Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Orchestrating The Art of Fugue

Periodically I come back to Bach's late work, The Art of Fugue, through a new recording, which almost inevitably means a different orchestration of the work. The first edition, published shortly after Bach's death, was printed in an open score, with each voice on its own staff (contrasting with keyboard music, where multiple voices are printed on two staffs, one for each hand). Instrumentation was unspecified, but since most of the work is playable on a single keyboard, several great Bach interpreters have recorded it. I had Charles Rosen's piano recording on vinyl back in the day, and Glenn Gould recorded it on a pipe organ. The Emerson String Quartet released an excellent version of it a few years ago, and I've seen recordings for brass and sax ensembles, guitars, and various period ensembles.

Somewhere in my readings on the work, I read about an orchestral performance in Germany in 1928. I can no longer find the reference, but I have always pictured The Art of Fugue performed by an orchestra if not the size of Gustav Mahler's or Richard Strauss, would at least be capable of providing the many variations in color as Mahler and Strauss. I imagine having small instrumental groups within the orchestra play different pieces, using the different timbres to provide connections across the whole work.

For a while I've had the set from Neville Marriner and soloists from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, where he worked with a string quintet, three winds, and two keyboardists. There's a little too many solo harpsichord pieces for my taste, but Neville's orchestration (which he prepared with Andrew Davis, who also played keyboard) for the ensembles were very nicely done. Recently I added a recording from 1965 by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Karl Münchinger. I read a review that said it was "unabashedly romantic", so I thought, why not. It is indeed beautiful, but it's mostly for a string orchestra, at least as far as I can tell. The liner notes talk about the work, but not about the orchestration of this particular version. I couldn't hear any winds at all until the canons, more than half way through, and even then, the winds are only used on a quarter of the pieces or fewer. Still not what I had in mind, but I'm glad I picked it up.

Since the instrumentation was unspecified, John Cage cited The Art of Fugue as an early example of indeterminate music. Certainly the lack of specificity has probably given us more different versions of this than of any other work, by Bach or anyone else. But I have to keep waiting for the kind of orchestral transcriptions have been done for Bach's big organ works. Some of Stokowski's big orchestrations, or Schoenberg's monumental orchestration of the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue, or even Webern's absolutely masterful and delicate orchestration of the Ricercar from The Musical Offering, are more what I have in mind. Webern used soloists from each section of the orchestra, doubling only the violins, and passed the melodic voices around from instrument to instrument. Only in the last few measures do all the instruments play at once. Schoenberg, on the other hand, used a huge orchestra, including a fairly sizable percussion section. But such an orchestration of so large a piece is impractical, at least until someone comes along with a library of orchestral samples and a lot of time on their hands….

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