Berliner Bach Akademie - Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge
Arrangement for 4 quartets ensembles by Heribert Breuer
Recorded January 2000
J.S. Bach - The Art of the Fugue
About BWV 1080 on 'bach-cantatas.com'
The Art of Fugue used to have a reputation as being a dry-as-dust academic exercise which the great man set himself in old age. In fact it was regarded as his last work because one of his sons, C. P. E. Bach, wrote on the manuscript at a certain point 'Over this Fugue, where the name BACH is introduced into the counter-subject, the composer died'. Well it may not have been true but it makes for a good story if nothing else. Bach even used to be part of a so-called Fugal Correspondence Society to which members submitted fugues on an agreed theme, for example in 1747 he wrote canonic variations on the chorale Von Himmel hoch, the next year came The Musical Offering, and The Art of Fugue was intended for 1749, although he had begun the exercise a full ten years earlier and added to it during the intervening years.
Though conceived in keyboard terms, and progressing from the most basic fugues to amazingly complex mirror fugues, the work (like many others by Bach rescored by composers from Mozart to Brahms, Schoenberg to Jacques Loussier) is now regarded as game for treatment in any amount of instrumental combinations and groups. Heribert Breuer has opted for four quartets and a solo keyboard instrument. At the start each group introduces itself in each of the four so-called simple fugues, namely a string quartet for the first, a jazz combination for the second of two pianos, vibraphone and double bass, a wind quartet (oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) for the third, and an antique group of two each of recorders and gambas for the fourth. What then follows is too complicated to describe here but is a combination of all instrumental premutations as the counterpoint becomes more complex. Breuer took 25 years to do it, so one can imagine the complexity of the result. It does make for satisfying listening and serves to remind us just how amazing the Art of Fugue is.
It's a testament to the enduring power and beauty of Bach's music-and the eloquent, elegant, mathematical precision of The Art of Fugue in particular-that no matter how badly one manipulates Bach's writing, the music never loses its potency. This disc of pointless arrangements by Heribert Breuer, who says he has spent 25 years working on this project, gives ample evidence. Given the time he's spent on this exercise, I do hope that Breuer at least has found some sense of purpose in all this, because frankly, I can't. Breuer grandly claims that he wanted to create "the most transparent tonal spectrum possible, whose colors should form a counterweight to the work's ever-present polyphony."
Bach's manuscript gives no information as to intended instrumentation, and Breuer takes this as an invitation to experiment in a setting for four quite varied quartets. (Keyboard is a widely accepted option, and the Juilliard Quartet also recorded a gorgeous string quartet version for Sony some years ago.) Of course, Bach has been arranged imaginatively and enjoyably by everyone from Mahler to jazzman Jacques Loussier, but success depends on a coherent point of view, an ingredient Breuer lacks. What we wind up with is a Bach salad: a little of this, a little of that, but it's apples and anchovies in the same bowl.
Breuer careens schizophrenically between arrangement styles: the first contrapunctus is arranged for string quartet; the second for two pianos, vibraphone, and bass in a stilted jazz arrangement; the third is for wind quartet; the fourth, in some misbegotten wink at early music, for two recorders and two viola da gambas; and the first canon is played on organ (later in the disc, harpsichord appears as well). Even more weirdly, Breuer proceeds to combine these quartet ensembles, and styles, for the remainder of the disc, until we come to the dizzying Contrapunctus 14, where all four ensembles perform together in one huge mishmash. In a Bach anniversary year (2000), you have to expect all kinds of releases, but this is one of the most egregiously misguided efforts.
========= from the cover ==========
Johann Sebastian Bach - The Art of Fugue
"Nicht Bach - Meer sollte er he'Sen."
[Not Creek - Sea, he should be called]
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
The Art of Fugue is usually regarded as Johann Sebastian Bach's (1685-1750) last work. This view stems from an entry by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in the autograph, at the end of the incomplete Contrapunctus XIV: "N.B. Over this Fugue, where the name BACH is introduced into the countersubject, the composer died." Bach's frankly scientific interest in the music of Palestrina, and in the theories and rules governing the composition of the fugue can be linked to the foundation of the so-called 'corresponding society' of his pupil Mizler. Its members were pledged to submit regularly practical and theoretical works, which were then circulated to all other members. Bach's 'duty' contributions were, for 1747, the Canonic Variations on 'Vom Himmel hoch', for 1748, The Musical Offering and for 1749, The Art of Fugue was the planned work.
