Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) — Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth (Little Harmonic Labyrinth) (formerly attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 591)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) — Sechs Fugen über den Namen: Bach (Six Fugues on the Name: Bach) Op.60, No.1 Langsam , No.5 Lebhaft
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) — Sinfonia in f minor BWV 795 , Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) BWV 1080, Contrapunctus I, Contrapunctus XI, Contrapunctus XIV, Chorale Prelude: “Meine Seele erhebt den Herren” (The Magnificat) [Schübler] BWV 648
It is well known that from the Mediaeval period, through the Renaissance, and into the Baroque era musicians delighted in musical ciphers and codes. It is hardly surprising, then, to find instances of such artifice in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. What a happy circumstance it is, therefore, that in German musical notation, where B flat is designated by the letter “B” and B natural by the letter “H”, the motif seen above – “B.A.C.H.” – should spell the name of the master. While some scholars argue against Bach’s deliberate use of such devices, I tend to agree with others like Robert Marshall who wrote “The figure occurs so often in Bach’s bass lines that it cannot have been accidental.” More obvious instances of the motif in Bach’s music are found in the fourth variation of the Canonic Variations on “Vom himmel hoch” (BWV 668) which was performed here in January, in the Chorale Prelude based on the Magnificat Tone (BWV 648) in the Schübler Chorale Preludes, in the f minor Sinfonia (BWV 795), and in several of the movements of Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080).
The B.A.C.H. motif was well known to Bach’s contemporaries as was, doubtless, its potential as a device which can lead to highly adventurous harmony. Johann Gottfried Walther discussed it in a theoretical work published in 1732 and it was used as a fugue subject by Bach’s son Johann Christoph and by his pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs. There is a sense, however, in which it came into its own after Bach’s death and in light of the revival of interest in his music during the 19th century. From then until now it has seen frequent use as the basis for works which pay homage to Bach. As far as organ music is concerned, these include the fugues by Schumann, two of which are included in this programme, and the mighty Fantasias and Fugues by Liszt and Reger. Within the more extreme advances of the 20th century the motif was the basis of the tone rows employed by Anton Webern in his String Quartet and by Arnold Schoenberg in the Variations for Orchestra. That the motif can become the basis for atonal music of this kind reveals its potential to break the bounds of tonal music, that is music in major and minor keys. This cannot have been unknown to Bach and there are moments in his music which verge on the atonal, where changes of key are so rapid and overlap in such a way as to suggest that the music is momentarily in more than one key at the same time (pantonality) or no key at all (atonality). This is certainly true in the f minor Sinfonia and in parts of Die Kunst der Fuge.
Kleine Harmonisches Labyrinth is in three sections: Introitus, Centrum, and Exitus. The Introitus creates a maze of tonality by means of rapid and skilful modulations from C major to the depths of F # major and beyond. This leads with a flourish to the Centrum which is a short fugue for three voices whose subject is reminiscent of but not a statement of the B.A.C.H. motif. However towards the end of the fugue a statement of that motif heralds the Exitus in which we are led once again through a maze of key changes until the refuge of C major is attained. Viewing the piece allegorically it is as if we have been led through a musical maze in which we risk becoming lost, until we are brought home by BACH.
The Fugues by Schumann pay homage to the master but show us a side of Schumann himself with which we may not be very familiar. Just as good artists must know how to draw so also should good composers master the art of counterpoint. Here we learn that Schumann was a master craftsman.
The Bach Sinfonia consists of the B.A.C.H. motif which appears no less than 21 times in an eighth-note pattern and 7 extra times, slightly modified and sometimes in augmentation – in quarter notes. 21 is significant because it is the product of 7 x 3. Seven is regarded as a mystical number while three is associated with the Trinity, as well as with the triangle which, because it fits within a circle, becomes a symbol of perfection. In addition, though, this means that the motif appears a total of 28 times in the piece and 28 is 14 x 2. Fourteen happens to be the sum of the numerological values for the letters B.A.C.H. – and – while almost all of the statements of the motif are transposed, the one statement which consists of the actual notes B flat, A, C, B natural occurs precisely in the centre of the 35 measure piece, at measure 17. A similar device occurs in the Chorale Prelude with which the programme closes.
Die Kunst der Fuge occupied Bach until shortly before his death and was left incomplete. The story attributed to his son Carl Philip Emmanuel is that he left off composing the final Contrapunctus just at the point where the B.A.C.H. motif enters as the subject of a further fugal exposition. Revisions to a chorale prelude were then dictated to his amanuensis (Bach was completely blind by this time) and the master died shortly afterwards. Many performers prefer to leave the final fugue as Bach left it and I am among them. However, to bring a sense of completion to such performances, the “final” chorale prelude is usually played. Today this is being replaced by the piece from the Schübler preludes to which I have already referred.
Die Kunst der Fuge contains fourteen fugues which exploit almost all that exists of fugal device and procedure. In addition there are numerous canons and all are based on the subject with which Contrapunctus I begins. The B.A.C.H. motif first appears in Contrapunctus VIII as a countersubject and makes a similar but more assertive appearance in the mighty triple fugue Contrapunctus XI. It is in this fugue that there is a further fascinating play on numbers – in measure 144 (12 x 12) all 12 tones of the chromatic scale appear in a passage where the tonality becomes ambiguous to say the least. Intentional? Deliberate? Scholars argue – but surely not an accident! Eventually comes the final fugue, Contrapunctus XIV which, despite all that has been written about it, actually defies description except perhaps what a former colleague of mine once said…that it is a “dialogue in the mind of God.”