Fugues on B-A-C-H
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was the ultimate master of counterpoint, a method of constructing music so that simultaneous melodies overlap to create dense textures and rich, varied harmony. Bach was a renowned organist, the greatest of his era. As a composer, he was so thoroughly skilled as to be able to take the notes from the letters of his own name, B-A-C-H (in German musical notation "B" is our "B-flat" and "H" is our "B-natural") and turn this unsettling sequence of pitches into a coherent musical theme. By the time Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) came of age, Bach was a composer from a distant generation; counterpoint and fugue, the form in which Bach displayed his contrapuntal mastery, had long since fallen out of fashion. Schumann, being a member of the Romantic generation, sought an original path forward and, in his thirties, made a thorough study of Bach’s methods. In composing an homage to Bach, Schumann created a kind of triple tribute, unique in all of music: Six Fugues for Organ on the Name BACH. In other words, Schumann wrote in the form (fugue) most closely associated with Bach, on the instrument (organ) most closely associated with Bach, with the main melody of each piece comprised of notes that spell out the name of the honoree. It would be difficult to conceive of a more complete gesture of respect.
About this transcription: As noted, these pieces are originally written for organ. Despite having a healthy respect for a composer's intentions, I have a suspicion many who come to orchestral concerts may not regularly attend organ recitals. When I first encountered the score for these pieces in a library, it seemed a shame they were not more widely known and I conceived of this transcription. Four of the six pieces were chosen, which instinctively seemed to form a complete set, like a suite of four movements akin to a symphony. The first fugue with its long, intricate subject and contrasting variations in augmentation (longer note values) makes for a fast, intense, highly developed opening that is followed by the calm, reflective mood of the second fugue. The third fugue has a playful, scherzando quality like the dances usually heard between the slow movement and finale. The final part is a vast, restless double fugue beginning with a heavy, searching subject that builds to a powerful high point. After a caesura, the second fugue subject, a lighter, faster descending line played by the winds, provides a welcome contrast, though gradually this, too, intensifies until we hear both themes simultaneously in a climax of astounding five-part brilliance. Finally, the fugal texture gives way to an ecstatic peroration, providing a heavenly breakthrough after stormy wanderings.