Bach had started work on The Art of Fugue, based on a single theme, as early as 1739. The first eight fugues were in final manuscript form in 1742, and by 1746 a further seven "Kontrapunkte" were complete. In 1747 Bach began preparations for printing; in 1749 he interrupted work on the final fugue to complete the Mass in B minor and revise the violin sonatas. The idea that he died in the middle of the final fugue with its B-A-C-H reference, and with his last breath dictated the Chorale Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit ('And thus I come before thy Throne') belongs, alas, to the realm of beautiful fairy tales. Johann Sebastian Bach died 250 years ago, on 28 July 1750.
- Hartwig Textor
On the Orchestration of The Art of Fugue
The idea of an orchestration of The Art of Fugue first came to me during my Rome scholarship, at the Villa Massimo. My concept was of the most transparent tonal spectrum possible, whose colours should form a counterweight to the work's ever-present polyphony.
From the start, I followed the idea that particular instrumental colours should be used to clarify the contrapuntal development. In this way, pleasure for the ear should be accompanied by an analytical experience for the listener. And lastly I wanted to step outside the narrow boundaries of baroque performance practice and use what might be termed a polystylistic orchestra, to make clear the timeless character of this music.
A glance at music history shows that each age has adapted Bach's compositions to contemporary style. Bach's sons reorchestrated some of the Cantatas, Mozart arranged fugues from Das Wohltemperierte Clavier for string trio, Mendelssohn re-worked the St. Matthew Passion, Brahms took over Bachian themes for his own compositions, Reger and Schoenberg orchestrated organ works for the whole apparatus of the romantic orchestra. Berg, Webern and Stravinsky spoke through Bach's music in their own unique languages, and even jazz knew how to make use of Bach's swinging rhythms. Against this multi-coloured background the idea gradually crystallized that my orchestration should use four quartets and a solo keyboard instrument.
In the first four simple fugues, based on the original theme and its development, the individual ensembles present themselves in line with the character of the music. So the first Contrapunctus is heard in the "classical" voice of a string quartet. In contrast, the marked rhythms and the syncopation (unusual even for Bach) of the second Contrapunctus, call for an instrumentation that makes clear its relationship with the roots of "cool jazz": two pianos, vibraphone and double bass stand symbolically for "Musica Contemporanea". Contrast again with the third Contrapunctus: its chromatic expressiveness and explicit dynamic development call for romantic resources, here represented by a wind quartet - oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The fourth Contrapunctus, which ends the first part, hints at a pre-Bachian world, with its avoidance of chromaticism and pulsing rhythms. This "Musica Antiqua" style is represented by two recorders and two gambas.
Now that each quartet has introduced itself, comes the first of four canons in two voices, which in my realisation have the function of the piers of a bridge linking the different sections. Depending on local facilities these canons are played by either harpsichord or organ.
In the second section with the counter-fugue over the variant of the theme and its inversion in notes of 1 /3 value the instructional purpose of my arrangement becomes clear: consistently giving the variant to Quartet I and its inversion to Quartet II make it possible for a music-lover without detailed knowledge to analyse Contrapunctus 5 by ear alone. In the same way the three different sets of note-values in the following fugues 7 and 8 can be separated by the ear. Again, each quartet is used with its particular, specific character, allowing the greatest possible transparency.
In the third part, too, with its double and triple fugues, the same procedure is continued. The "Musica Contemporanea" quartet plays the bubbling rhythms of Contrapunctus 9; in the 10th fugue, "Musica Antiqua" takes up the new, first theme, while the string quartet plays the variant form of the main theme. I would draw special attention to Contrapunctus 11, whose hints at a four-part fugue foreshadow the last, uncompleted fugue.
Before this, the abruptly truncated torso of our cycle, where all the ensembles join in the crowning B-A-C-H theme, come two mirror fugues, each for a separate ensemble. For the second of these, No. 13, we have followed the first edition's note "a 2 Clav:" (the only instrumental indication in the entire score).
I hope that my arrangement, revised several times over the course of a quarter-century, may remove from this work the charge of abstraction so commonly levelled at it. Its use of new and varied combinations to separate the strands of polyphony aims to make possible an approach to the work which can be both aesthetically and analytically satisfying. And above all, there should be traceable something of that timelessness which resides at the very heart of this music: Bach's Art of Fugue as "Musica Eterna".
- Heribert Breuer