A Rich Tapestry in Bach's Art of the Fugue
On The Bach Hour, the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin brings vibrant textures and colors to the composer's ultimate musical statement in counterpoint, and John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Cantata No. 181, confronting "light-minded, frivolous spirits."
On the program:
Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C, BWV 564 - Gerhard Weinberger, organ (St. Martin's Church, Groningen, the Netherlands)
Cantata BWV 181 Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (translation) - James Gilchrist, tenor; Stephan Loges, bass; English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Contrapunctus 1-4, 7, Canon 16, and Contrapunctus 9 from The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 - Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Locked within these few notes is an astonishing range of musical possibility.
J.S. Bach pulled those possibilities out through a series of 20 short pieces, but he never specified which instruments to play them on. Coming up on The Bach Hour, the Academy for Ancient Music Berlin lends its own distinctive textures to The Art of the Fugue.
Hello, I’m Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour, from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. The Academy for Ancient Music Berlin lends every work they play a nuanced, rich interpretation, as you’ll hear in their unique approach to The Art of the Fugue. Also on the program is the Cantata No. 181, Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister, or “Light-minded, frivolous spirits.” As always, you can find a translation of the text for the Cantata 181 online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can hear this and other programs on demand. Again that’s all at Classical WCRB dot org.
The Art of the Fugue is one of the late-in-life projects Bach imagined as a summation of his skill as a composer. Here is a piece from the other end of his career. This organ piece dates from Bach’s early days as a young composer in Weimar, building the reputation that made him one of Europe’s most admired organists. This is the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, with Gerhard Weinberger at St. Martin’s Church in the Dutch city of Groningen.
[MUSIC – BWV 564]
When J.S. Bach wrote this Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, he was taking the concerto style of Italian Baroque masters and combining it with the north German tradition of his own mentors. Gerhard Weinberger was the organist at St. Martin’s Church in the Dutch city of Groningen.
The title of the Cantata No. 181 presents one of those challenges of translation. You might find Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister translated as “Light-minded, frivolous spirits”, or “Insincere and fickle spirits”, or “Scatterbrained, frivolous people,” or even “Frivolous flibbertigibbets.” Whichever you prefer, the basic idea is clear.
In the opening aria for the bass soloist, these shallow people “deprive themselves of the Word’s power.” And the music reflects that with a flighty, halting, line that takes on a bit more seriousness when the soloist equates that shallowness with Belial, a fallen angel.
The alto soloist draws out the effect of that shallowness has on a believer, saying that, “deluded souls … become hearts of stone.”
The tenor soloist digs in a bit further to reveal that this shallowness comes from the “endless number of harmful thorns” the believer encounters in life, along with “the worries of the lust to increase treasures.”
Finally, the soprano soloist offers a glimpse of hope, singing that believers’ “hearts may taste the sweetness that [the] Word reveals.”
With that, the sound world completely changes, with a trumpet joining the ensemble for a light, festive chorus to close the cantata on a hopeful, joyous note.
Remember, you can find a translation of the Cantata No. 181 by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org. Here is a performance of Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister with soprano soloist Angharad Gruffydd Jones, alto Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Stephan Loges. The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists are conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
[MUSIC - BWV 181]
That’s the Cantata No. 181 by J.S. Bach, Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister, with conductor John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. The vocal soloists included soprano Angharad Gruffydd Jones, alto Robin Tyson, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Stephan Loges.
As Bach’s life and career reached their peak, he took on several projects meant to solidify his legacy as a composer. The Well-Tempered Clavier explored the possibilities of the 24 major and minor keys through preludes and fugues. By contrast, a single harmonic sequence is at the heart of the Goldberg Variations. In The Art of the Fugue, Bach explores counterpoint, the idea of two or more individual musical lines interacting to form harmony, with no chords for a foundation.
But unlike those other works, Bach never specified any particular instrumentation for The Art of the Fugue. It’s purely abstract.
The Academy for Ancient Music Berlin used that fact to create a unique approach to The Art of the Fugue crystalizing each one of Bach’s permutations through its own instrumental palette. Compared to performances on a keyboard instrument, the piece comes across as more of a dramatic journey, each fugue acting as one chapter in an unfolding story.
Here is part of that story, leading off with Contrapunctus No. 1.
[MUSIC BWV 1080 - 1-9]
At first glance The Art of the Fugue, by J.S. Bach, comes across as something abstract, mathematical, even clinical. It’s a set of pieces undertaken almost as an exercise, and Bach didn’t even specify which instruments he had in mind for them.
But for Bach, counterpoint, or the idea of several independent musical lines combining to form harmonies, was really a window into the eternal and the divine. It was the very heart of emotional expression. This performance of selections from The Art of the Fugue is part of a complete recording of these pieces by The Academy for Ancient Music Berlin.
Remember, you can hear this program again, find more resources, and leave your own comments at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org.
Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.