BWV 1080 - Art of the Fugue

• Apr 10, 2017 - 15:56

Anyone here ever read and/or performed the Art of the Fugue? Is this work peculiar for Bach?
For instance, at appr. 57:00, in this video scrolling score, I see four quarter notes moving by in the lower stave, at the same time that 8 quarters are moving by in the upper stave. I interpret this to mean that there are two tempos being used. Am I missing something here?


Again, that is *not* the score. That is a computer-generated animation. The actual score is here:…

As has already been explained, what Bach actually wrote was quarter notes in one staff and eighths in the other. Some random person with theory knowledge and computer animation skills apparently decided to make a video showing how it might look if you thought of the music as being quarter notes in both voices but at different tempos, but again, this is *not* how the piece is actually notated.

I haven't actually performed that specific work publicly, but I teach a university course in counterpoint where we use it as an example, so I have played excerpts, and I have performed many other fugues by Bach and others as well as composed a number of my own, so I am pretty familiar with this style of music generally. Art of the Fugue is a monumental work to be sure, but conceptually, no it isn't especially peculiar in any way. It is notated very traditionally, as it would need to be in order to be performable.

In reply to by Jojo-Schmitz

Marc - I am going to look this up in the original. Your explanation is alright, but why would someone renotate oe of the fugues? Just so that it can confuse people when they try to read it?

Jojo - This is not the same discussion. I am interested in how this fugue relates to the complete works of Bach. There seems to be something peculiar about it. I have not read all of his works. I have read all of the 209 Cantatas, the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, and the Art of the Fugue. This work seems to me, to be heavily notated in the margins compared to those other scores that I have seen.

The question from the other thread is only a jumping off point.

In reply to by Joe H

The reason that instructional video rewrote portions of the piece is for, well, instructional purposes. Just like someone teaching a child to ride a bicycle might put training wheels on it, or someone teaching you how to paint might use a paint-by-numbers kit, this person apparently felt that this particular rewrite would be helpful in understanding the piece.

The reason it is potentially instructive has to do with what Bach is actually doing. It isn't just *any* quarter notes against eighth notes that is going on. Bach is using a counterpoint technique known as "diminution" - varying a melody by halving its note values. The *effect* is as if the melody is being played twice as fast, but it isn't written that way, because it wouldn't make musical sense or being readable/playable to literally have two different tempos at once.

In a fugue, one generally has a main melody (called the "subject" in modern parlance) that keeps entering at different points in the piece, often overlapping, like a round (eg, "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Frere Jacques"). Usually these statements of the melody use the same rhythm, but somewhere or other in a fugue it is not uncommon to have one statement of this melody where the rhythmic values are halved (diminution) or double (augmentation). So a melody that is written in quarter notes everywhere else might be written in eighth notes in one spot, or half notes in another, just for the sake of variety, and it is an extremely cool effect if you can pull it off - like doing flips instead of just a straight dive from a diving board.

So, Bach wrote the fugue the normal way, which is to say, the diminution of the melody is in eighths if the original is in quarters. But when *studying* the piece - as opposed to actually trying to *play* it - the difference in rhythmic values might make it harder to recognize that it is in fact the same melody just written out with the rhythmic values halved. So the person creating that instructional video decided it might be clever to show the diminution as if it it were written out using the original note values. I guess the idea is to make it more clear to the person studying the video that this really is diminution - the same melody but with rhythmic values halved. But again, you would never actually *write* it that way - it's purely done for instructional purposes, to make it clear that this in fact en example of diminution.

As for what makes it different, again, if you are looking at the instructional video, you are *not* seeing the actual score. So you can completely ignore all text you see in that instructional video. That was added by someone else entirely; presumably the person who created it.

If you look at an actual published score, you won't see any more markings than you from any other score from that same editor. Some editors delight in adding lots of comments to pieces. The edition I have of Beethoven Sonatas is full of extensive footnotes added by the editor, translated into three different languages. But other editions of the same exact sonatas might contain no editorial additions aside from maybe some fingerings. And there are so-called "urtext" editions in which there are *no* additions made. They are simply typeset versions of the original manuscript.

Since the Art of the Fugue was not finished by Bach, there was no one complete manuscript for the entire work, any published versions of it had to be assembled from bits and pieces more so than if Bach had handed the manuscript off to a publisher. So it is indeed likely that most published versions of this will contain more than the usual number of comments where editors explain what they did in putting that particular edition together. See for more on the backstory here.

So yes, in a historical sense, there are some unique aspects to Art of the Fugue compared to other works by Bach.

It's peculiar in that he never finished it. If you were a publisher and your composer died juat before the potentially lucrative work was compete would you a) not publish it or b) get someone else to finish it and generally tidy it up a bit prior to publication?

@Joe H... You wrote:
For instance, at appr. 57:00, in this video scrolling score, I see four quarter notes moving by in the lower stave, at the same time that 8 quarters are moving by in the upper stave. I interpret this to mean that there are two tempos being used.
Exactly! If you scroll to the beginning of that piece at appr. 53:56 (Contrapunctus XV) you'll see this:


Watch You Tube from that point on and you will see the lower staff playing half as fast as the upper staff - just as stated (i.e. 2X'S slower than the normal tempo).

Continue to 54:39 and you will see this:


If you look at that You Tube image (where the red cursor is) and compare to the actual score, you will see the You Tube note values in the lower staff display half the durations of the actual score:


That's the reason why the lower staff plays 'slower' in You Tube. Those 'quicker' notes have to be slowed down.

BTW: The actual score is available here:,_BWV_1080_(Bach,_Johann_Sebast…


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