The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080

The Art of the Fugue is considered to be one of the greatest musical creations ever undertaken. A series of fourteen fugues (last of which is not complete) and four canons which are all based on the same d minor theme would perhaps seem, at first glance, to be a pendantic academic exercise. However, in the hands of a composer such as Bach, the monothematic material is magnified through repetion which creates a sound universe which is all it’s own.

The work is also shrouded in mystery, as there are no tempo indications in the manuscript, no indications of the instrumentation which Bach intended and no clear indication as to the order of the movements. An ordering was given to the work after the composer’s death by the composer’s son, C. P. E. BACH which attempted to underline the pedogogical aspects of the composition (as a sort of a textbook for studying fugues and counterpoint). The order used in this arrangement respects this ordering as it was given by Bach’s heirs. It would seem probable however, that this order was not that intended by Bach.

The name which Bach uses for each fugue of the work « Contrapunctus » is also not usual However, in the autograph, the Canons are refered to as simply Canon I etc. Bach was supervising publication of this work at the end of his life and at the moment of his death, the plates had been made, although they were left unordered. As there are seperate cycles of simple fugues (Contrapuncti 1-4), Stretto or Counter fugues (Contrapuncti 5-7) , Double or Triple fugues (Contrapuncti 8-11), Mirror Fugues (Contrapuncti 16-18) and the Final Triple Fugue (Contrapunctus 19) that is said by Forkel (an early Biographer of Bach) to be the first in series that was to end with a fugue with four subjects, each of which was to be inverted, it would seem from the manuscript sources that the Canons were intended to seperate these cycles. A possible ordering, which goes from the most simple to the most complex would be as follows :

Contrapuncti 1-4 : Simple Fugues

Canon at the Octave (Contrapunctus XII)

Contrapuncti 5-7 : Counter or Stretto Fugues

Canon at the Tenth (Contrapunctus XIV)

Contrapuncti 8-11 : Double and Triple Fugues (N.B Contrapunctus X Bis, which is a varient of the material used in Contrapunctus X is not found in every edition of this work and may be omitted in performance.)

Canon at the 12th (Contrapunctus XIII)

Contrapuncti 16-18 : Mirror Fugues

Canon for Augentation in contrary motion (Contrapunctus XV)

Contrapunctus 19 Fugue with Three Subjects

In the end, the ordering of the movements is something which is a personal choice, as there is no way of knowing for sure what Bach intended.

The idea that Bach died while composing the last fugue of the work, just after having inscribed his name musically in the famous B-A-C-H theme is almost certainly a fantasy created in the 19th century. It is almost certain that the final fugue was completed and the manuscripts pages were then lost by his Estate. Analysis of the handwriting and watermarks in the paper would indicate that the compostion dates from around 1740. In the first edition, the editors decided to create a cadence and cut several measures out of the ending. In this arrangement, both the edited version and the final segment found in the autograph score are included. It is a matter of choice which is more effective.

The first edition of this work also added, as a compensation for the final, unfinished fugue, the organ Choral ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein' which Bach was revising at the time of his death. Other than to provide an ending, there is no basis that this Choral is part of the Art of the Fugue and indeed, the differences in tonality, treatment of the four voices and the absence of the use of the theme of the rest of the work would tend to prove the contrary. Also the use of an organ chorale at the end would tend to suggest that Bach intended this work for the Organ, which cannot be the case given the fugues which must be performed on two seperate keyboards. This current arrangement does not include this Choral for these reasons. The editor suggests that in performing the work, the performers should simply play the last fugue up until the final passage and simply stop. While the feeling of incompletion may be frustrating to some audience members, the fact that the work is not completed is perhaps utlimately more interesting than if it were complete, as this permits each listener to complete the fugue in his own imagination.

Much has been made of the possible numerical and philosophical significations of this work, with many theories as to it’s possible connection with an organisation called the Society for Musical Science lead by a certain Lorenz Mizler who had been a student of Bach’s and also of Mathias Gesner, a philosopher who was also a close friend of Bach. That Bach was a member of this society is certain. However, he became a member of this organisation only in 1947, probably several years after he began working on this cycle. That Bach knew of Pythagorean philosophy through Gesner is also without doubt. However, that this work is symbolic of Pythagorean thought cannot be proven. Bach uses different series of numbers in all of his works and this can of course be seen in this work. In the mind of the editor, it is much more interesting to let the music speak for itself without imposing extraneous elements on the music which may or may not be valid.

The editor hopes that this new version of the Art of the Fugue will be useful in allowing Saxophonists everywhere to perform this great work.

Pour ce qui est d’un éventuel scrupule à jouer Bach aux saxophones souvenons-nous que nos amis pianistes ont bien raison de n’en avoir aucun, qui jouent le Clavier bien tempéré ou les Variations Goldberg sur de grands pianos de concerts... For those who would have scruples about playing Bach on the Saxohone, remember that our pianist friends are right to have none, as they play the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations on concert pianos, an instrument that Bach himself said that he disliked...

Paul Wehage

8 septembre, 2003



Available directly from Musik Fabrik


The "Art of the Fugue" , BWV 1080 by J. S. Bach, arranged for SATB Saxophone Quartet by Paul Wehage/L'Art de la Fugue, BWV 1080 de J. S. Bach, arrangé pour Quatuor de Saxophone par Paul Wehage 49€95