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Picking the Fugues

Hello Friends of Phoenix!

My  name is Jesse Christeson, and when I'm not busy playing cello, you can find me here as editor-in-chief of Phoenix: The Blog. As we build toward our dynamic upcoming subscription show on 2/28, called The Art of Rhythm, you can come here to find behind-the-music stories, insights, and interviews which will (I hope) enhance your listening experience! In keeping with the Phoenix mission, we'll continue trying to de-mystify the appreciation of classical music.

The title of The Art of Rhythm is inspired by a J.S. Bach masterpiece which we are partially featuring - The Art of Fugue - so I reached out to Music Director Matt Szymanski to ask: Why this piece? Why these particular selections? Is there anything special about this performance that our audience can anticipate? He gave me the story of the decision-making process, which I've related below.


The Missing Piece

For the longest time, something was missing from the program for Phoenix’s planned Season 4 subscription concert, called The Art of Rhythm. We were incredibly privileged to be featuring Maria Finkelmeier and the world premier of her Daft & Gritty for Chamber Orchestra. We were also pumped about the other contemporary music we’d picked to go along with it. Jason Treuting’s Extremes is a dream opener for any concert featuring percussion, Anna Clyne’s A Wonderful Day is a beautiful interlude to calm things down, we’d always wanted to play Robert Honstein’s Conduit, and Clint Needham’s Urban Sprawl was just THE perfect piece to end a show like this with a bang. But we needed another musical something to tie it all together.

So we wondered, since the program had so much new music (for an orchestra show), maybe we could mix in something older for perspective. The instrumentation we’re using for this concert is pretty unusual, though, so finding something already written for our forces by Beethoven or Mozart wasn’t going to happen. We needed a piece we could make our own. Admittedly we also wanted something that wasn’t going to be a major hassle to work with (knowing that we had plenty of prep work on our plate, already!). And it still needed to feature rhythm as a central point of interest……

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Then: boom. Bach’s The Art of Fugue became an obvious choice. It’s a famous example of what makes Bach such a beloved composer - Bach is, perhaps first and foremost, the master of the fugue, and The Art of Fugue is widely considered to be his highest achievement in that field. Even better? It wasn’t really written for any particular instrument. That’s right, Bach’s Art of Fugue is literally just four lines of music that sound great together. It wasn’t written for piano or organ or string quartet, it was written for… well, whatever you want it to be written for!

One minor issue, though: Art of Fugue has 18 movements, and it’s like an hour long. We only needed about 20 minutes of music. SO we decided to pick 5 movements that could show off Bach’s genius ‘the most’ for our audience. Of course that isn’t actually possible, but we decided on some that, we felt, highlighted the truly awe-inspiring aspects of the masterpiece.

Picking and Choosing

The 1st movement was a clear launching point. It provides an introduction to the form of fugue, and establishes the ‘subject’ (primary melody) that serves as the center of basically everything in The Art of Fugue. A natural accompaniment to this was the 3rd movement, where Bach flips the subject upside down and then writes another relatively straightforward fugue. It’s a simple compositional device, but by flipping the subject upside down (called ‘inversion’), Bach starts to unleash his toolbox of tricks, allowing us a peek down this musical rabbit hole.

The legendary Glenn Gould performs the first section of Bach's Art of Fugue

[I’m taking a moment here to note that I’m using the word ‘simple,’ and by which I mean simple for BACH. All of this is beyond what I could expect to be able to do if I spent 200 years studying *only* fugue writing, even forsaking meals and bathing....]

Our next choice? The 7th movement, where Bach layers the subject on top of itself at four different speeds at the same time. (“Wait, what?”) NOW he’s really showing off. This is the kind of movement you just have to play if you’re doing selections from Art of Fugue. It starts with the subject played at one speed, then twice as fast, half-tempo, and eventually at ONE-QUARTER speed, all layered on top of each other. You’d think this was as preposterous as Bach could get with this tune, but then you get to the 14th Movement...

Now, this one doesn’t have four individual parts. Just two. It’s actually a canon (you know, the thing where you start singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and someone else joins you after a couple lines). BUT the usage is so genius it has to be heard - really, seen in the score - to be believed. The higher voice starts off by playing a melody reminiscent of the original subject, and after two bars, the lower voice enters playing the exact same melody. The difference is that in the lower voice, the melody has been flipped upside down and slowed down to half-speed. The two parts continue just like that… for the entire movement. And somehow it sounds perfect. The alteration is so convoluted even a trained musician wouldn’t necessary realize what was going on without being told. And these two parts fit beautifully together for the WHOLE movement. It’s one of those Bach moments that, beyond just being beautiful, makes you want to cry for just how damned smart it is.

The First Movement of The Art of Fugue

The First Movement of The Art of Fugue

Last but not least, we selected the final movement of Art of Fugue, which was left unfinished by the composer. This legendary Unfinished Fugue is believed by many to have been intended as a quadruple fugue, meaning one that has FOUR subjects (seriously). Three of them are included in the finished product, but the main subject of Art of Fugue - the one we heard in the first measure of the first movement - is mysteriously absent. Some musicologists imagine a world where Bach completed the work by reintroducing the original subject, and combining all four at the same time. As it is, the piece is left dramatically unfinished, with the voices dying away in the order Bach stopped writing them, until silence grips the room. Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (one of our favorite composers at Phoenix), even left a sensational note about this, claiming “at the point where the composer introduces the name BACH in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died.” We’re pretty sure that’s an utter fabrication CPE used to sell music (the score is in Bach’s own handwriting, and we know he couldn’t write for a couple of years before he died), but still - it’s a good story.

C.P.E. Bach's Note at the end of the Unfinished Fugue

C.P.E. Bach's Note at the end of the Unfinished Fugue

Who Plays What?

Of course, once we had all the movements picked out, we still had to figure out how to make the music fit our motley little crew. We were super lucky that Maria Finkelmeier was game to arrange the last movement for our full ensemble. The duet (14th mvt) is frequently played by violin and cello, but we thought using flute and cello instead might provide an interesting, transparent twist for our audience. That just left the two quartets. At the risk of sounding too technical/logistical… it was important that we be able to rehearse these quartets in sessions along with Robert Honstein’s Conduit, so the players available were even more limited. We divided things up trying to keep similar instruments together, and settled on one quartet of violin, trumpet, horn, and bassoon, and another of oboe, clarinet, viola, and bass. Figuring out which quartet would play which movement involved working with the players to find which would better fit their instruments.

This whole journey has been a unique, challenging, and rewarding process, and we so can’t WAIT to share Bach’s genius with you at The Art of Rhythm with our own Phoenix spin!

Matt SzymanskiComment