Bach’s “The Art of Fugue” was one of the baroque master’s final works, one of his more complex, and also one of the more mysterious. Guest musicians Dana Robinson and Charlotte Mattax Moersch, organ and harpsichord professors at the University of Illinois, play the work on two harpsichords and one organ at Christ Church Episcopal on Friday (Feb. 6) in a by-donation concert.
It’s a piece that many musicians have taken a stab at interpreting, on everything from keyboard to chamber ensemble, partly because of that air of mystery. Written on four staves instead of the usual two, it implies more than just keyboards, yet Bach specified no instrumentation in the only manuscript that survives. That manuscript contains 12 fugues and two canons, yet the printed version made just one year after his death has 14 fugues and four canons. Bach wrote the work during his last decade as he was going blind, but no one knows exactly when he wrote it — or when he broke off that last fugue based on the letters of his own name unfinished, with the mysterious note “The composer died at this point” in the score.
What’s certain, though, is that Bach wrote “The Art of Fugue” to demonstrate and explore his mastery of this musical form, where a phrase is played in strict order across multiple voices, getting more complicated (inverted, lengthened, transposed) and creative in style, but always adhering to counterpoint rules. Robinson and Moersch will alternate between Christ Church’s Brombaugh organ and two harpsichords to bring out the colors of the piece, with the last fugue on two harpsichords at once.