“The Art of Fugue”

About the first performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s farewell masterpiece “The Art of Fugue”, completed and instrumented by Rudolf Barshai in 2010.
Published in the booklet of the “BWV 2015”
Johann Sebastian Bach International Festival

“The Art of Fugue” is Bach’s farewell masterpiece in the most direct, medieval meaning of the word. Bach applied in this work all his knowledge, all his musical craft. It is a great piece of music and his personal summary of achievements which he presented at death’s door. This is a series including simple, double and triple fugues, contrapuntal fugues and mirror fugues, all of them based on the same theme. And only the last fugue features three new themes. The first theme is a slightly modified chorale “From the Abyss of Woes I Call on You”. The second is also featured in the chorale “All People Are Mortal”. And the third theme is the replication of the composer’s signature on the score: B-A-C-H. The fugue appears to be divided into three parts, each one introducing a new theme. All three themes merge together in the final part, but when the B-A-C-H theme appears, Bach’s score ends abruptly, and the interrupted notation is followed by an inscription made by his son: “At this point the composer passed away”. After his death “The Art of Fugue” was published as a score with four lines in a staff. Without a hint of instrumentation. In fact, we do not know whether Bach composed “The Art…” for orchestra, organ or harpsichord. This is the first question to answer in dealing with this manuscript.

Rudolf Barshai


Rudolf Barshai was a prominent and pioneering musician, educator, viola player and conductor, one of the founders of the Borodin Quartet, the founder of the first Chamber Orchestra in the USSR, the creator of numerous transcriptions and instrumentations, including his famous chamber symphonies arranged from the quartets of Beethoven, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Ravel. The completion and orchestration of “The Art of Fugue” was the most important commitment of his life. He embarked on this project, following the advice of Maria Yudina, as early as the 1960s in the Soviet Union. “He consulted Shostakovich and solicited advice from Lokshin, who could answer any questions about counterpoint and harmony. He was a generous but also strict advisor and would often say, ‘This is not good, look for a different solution here’. And I would seek and seek, and then come to him again. I remember how Lokshin once offered a chord of three notes, a short tune, and said, ‘True, this is going to have a slight taste of Mozart, but you’ll find everything in Bach, even in Schubert. And so it was.” (Rudolf Barshai. From Oleg Dorman’s “The Note”.)

It was Shostakovich who insisted that the series should be completed and the last fugue finished. “You know that Bach was a very stern, harsh, demanding man. I imagine very well how angry he would have been to learn that you perform his piece of music without a finale. And how he could have said: don’t play the piece if you cannot finish it,” said Shostakovich. On an early version of the Barshai orchestration Shostakovich wrote: “I acquainted myself with the work Barshai did composing a continuation for Bach’s ‘The Art of Fugue’. I think that this is an excellent opus which appropriately rounds off Bach’s great composition.” This first version – both in its entirety and individual fugues – was performed by Barshai’s Chamber Orchestra many times in Moscow in the 1970s. “But the truth was that I did not like some things in this version. Not everything came off the way I heard as I composed it. And I decided to continue working,” Barshai wrote.

Barshai believed that the opportunities offered by modern instruments were not sufficient for making all voices heard clearly and without interruption and that some old and then rare instruments should be added to the chamber orchestra. “Polyphonic music can be compared to a painting created not with oil paints but with a very fine pen. Polyphony should sound first of all very clearly and very distinctly. It has nothing that is not important, nothing that does not matter, and it does not have ‘accompanying’ notes.” (Rudolf Barshai. From Oleg Dorman’s “The Note”.) When Barshai’s orchestra prepared for performing “The Art of Fugue”, the director added to the orchestra, which had violins, violas, and cellos, such instruments as the oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, fagotto, viola d'amore, viola da gamba, and harpsichord.

The idea of “completion” is very prominent in the Russian musical tradition: Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina” completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin’s “Prince Igor” finished by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, “Rothschild’s Violin” – the opera composed by Veniamin Fleishman, who was killed in World War Two – completed and orchestrated by Shostakovich, and many other examples. This idea of “completion” converges with the idea of the “resurrection of the dead” championed by the religious philosopher of cosmism, Nikolai Fyodorov. Fyodorov’s idea was shared by Vladimir Solovyov and Leo Tolstoy. Fyodorov wrote that the desire for such resurrection was our duty towards ancestors, our “supreme and unquestionably universal morality, a morality which is natural for creatures with reason and feeling”. Fyodorov believed that the destinies of the human race depended on how this “duty of resurrection” would be performed.

Barshai worked on “The Art of Fugue” for more than 40 years. Already terminally ill, with his bed placed alongside a huge desk in his home in Switzerland, Barshai was finishing the score, afraid of dying before accomplishing the task and dreaming of performing or at least hearing the music. Barshai completed the final version of “The Art of Fugue” score several weeks before his death in October 2010. It will be first performed in March 2015, on Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday. The future surely has eternal life and future descendants’ grateful memories in store for this piece of music.

Natalia Rubinstein