When J. S. Bach died in June of 1750, he left his great final work Die Kunst der Fuge – The Art of the Fugue – incomplete. The most striking manifestation of this is that the last movement of the work breaks off abruptly in the middle of a line. We do not know – there is no way to know – how Bach might have extended and completed it if he had lived. It is usually assumed that he would, shortly after the moment where the piece breaks off, have brought the opening theme of the whole work:
or some variant of it into the last movement. It is absent from that movement as it now stands, but it would fit well with the other themes that make up that final section of the piece. He also left us not knowing his intentions about the order of the movements. In fact, we do not know for sure that the existing movements are the only ones that Bach would have ended up writing. Most interestingly, we do not know on what instrument or combination of instruments Bach intended the work to be played. In fact we don’t know whether it would have been his intention to pin down a particular mode of performance at all, or in fact to leave that to the discretion of musicians whose interest the piece happened to attract. Over many years The Art of the Fugue has been performed and recorded in many different ways: on organ, on harpsichord, on piano, by orchestras, by all sorts of chamber groups and jazz ensembles, with various electronic performing media, etc.
The Art of the Fugue is a work in several movements – it can be counted as eighteen or twenty – each of which is based on the theme quoted above or a variant of it. Each movement is a fugue, loosely defined, or something like it: that is, in each movement the theme comes in first in one voice and then in each other voice in turn. Most of the movements have four voices, some three, some – the Canons – two. Although the work is quite rigorous and elaborate contrapuntally, it is, for the performer and perhaps especially for the listener, also an exploration of texture, mood, rhythm, sonority, and emotion.
For a detailed discussion of the structure and rhetoric of The Art of the Fugue, written in 1985 by Gavin Black, click here.
For this recording, the work is performed on two harpsichords: that is, in each movement the musical lines are shared more or less equally between Gavin Black, playing a two-manual German-style harpsichord by Philip Tyre, and George Hazelrigg, playing a two-manual German-style harpsichord by Keith Hill. In the four-voice pieces, for example, each player (and thus each instrument) takes two of the voices. Both harpsichords are similar acoustically to instruments that were available to Bach. The use of two large harpsichords of this sort makes available dozens of different sound combinations, and permits the movements of The Art of the Fugue to be brought to life in a colorful and vivid manner.