Deconstructing the Universe of Bach’s Last Opus

ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts features Fretwork ensemble performing 'The Art of Fugue'
April 29, 2018 Updated: September 1, 2018

NEW YORK—Suppose you go for a walk to discuss a certain matter with four people on several occasions, 15 to be exact. As you walk together on the same trail, toward the same destination, you stay on topic every time. Each one of you carries equal weight in the matter, while holding different opinions. All of your arguments play against one another, yet your points harmonize throughout. It is an extraordinarily beautiful and satisfying conversation, even though you never reach a conclusion. The arguments and counterarguments are so logically arranged that, years later, others can pick up the conversation where it left off and complete it in various ways.

Johann Sebastian Bach never finished his last opus, “The Art of Fugue,” (BWV 1080). The Fretwork ensemble, a viol consort, performed 12 of the 14 completed fugues (contrapuntal compositions) in Bach’s opus as well as their own completion of the 15th unfinished counterpoint at an ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts concert on April 12.

As Richard Boothby, a founding member of Fretwork, gave an illustrated talk between each counterpoint performed, you could imagine a plethora of analogies to match the music. In counterpoint, all the lines of music are equally important and play against one another, Boothby explained. In other words, two or more melodic lines are combined in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while keeping their individuality—an axiom for any healthy relationship.   

Richard Boothby gives an illustrated talk for the “J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue” concert produced by the ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts at The Italian Academy in New York on April 12, 2018. (ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts)

“’The Art of Fugue’ is really one of the most extraordinary complex and brilliant pieces of music ever written. It’s quite unlike anything else. There is nothing really similar to it,” Boothby said to a full house in The Italian Academy at Columbia University. 

Bach’s last opus has mystified musicians and audiences for centuries. We don’t know why Bach wrote “The Art of Fugue” and if he even intended for it to be performed. It could have been an exercise for exploring his contrapuntal skill. “It is sort of a summation of his life’s work in many ways,” Boothby said.

Compared to “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (BWV 846–893), “the 48” as it is known, which deals with fugues in all the possible keys, “The Art of Fugue” remains in one key throughout—in D minor, or D Dorian.

The Fretwork ensemble, with viola da gambist Asako Morikawa, cellist and viola de gambist Emily Ashton, cellist Sam Stadlen, viola da gambist Richard Boothby (here presenting), performs “J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue,” presented by the ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts at the The Italian Academy in New York on April 12, 2018. (ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts)

After Fretwork played the first four bars of the first counterpoint, Boothby proceeded to tease apart some of the ways Bach composed the following counterpoints. A tune would be played right side up (going up in scale) and then upside down, or two tunes would mirror each other, or one would take over another without letting the first finish, all at various tempos and perfectly arranged. Learning the technical aspects of how Bach composed “The Art of Fugue,” much like a puzzle, did not detract from enjoying the beauty of the music but added to what could be intuited initially.

“Bach has a supernatural ability of using these highly intellectual, brainy things with a kind of felicity and plasticity that produced music that is extremely natural and expressive,” Boothby said.

The handwritten manuscript for Bach’s 15th counterpoint has an inscription written by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to the effect that his father had died when he had explicitly written the motif consisting of the notes B flat, A, C and B into the fugue.

“At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died,” C.P.E. Bach wrote on the manuscript.

“It can’t possibly be true,” Boothby said. Bach scholars dispute the idea that Bach died at that point in writing the 15th fugue, because it was clearly written in his own hand, before his sight had deteriorated at the end of his life. As for it being incomplete, perhaps Bach composed the rest of it but had not written it down, or the final page went missing, or perhaps he left it incomplete deliberately.  The question remains open.

Richard Boothby gives a talk for the “J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue,” event presented by the ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts at The Italian Academy in New York on April 12, 2018. (ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts)

About three years ago, Fretwork would stop playing “The Art of Fugue” at the point where Bach stopped writing it. “I felt we were  giving the wrong impression, maintaining a rather romantic and inaccurate myth,” Boothby said at the dinner after the concert.

Now, Fretwork musicians perform their own completion. There are many completions of Bach’s 15th counterpoint in “The Art of Fugue,” but Boothby’s is unique: “The parts of the fugue are proportionate to each other. The first section is 1.4 times the size of the second, and the second is 1.4 times the third, and so forth,” Boothby said. Taking that relationship to its logical conclusion, the fugue would have to be 47 bars, he explained. 

Bach’s “The Art of Fugue” unfolds in such a way that it gives you a glimpse of how a whole universe could be constructed.

At the end of the concert, the founder of ASPECT, Irina Knaster, said that to become a composer, all you would have to do is to dissect Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.” “In fact, it could show you how to make anything and make it into everything,” she said with a big smile.

The Fretwork ensemble with Irina Knaster (L), founder of the ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts, at The Italian Academy in New York on April 12, 2018. (ASPECT Foundation for Music & Arts)

The next ASPECT concert will feature the “Painting and Music Series, Fête Galante” on Thursday, May 17, with a reception starting at 7:00 p.m. and the concert at 7:30 p.m. For further information on forthcoming concerts, visit: