Quotes about Bach's Art of Fugue

Art of Fugue means far more to the world at large than just what musicians encounter in its notes. Its significance, reflecting its unique place of honor in Bach's work, has risen the more Bach himself has risen to a central place in the story of the Western musical imagination.

In writings on Bach, it seems a given that mere superlatives can never encompass his achievement in the Art of Fugue. In the quotes below, try to look beyond the superlatives, to see what hopes have been raised, or crushed, or even sometimes fulfilled.

Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious
Princeton University Press, 1959, p. 102 ff.:
But whether the artist grows slowly away from the tradition of his time or passes over it at one bound, and brings the new element the epoch lacked, ultimately, if he does not stop at the stage of representation of the cultural canon—and no truly great artist has ever done so—he finds himself alone. He is alone regardless of whether he is worshiped as an Olympian, whether he is an organist respected in a small circle, or whether he ends in deafness, poverty, or madness.

The struggle of these great men with the powers inside them and the times outside them seems to result in a statement which transcends the artistic and symbolic reality of their creative life. In music, painting, sculpture, and poetry they penetrate to the archetypal transcendance which is the inner life of the world. What speaks to us from a self-portrait of the aged Rembrandt, from the end of Faust, Part II, from Shakespeare's last plays or Titian's late paintings, from The Art of Fugue or a late Beethoven quartet, is a strange transfiguration, a break-through into the realm of essence. ...

In these works of man a numinous world is manifested in which the polarity of outward and inward—nature and art—seems to be resolved. Their secret alchemy achieves a synthesis of the numinosum at the heart of nature and psyche.

These aged masters seem to have attained the image and likeness of a primal creative force, prior to the world and outside the world, which, though split from the very beginning into the polarity of nature and psyche, is in essence one undivided whole.  BACK TO TOP

Jung and KDF

Laurens van der Post, Jung and the Story of Our Time
Vintage Books, 1975, pp. 123:
One had only to put a worthwhile question to [Jung] to release a flood ... from the constant fountain ... of new perceptions and fresh inspiration as well as information and wisdom stored up in him as in a reservoir built against a great drought in the life of man. In this regard [Jung] always made me think of Bach, whose Kunst der Fugue, the last of his works, was for me a kind of compendium of revelations to all the composer had written before. Perhaps surprisingly for someone accused of indifference to music, Jung had listened and relistened to its twenty fugues and canons with great care and out of a feeling that it could tell him more of the nature of music than perhaps any other composition.  BACK TO TOP

Hofstadter, GodelEscherBach

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Vintage Books, 1979, pp. 86:
In the Art of the Fugue, Bach uses a very simple theme in the most complex possible ways. ... Most of the fugues have four voices, and they gradually increase in complexity and depth of expression. Toward the end, they soar to such heights of intricacy that one suspects he can no longer maintain them. Yet he does . . . until the last Contrapunctus [,] ... [where] he inserted his own name coded into notes as the third theme. However, upon this very act, his health became so precarious that he was forced to abandon work on his cherished project. ... One day [near the end of his life], without warning, Bach regained his vision. But a few hours later, he suffered a stroke; and ten days later, he died, leaving it for others to speculate on the incompleteness of the Art of the Fugue. Could it have been caused by Bach’s attainment of self-reference?  BACK TO TOP


R. Murray Schafer, ed., Ezra Pound and Music: The Complete Criticism
New Directions, 1977, pp. 21-22:
[Pound’s] Cantos have aroused criticism. They are said to lack form. Perhaps what they lack is the kind of form with which the literary critic is familiar. I have suggested they might be better appreciated by measuring them against musical forms, especially the fugue. Strictly speaking, the fugue is not a form at all, but rather a procedure. Unlike the sonata, where the length and shape of the exposition determines the development and recapitulation sections, the fugue regenerates itself constantly from its own motivic material, according to the invention of the composer. And it is judged by the craftsmanship of its texture rather than the boldness of its form. Certainly nothing like the tripartite structure of Dante’s Divina Commedia ever emerges from the Cantos, and the final drift into oblivion of the fragments up to Canto CXX is very discouraging for the critic who wants to see a structure he can draw on the blackboard.

The fugue can end anywhere. Not with a cadencing chain of fireworks, not with climax, as Pound knew when he criticized Joyce’s “Sirens” episode from Ulysses; rather with an unpretentious device, often as brief as half a bar—the pedal. When the pedal sounds in the fugue, we know the composer is getting tired and intends to stop. In the notes for Canto CXVII we encounter a confession we have for some time been expecting:

      M’amour, m’amour
                what do I love and
                         where are you?
      That I lost my center
                          fighting the world.
      The dreams clash
                          and are shattered—
      and that I tried to make a paradiso

It is a confession of humility and failure. A tired old man has decided to give up the fight. A pedal point? And as with Bach, who never lived to complete The Art of the Fugue, the final cadence is a reverberant silence.

Glenn Gould, on the eve of recording Contrapunctus XIV:
"it's the most difficult thing I've ever approached. It's — you've got to keep it going — how do you do that?" .... "There's never been anything more beautiful in all of music."  

All website materials (C) 2017 Michael Ferguson, unless otherwise noted.