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Die Kunst der Fuge › Die Kunst der Fuge for four guitars
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Die Kunst der Fuge for four guitars

On October 1st 2000, the Zagreb Guitar Quartet (of which I am a member) performed Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) in its integral version at the Varazdin Baroque Evenings festival in Croatia. This was a remarkable occasion to mark the 250th anniversary of the great composer’s death, and also to premiere that work by a guitar quartet.

Earlier that year I wrote an article in Classical Guitar Magazine (Ashley Mark Publishing, UK), announcing that this would be the first performance of the work on guitars. To my knowledge, no one has done it before. Anyway, if anyone has any information, please let me know.

Working on DKdF was a great task for us, the four guitarists, but it also provided great enjoyment! Read and you will find out how.

DKdF for four guitars?
DKdF for four guitars? Transcription was not a problem - we followed Bach’s original manuscript in four voices. The question is, can we even use the term ‘transcription’ in the case of DKdF, knowing that it is written in an open score without indicated instrument(s), and was created as pure absolute music? For this reason, theoreticians considered it to be a purely theoretical work for a long period of time. I disagree with this. Personally, I consider that it is more provocative today to be a performer than a composer. We, the performers, have a whole history of music to choose from, and we can give life to music that we choose, and bring it into the daylight.

In performing DKdF, we used two standard guitars, a soprano (an octave higher) and an alto (a minord third higher) guitar. That gave us the range to perform all the notes Bach wrote. There were small transcription problems in the 4th voice (which I played). The standard guitar was tuned to low D, but I needed low C and C# a few times, so I had to translate a few phrases an octave higher. I now have a new 7-string guitar which will cover all the low parts, so when we record DKdF we will play exactly the text Bach wrote.

Die Kunst der Fuge has taught me to discover and recognize composition techniques and the language of composition itself. The themes and motives Bach uses in DKdF are universal and archetypal. Here, Bach uses the very essence of the musical language, which does not depend too much on style, instrumentation or colour; it can even permit very different performances, with radically different tempos and agogic. I have listened to many interpretations - Musica Antiqua Köln, the Julliard Quartet, the Keller Quartet, Jordi Savall/Hesperion XX, Ton Koopman & Tini Mathot… These are quite different interpretations, and each one of them has its reasons and its supporters.

Main theme: melodic and harmonic approach
If you look at the main theme (d - a - f - d - c# - d e - f - gfed) you will see that it contains almost everything one needs to know about the music theory:

Melodic approach: The first part of the theme jumps over the tonic chord (dafd), the second is a line; from that point of view, any piece of music can be divided into a ‘jump’ and a ‘line’ - or, speaking in computer language, 0 or 1. Both a jump and a line have their directions. If you understand directions and aim-notes in any work you play or listen to, you understand the whole logic of interpretation. With DKdF, the performer learns to understand the basic principles of music, and to understand the music as if he had written it himself.

Harmonic approach: The first part of the theme represents the tonic chord, i.e. the basis of the tonality, and the second part is on the dominant (while the last motif, gfed, turns it back to tonic d-minor). It is precisely the tonic, as the basis, and the dominant as the suspense that needs a resolution, that are the essence of classical harmony.

During all fugues and canons, not only every new theme, but even the smallest motifs are derived from the original theme, either from its harmonic base - e.g. with added passing notes, No. 5; or with the chromatic, No. 8 - or from its motifs. There are many examples of interweaving; there are many beautiful and surprising moments, as when the 4th voice in Contrapunctus 3 plays a motif that will be shared by all voices and will become very important building material in Contrapunctus 11 (one can find dozens of such corresponding ideas), or in No. 8, when you find a theme that will be the main theme in No. 11. And then, among the thick layers of No. 11, you find the main theme from No. 8. Not to mention the swinging Contrapunctus No. 2, with its French style-punctuated rhythm that reminds me of Duke Ellington more than anything else.

But, even if you reveal the complete formal picture, and bring to every note its structural logic, you are still at the very beginning: DKdF has so many surprising details and unusual solutions. How to explain them?

Some of the fugues are as light as a perfect pop-song (Conrapunctus No.4). Some are heavy, permeated with the chromatic (as in Contrapunctus 11, where Bach goes crazy). Although some moments can be explained in theory, they go beyond the style and the time in which they were written. DKdF shows all of Bach’s faces: while, for example, his violin sonatas and partitas are expression of essential beauty (e.g. the Chaconne), DKdF is a struggle, a search for resolutions. When Bach succeeds in making beautiful music in such circumstances (the most obvious examples are in the most stricter forms, as in canons and the mirror fugue, not to mention the canon with the lower augmented and mirror part), then we have even more reasons to adore his art.

(Melita Ivković, 2001)