Ciompi Quartet violinist Eric Pritchard was joined by violinist Jennifer Curtis, violist Suzanne Rousso, and cellist Stephanie Vial, artists renowned for their work in baroque performance practice, to conclude what has been, for him, a multi-year survey of the last great contrapuntal works by J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge), S.1080. Near the end of his career, as his health was failing, Bach’s music was already falling out of style. The unequivocal master of the fugue and contrapuntal baroque music was behind the time as the style and taste shifted toward the developments of the budding Classical Era. As far as we know, The Art of Fugue was written neither for, nor dedicated to, any other individual. It was written in the last decade of his life purely for the master himself in answer to his fascination with the challenges of the form.

Of all musical forms of classical composition, the fugue is undoubtedly the most complex and difficult to master, both as a composer and as a performing artist. In general, it consists of one, two, three, or even four melodic principal subjects or themes repeating upon themselves. Elements of harmony, passing tones, and harmonic resolution require intricate musical skills in the process of construction. The Art of Fugue includes simple fugues, double and triple fugues, and one implied quadruple fugue. The principal subjects are inverted (turned upside down), augmented (note values are increased so the theme is played half as fast), diminished (note values are diminished so the theme is played twice as fast), and mirrored (the principal subject is repeated backwards). From here the structural techniques get far more complicated than I am able to describe or comprehend.

This concert was characterized by Pritchard’s erudite explanation, by illustrations played by the performing artists, and by impressive virtuosic performances by all four. The Art of Fugue consists of 14 fugues and 4 canons (the latter not played in this performance), each using some variation of a single principal subject, and generally ordered by increasing complexity. “Contrapunctus IX” for four voices is a double fugue with two subjects and invertible counterpoint at the 12th (i.e., at the interval of an octave and a fifth). A new subject, which opens the fugue, is a long, flighty line that zips around the voices throughout the fugue, giving it a feel of perpetual motion. The juxtaposition of the lighter main subject of The Art of Fugue somehow changes its character from its somber nature in the earlier fugues. Soon it seems like a solid presence underpinning the exuberant new subject dashing all around it. The first time the two subjects appear together, they’re both on D, with the principal subject in the first violin, but later they appear with the principal subject on D in the cello, and the flighty subject on A in the first violin. The performance of this fugue was an outlandish display of virtuosity by all four artists, a standout among a whole evening of delightful and dazzling musicianship.

There are a number of different approaches to listening to music of this nature. First is to listen for each entrance of each subject as it is passed from one instrument to another. This is probably and properly the ear’s natural inclination; as the theme becomes more familiar with repetition, our attention is called to it. A second approach is to focus on one line of theme and development, say for example the viola. One can be pleased by the way the theme is developed, how it blends harmonically and rhythmically, and how it fits into the whole. A third approach in listening is to focus beyond the four individual instruments and their individual themes and developments and try to get a sense of the tapestry of all the parts woven together. This is probably the hardest for most listeners to pull off and the most challenging, but it can bring rewarding treasures to the listening experience.

One other element in these works, worthy of notice, is the dance quality of Bach’s subjects and supportive counterpoint. I found myself at times envisioning dancers in punchy costumes, moving across a stage, imitating each other’s movements, contrasting, combining, and weaving in and out with the vigor and charm of the music. These would be the movements of joy.

The final fugue, “Contrapunctus XIV”, is incomplete. It is conjectured that Bach grew too feeble to finish it, that the last page of the manuscript was lost; or that Bach left off the composition after introducing the famous Bach signature theme (B-A-C-H) to make a statement about the ever-open door to the creation of music. There may be other attempts to resolve this mystery, more complex or more simplistic. None of it matters when you hear the awesome first subject and development of this fugue. It soars with tender and exquisite beauty and majesty and is a fitting conclusion to this phenomenal achievement. The performance was personal and passionate and the four colleagues seemed transported as they in turn transported the audience to the humble throne of the master of The Art of Fugue.

This quote from Albert Schweitzer seems appropriate here: “Music is an act of worship with Bach. His artistic activity and his personality are both based on his piety. If he is to be understood from any standpoint at all, it is this. For him, art was religion, and so had no concern with the world or with worldly success…. Bach includes religion in the definition of art in general. All great art, even secular, is in itself religious in his eyes; for him the tones do not perish, but ascend to God like praise too deep for utterance.” (Schweitzer: Bach, I, p. 167.)

Note: This admirable series of summer concerts concludes on August 12. For details, click here.