By the end of Bach’s life, formal polyphony—fugues, canons, and the like—had fallen out of fashion. While other composers, including his sons, developed new homophonic styles (i.e., music with one recognizable melody line), Bach spent his final decade working out the most sophisticated counterpoint imaginable. He reached new heights in the Goldberg Variations and the collection of fugues and canons known as the The Musical Offering, but his most rigorous undertaking took shape as The Art of Fugue. He completed an initial version in the early 1740s, and was working to expand and revise it at the end of his life, at a time when his failing eyes forced him to dictate compositions to his sons or other scribes.
The Art of Fugue, in its final form, comprises fourteen fugues and four canons, all utilizing the same theme. Well, almost—the Contrapunctus XIV breaks off midstream, and this is where the mystery lies. It seems clear that the final fugue was on its way to summing up the entire cycle, and truly the very art of fugue-writing, with a final appearance of the unifying theme as the last of four superimposed fugue subjects, in what would have been a dizzying technical feat. But the score only gets through the third subject (which happens to be Bach’s musical signature, the notes B-flat – A – C – B-natural, or as spelled in German, B – A – C – H), never reaching the pivotal fourth subject. The romanticized notion that Bach died pen in hand does not gibe with the known facts—which leaves no clear explanation for the fugue’s truncated state. Did Bach actually finish the fugue on another page, only to have it lost in the disorder surrounding his death? Did he leave it unfinished on purpose, a challenge and provocation for future composers to deduce the contrapuntal solution? (Plenty have taken the bait.) Another unsettled matter is which instrument or ensemble Bach had in mind for the unlabeled staves. This performance assigns the lines to stringed instruments, whereas others have rendered the music on a harpsichord or organ.
The Art of Fugue remains riddled with open questions. Bach’s son Emanuel, who oversaw the posthumous publication in 1751, simply lopped off Contrapunctus XIV at an unresolved half-cadence—the musical equivalent of a question mark. This performance instead observes the original manuscript and trails off where the notes end mid-phrase, like a sonic ellipsis…
Aaron Grad ©2014
Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funebre, one of a series of works composed between 1933 and 1945 in response to the events of the Second World War, is as unsparingly dark a work as there is to be found in the repertoire. (His Miserae, Sinfonia tragica, and Klagegesang are offered as suggested further listening.) The Concerto funebre is a violin concerto, cast in four movements, but is memorable least of all for any dazzling show of virtuosity; the work rather attempts to capture, in Hartmann’s words, “the intellectual and spiritual hopelessness of the period,” which “are contrasted with an expression of hope in the two chorales in the beginning and at the end.”
The Concerto funebre is not cryptic with regards to Hartmann’s politics. The Largo introduction, carried primarily by the solo violin, is based on the Hussite chorale—a Czech protest song, signaling in no uncertain terms Hartmann’s opposition to his country’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. The concerto later alludes to Má vlast (“My homeland”), the nationalist magnum opus of Bedrich Smetana, Czechoslovakia’s first great musical patriot. The opening chorale is as sober and despairing as it is ephemeral. The orchestral strings support the soloist’s bleak utterances with stark octaves: the uniform timbre (no splash of color provided by winds or percussion) and desolate harmonies imbue the music with a haunting pallor.
The Adagio second movement provides the concerto’s mournful center of gravity. Tearful gestures yield here to stoicism, there to stabbing pain. The fierce acerbity of the Allegro di molto that follows might call to mind the fast movements of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, composed in 1960 and famously dedicated “to victims of fascism and war.”
The Hussite chorale returns in the concerto’s finale, now combined with a Russian revolutionary workers’ song. Here, Hartmann allows a glimpse of light, but distantly; the concerto ends on a grim dissonance. Upon revising the Concerto funebre in 1959, the composer noted, “The absence of hope in matters of the spirit during that period should stand in contrast to the expression of hope and confidence in both chorale movements.”
Patrick Castillo ©2015
Mozart’s triumphant final triptych of symphonies—Nos. 39 in E-flat major, 40 in G minor, and 41 in C major (Jupiter)—represent the pinnacle of the composer’s orchestral art. The accomplishment of their creation is all the more astonishing when considering the speed and concentration with which they were produced over the course of just a few weeks: The E-flat was finished on June 26, 1788, the G minor on July 25, and the Jupiter on August 10. (The conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has recently conjectured that they were conceived as a triune über-symphony, pointing to the E-flat’s majestic introduction, the grand finale of the Jupiter, and to thematic connections between the three.)
Not only the pinnacle of Mozart’s orchestral output do these three represent, but likewise the fullest crystallization of the Classical symphonic medium, at least until Haydn’s London Symphonies, if not Beethoven’s symphonies composed in the following century. And of these final three symphonies, the G-minor held especial appeal for subsequent generations of composers: For while it adhered to the external trappings of Mozart’s other mature symphonies, that structure served as a vessel for music distinctly Romantic in character. Wagner found the work “exuberant with rapture.” The quietly agitated accompaniment figure that begins the work would be echoed in the opening measures of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto; the theme set above this bustle in the violas is quintessentially Mozartian: an eloquent, long-breathed melody that somehow captures an unsmiling dourness of mood without sacrificing lyricism. The Allegro molto’s second theme demonstrates a different brand of ingenuity: Utter melodic simplicity—descending chromatic lines, ornamental flourishes—is given dramatic import worthy of Mozart’s operas by virtue of the composer’s expertly managed deployment of the orchestra: winds and strings in dialogue, building to a swirling, Sturm und Drang, then reprising the first theme, now in sunny B-flat major, for the exposition’s conclusion. The richly layered counterpoint surrounding this melody’s forays through the harmonic wild makes for one of Mozart’s most inspired development sections.
The warm Andante offsets the angst of the first movement with the Symphony’s greatest concentration of “Grecian lightness and grace” that Robert Schumann found in it. The gruff minuet, by contrast, utterly lacks the gentility typically associated with that dance form, more suggestive of Don Giovanni than Figaro. The impassioned finale returns to the urgent tenor of the opening movement.
Patrick Castillo ©2014