Bach on Top

How one of the most esoteric musical works ever written became an unlikely hit.

J.S. Bach

When I tell musical friends that on its release in March, Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s solo-piano version of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue shot to the top of the Billboard and iTunes classical charts, they get this glazed look. It’s as if you told a physicist that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was topping the best-seller list. It’s not supposed to happen.

This is because the 14 fugues and four canons that make up The Art of Fugue constitute one of the most esoteric musical works ever written. Each fugue bears the severe title Contrapunctus followed by a number, and there is no indication of what instruments are supposed to play them. Every piece is in D minor; all are based on the same melodic theme. It’s as if Bach intended the AOF as a theoretical treatise, to be read and studied rather than performed, to demonstrate some of the more arcane things you can do with the idea of a fugue.

Surely nobody expected this recording to take off. French pianist Aimard made his name playing 20th-century repertoire on the order of Ligeti, Messiaen, and Ives. This was his first release for the prestigious German label DGG, which must have wondered about his marbles when he declared The Art of Fugue to be his choice. The label made no particular PR push on behalf of the recording, and, anyway, selling classical music is a patchwork business. I’ve seen the classics sold as rock ’n’ roll ( Beethoven the Revolutionary, the liner notes putting him up there with Elvis and Kurt Cobain); sold like barbecue ( Grillin’ And Chillin’ with Johann Sebastian); sold like Cialis ( A Ravel Weekend); and, in the case of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her fetching album covers, sold in the fashion of Pamela Anderson and other famous mammals.

A while back there was a brisk trade in Bach synthesized, scat-sung, plucked on koto and guitar, etc. Many of those ended up in my record store’s remainder bin labeled “Schlock Bach.” In contrast, Aimard’s piano rendition of The Art of Fugue is straightforward and sober, trying not to let on how formidable the fugues are to play with 10 fingers. Organ, with its foot pedals, is the more logical keyboard choice; most often the AOF is done with multiple instruments. The dozens of recordings listed on Amazon include versions by the Canadian Brass and the Berlin Saxophone Quartet.

Before I give a tour of the piece, there’s an issue to deal with: One has to assume that most of the people snapping up Aimard’s The Art of Fugue don’t actually, as it were, know what a fugue is. Here’s the short course: A fugue is a contrapuntal procedure. … Wait, you may not know what counterpoint is either.

Counterpoint is an ancient way of writing music in which everybody is singing or playing melody at the same time, rather than the relatively more modern and familiar idea of a single tune with accompaniment: guy with guitar, soprano with piano. Counterpoint is the art of juxtaposing melodies so that instead of getting in one another’s way, they complement one another and make good harmony together. As any music student will tell you, counterpoint is damned hard to write, and the requirements of fugue only make it harder.

A fugue generally begins with a bit of tune called the subject, played alone in one voice (in counterpoint every part is called a “voice,” whether it’s sung or played). Then another “voice” strikes up the fugue subject while the original voice continues in counterpoint, sometimes establishing an also-recurring tune called the countersubject. The fugue carries on, in two to five or more voices, with entries of the subject plus new melodies woven freely around it. Sections featuring the subject alternate with episodes of free counterpoint where the subject gets a rest. So in a fugue, the subject is like a character who keeps turning up in a conversation, perhaps with spouse along (the countersubject). Except that in a contrapuntal conversation, everybody is talking at once, yet, magically, it all makes sense.

For an example, here’s the beginning of Aimard’s Contrapunctus 1. As the subject you’ll hear the famous Art of Fugue theme, then three more entries of the subject until we’re in four-voice counterpoint.

Fugues have been around for centuries, and lots of composers have written them, but few have created fugues as complex, disciplined, and beautiful as Bach’s. It’s the beauty that boggles musicians: There’s a kind of mathematical elegance about them, but math doesn’t sound that good. As a performer, Bach could improvise multivoice fugues at the organ, which is like writing four to six prose essays at the same time, using both hands and feet. It’s not that he couldn’t write a nice, straightforward tune. Just about everything that’s possible to do in music, Bach could do as well as, or better than, anybody else. But he loved leaping self-imposed technical hurdles, the more fiendish the better. Thus The Art of Fugue.

