserve, instruct, provoke and inspire. In performance, it is Variations on a Theme. There are no tempo indications or dynamics; the performer must sculpt time to create a meaningful whole. For the listener, the effect is like watching figures whirl about on a dance floor; one catches glimpses of familiar faces over and over again.

Contrapunctus I-–IV are simple fugues. I ends with potent silences. II has a characteristically “French” dotted rhythm. III inverts the subject and provides a chromatic countersubject. IV is the grandest structure thus far, with lots of motivic work in the ample episodes.

Contrapunctus V fills in the melodic gaps in the motto-theme and allows it to overlap its inversion, a procedure called stretto. Two of the stretti are separated by only a beat! The texture splits into six voices at the end.

Contrapunctus VI (again in French Style) combines the inverted motto-theme with its original form twice as fast, all with characteristic Gallic filigree. 

Contrapunctus VII (In Augmentation and Diminution) Every voice gets to sing the motto-theme in values twice as long. It also appears twice as fast. A grand finish.

VIII–XI are fugues with more than one subject. In Contrapunctus VIII (Triple Fugue), three subjects are developed in turn; the last is an inversion of the motto. All three are combined at the end. 

Contrapunctus IX (the Swingle tune), a breathtaking double fugue with a running subject and the motto-theme in long notes twelve steps away.

Contrapunctus X has two subjects, which are treated separately, then together. The first has rests. The second is the motto-theme. 

Contrapunctus XI (Triple Fugue). The chromaticism of the second subject and the motion of the third give this fugue the feeling of a heaving sea. 

With Contrapunctus XII and XIII, one enters the fun house. Remember the fascination mirrors held for painters like Van Eyck and Velázquez? These fugues are constructed to work in inverted form. Each will be heard twice: rectus (right side up) then inversus (upside down). On inversion, the bass becomes the soprano, the alto becomes the tenor, and so forth, and the shape of the lines is inverted as well. Unusual harmony results! 

Near the end of his great labor, Bach’s eyesight failed. Christoph Wolff speculates that Bach was suffering from diabetes. An operation on his eyes by oculist John Taylor—who later operated on Handel—left him blind. Bach’s Obituary explains: “His last illness prevented him from completing his project of bringing the next-to-last fugue to completion and working out the last one, which was to contain four themes and to have been afterward inverted note for note in all four voices.”

As a personal gesture, Bach signs his name after the first two subjects have been explored in the quadruple fugue Contrapunctus XIV, spelling out B-A-C-H unambiguously in musical tones. (In German, B is B-flat. H is the note B.) Shortly thereafter, the motto-theme enters as the fourth subject and the lines trail off like smoke. C.P.E. Bach added a note at this point: “In this fugue, where the name of BACH is introduced as a countersubject, the author died.” 

Although a number of scholars and composers have completed The Art of Fugue, ultimately this nobly crafted work of art, philosophy, pedagogy and music remains an enigma. Daniil Trifonov will close the program with Contrapunctus XIV as Bach left it: incomplete, awaiting the contemplation and creative response of the listener.

Program notes © 2019 by David Evan Thomas