This past Sunday, our Prelude and Offertory featured the first and final movements from J.S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue. What is a fugue? Merriam Webster defines the noun as follows:
a : a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts “The organist played a four-voiced fugue.”
b : something that resembles a fugue especially in interweaving repetitive elements “a story that … is as rich and multilayered as a fugue” — Heather Vogel Frederick
I had decided to focus on fugues for our summer’s music after considering the Old Testament lessons we’ll hear from week to week, stories that tell of Abraham and his descendants, their lives intricately interwoven, as they hear and respond to the voice of God. Our postludes, for example, feature J.S. Bach’s Eight Little Preludes & Fugues (I’ll be knocking out one per week, from the first to the last). His Art of the Fugue seemed a nice way to weave yet more fugues into our worship. Would that make the worship itself a fugue of sorts?
As I contemplated such things, something serendipitous happened, as often is the case when planning worship. My son, Aidan, a junior in high school, schools from home. Some of his curriculum comes from MIT’s Open Courseware; for the summer, he has been completing a course on Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. First published in 1979, the book is described by the author as “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” Imagine my surprise as I was reading Hofstadter’s charming dialogue between Achilles and his “jogging companion, the Tortoise,” entitled “Contractrostipunctus,” to find the Art of the Fugue not only mentioned, but explained most succinctly! Here is the excerpt:
Tortoise: …did you know that each of the four letters in Bach’s name is the name of a musical note?
Achilles: ‘tisn’t possible, is it? After all, musical notes only go from ‘A’ through ‘G’.
Tortoise: Just so; in most countries, that’s the case. But in Germany, Bach’s own homeland, the convention has always been similar, except that what we call ‘B’, they call ‘H’, and what we call ‘B-flat’, they call ‘B’. For instance, we talk about Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”, whereas they talk about his “H-moll Messe”. Is that clear?
Achilles: …hmm…I guess so. It’s a little confusing: H is B, and B is B-flat. I suppose his name actually constitutes a melody, then.
Tortoise: Strange but true. In fact, he worked that melody subtly into one of his most elaborate musical pieces—namely, the final Contrapunctus in his Art of the Fugue. It was the last fugue Bach ever wrote. When I heard it for the first time, I had no idea how it would end. Suddenly, without warning, it broke off. And then… dead silence. I realized immediately that was where Bach died. It is an indescribably sad moment, and the effect it had on me was—shattering. In any case, B-A-C-H is the last theme of that fugue. It is hidden inside the piece. Bach didn’t point it out explicitly, but if you know about it, you can find it without much trouble. Ah, me—there are so many clever ways of hiding things in music…
This Sunday, you’ll hear another fugue of J.S. Bach’s at the Prelude, this time a six-voice fugue from his Musical Offering, a work also discussed by Hofstadter. Look for more information on that work and other aspects of our music and liturgy next week!
~ Krista Mays, Director of Music and Liturgical Arts