An Art of Constraints


Last week I had the joy of experiencing Henri Matisse’s “Cut-Outs” at the MoMA in New York City. Yesterday, I performed Bach’s “Art of The Fugue” with the Hofstra String Quartet. What a profound journey from one master of creative limitations to another.

By the year 1742, in frail health and almost completely blind, Johann Sebastian Bach, like Matisse, realized that he was in the final creative phase of his life. It was at that point that he gave himself an unbelievably challenging assignment—the complete exploration of a musical form—a form described by constraints. That form—the Fugue—is as complex as it gets, but here’s a stab at a simple definition: A fugue is a composition in two or more voices, built on a subject that is introduced at the beginning, and then imitated at different pitches by other voices throughout the composition. Think of “Row, Row, Your Boat” transferred to graduate school and you’ll be close!

Bach, though, goes many steps further. With the 18 pieces that make up this work he probes every way of looking at and listening to contrapuntal music. He writes backwards fugues, inverted, in mirror form, elongated, diminished. Finally, in the last piece of the set he puts two fugue subjects in motion, develops them, resolves them, and then combines them to form a rare double fugue. Now he introduces a third fugue subject that spells out his name in musical notes. And yet, where the double fugue meets this most personal of themes the music cuts off abruptly. In the manuscript we can see a note in the handwriting of Bach’s son Carl Philip Emanuel which reads, “While writing this fugue, where the name B-A-C-H is introduced as the countersubject, the composer died.”

Mysterious? Absolutely. So much has been speculated about why Bach never finished this crowning achievement. And yet, what stands out for me, is simply how beautiful “The Art of the Fugue” is from start to finish. Whether listening to or playing it you invariably forget all about form and happily lose yourself in the music. That must be its greatest gift.