Departure & Discovery

Bach: The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 [Excerpts]

Bach’s late music represents a departure from the outside world. His Art of the Fugue—which does not even specify instrumentation—returns to an established form in order to elaborate themes contrapuntally to every possible end. These fugues are perhaps as rigorous and complex as any music ever written, and it is difficult to know if they were meant to be performed or to remain fixed forever in the imagination.

  • The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 [Excerpts] (1742-46; rev. 1748-50)
    Johann Sebastian Bach
    Born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany
    Died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Germany
    Recorded live on Thursday, February 16, 2017, with the Brentano Quartet at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.

    Contrapunctus I

  • Contrapunctus III

  • Contrapunctus V

  • Contrapunctus X

Toward the middle and end of the 1730s there is a perceptible change in Bach's orientation, a change that, regardless of all continuity of Bach's highly developed idiom, gives a characteristic stamp to the works of the last twelve years....it arose logically from the aging Bach's increasingly systematic realization of a synthesis of his rich creative experience and his manifold musical interests.

The Art of Fugue and the B Minor Mass conform to this striking Bachian trait of 'intending to excel above others and oneself.'  The Art of Fugue is linked to earlier fugue compositions yet moves to a level that is novel in principle.  The entire multi-sectional work is derived from the same thematic material, a musical plan that presupposed a far-reaching process of thought with regard to the harmonic-contrapuntal implications of the chosen theme.

—Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music, 1994


The second installment in the project podcast series explores the late style of Bach and Beethoven, in contrast with how we perceive this phenomenon in 20th-century composers.

Our interview with Christoph Wolff discusses how the historical and sociocultural context shaped the late styles of Bach and Mozart.

This work was performed on the first concert of PCMS' Departure & Discovery Project at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.

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