He starts with relatively basic fugues, as described above, then steadily escalates the complexity, meanwhile ornamenting and varying the AOF theme itself. So Contrapuncti 1-4 are straightforward, except that in the second two, the AOF theme is inverted, meaning every melodic move up becomes an equivalent one down, and vice versa. In Contrapunctus 5 the ornamented subject enters both upside-down and right-side-up. From there, we tune in to the major leagues of fuguedom. In Contrapunctus 6, the first voice is the regular (ornamented) AOF subject, the second voice is the subject inverted, the third voice is the subject right-side-up, the fourth voice is the subject inverted—except entries two through four present the subject at double speed. By Contrapunctus 7, the AOF theme is going at three speeds, variously rightside up and inverted—with a nice effect, in this performance by the Musica Antiqua Köln, of nervous intensity.

Contrapunctus 9 is maybe the most familiar of the bunch thanks to the Swingle Singers, who turned it into a scat-sung hit in the ‘60s. This one takes a different tack: A fugue on a racing, jazzy new subject bops along in three voices for a while before the AOF theme is laid on top of it.

Let’s compare three versions of No. 9. Here’s Aimard. In this version by the early-music ensemble Hespèrion XXI, we’ll put it ahead so you hear how the AOF theme is laid over the new subject —it’s in the thing that sounds like a trumpet (which is a Renaissance cornett). And now the old Swingle Singers version, of which I’m still fond for nostalgic reasons. (Schlock is in the eye of the beholder.)

By Contrapuncti 12 and 13 we’re in Alice in Wonderland territory: The entirety of both fugues is presented right-side-up and mirrored—i.e., upside down—and they all sound perfectly swell.

Bach was playing these otherworldy games when fate stepped in: He went blind and soon died. (On his deathbed, he dictated a haunting organ prelude called Before Thy Throne I Stand, as his calling card to God.) The unfinished last fugue in the AOF was intended to weave together four different subjects. He only got to the third one, which happened to be his own name. In German notation, B means B-flat and H means B-natural, so he could spell out B-A-C-H in notes. Composers ever since have used the motif as a homage. Aimard’s version, like many others, rises to a spine-tingling peroration on the B-A-C-H motif, proclaimed over and over, when the music suddenly stops in the middle of a phrase just as Bach himself did. Here’s Aimard near the conclusion of the unfinished one, where the B-A-C-H subject entries start.

So there you have the makings of an unlikely hit. Meanwhile an Emerson String Quartet recording of fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has been sharing the Billboard top 10 with Aimard’s recording. Is there some musical millennium at hand? Has the ‘60s generation finally started to grow up, musically and otherwise?

Nah. My generation will boogie to our graves, our tastes in music and much else still adolescent, still thinking we’re cool as hell. The truth is I have no idea why Bach fugues have all this buzz. The Billboard classical charts are dominated by schlock, but the Aimard and Emerson recordings are one of those ever-surprising cases of uncompromising work making a hit in the commercial funhouse we call our “culture.”

Even schlock Bach isn’t unredeemable. His music tends to work in all versions, I submit, because the notes-qua-notes are so good. Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, or [your favorite composer here] were constantly concerned with the instruments that played or sung their work: great notes, too, but intimately bound to their media. In TheArt of Fugue Bach didn’t seem to care what the medium was; it would work no matter what. A lot of his music—not all, but a lot—is like that: incomparable notes, regardless of avatar.

I’m sure what ultimately turns everybody onto TheArt of Fugue, not limited to musicians who understand its arcana, is how melodically expressive and rhythmically vital it is. You never forget, for example, how Contrapunctus 9 gathers like a force of nature from a galloping D minor to the most hair-raising D major final chord you ever heard. Bach universalized what he called “the art and science of music” by the power of gripping melody, rich harmony, towering perorations, intimate whisperings, explosive joy, piercing tragedy: the same human stuff we find in Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare, and all the great creators. But nobody in music had the science down more than Bach did, and nobody ever wrote better notes.