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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

On the Audacity of Completing Bach’s Unfinished Quadruple Fugue

by document Michael Ferguson

Ten years ago, in 1990, I composed a completion for Contrapunctus XIV. Like many others before me, I tried to fulfill the potential of Bach’s unfinished masterpiece, presenting and combining the themes after his own manner of writing. In the time since, my completion has provoked a wide variety of commentary. Curiously enough, although the positive and the negative responses usually seem opposed in predictable ways, they often also seem united in a twist of thought that often comes packaged in a single word: audacious.

A page from document Michael Ferguson’s completion of Bach’s Contrapunctus XIV.
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Why this word? The question posed about Bach’s incomplete fugue has usually been: Can it be completed? The word audacity, however, seems to comment on another question altogether: Should it be completed?

Of course, no one would take an interest in a completion that did not take the challenge seriously, that did not do better than merely attempt a completion. In other words, a worthy completion must somehow match the level of Bach’s own technique and inspiration. Palpably, and verifiably. But why should it be thought audacious to achieve this? Would not Bach have wanted it completed as well as could be done?

In a topic permeated with imponderable aesthetic questions, here at last is a question that we can answer. Yes. Without a doubt, Bach would have welcomed a worthy completion. Bach, after all, was the only Baroque composer we know of who would actually disguise himself before challenging another organist to a game of “leading astray,” where one organist would begin a fugue, and then leave off at a tricky moment so the other could display ingenuity in taking it up again without missing a beat. Each would add to the complexity, until one would have to drop out. Why the disguise? Because if the other knew his partner was Bach, there would be no game. Bach loved this game. Not to win it, but to get others into the game. Marchand, who in a similar contest knew his opponent to be Bach, fled with the morning mail coach to escape the comparison. Yet Bach never afterwards wanted it mentioned. Rather than claim any superiority, he would speak generously of Marchand’s qualities as a fine organist, and an able composer.

Bach was passionate about teaching. When he heard an organist begin a fugue, he would whisper to his son Emanuel how it ought to go, according to the potential of the theme. He would also, joyfully, as Emanuel remembered, nudge his son when the organist did as Bach had hoped. Hope - and joy. But where is his concern about audacity?

Bach, as reported by his friend Johann Birnbaum, considered composition “a means of gaining insight into the depth of world wisdom.” Philosophy and theology have both led humanity to new perceptions of the world. Bach was of the opinion that music could do this too. But is musical wisdom a matter of having the last word?

Could wisdom, musical or otherwise, perhaps be a matter of asking the right questions, in the face of the unknown, the unfinished? Did Bach imagine his Art of Fugue to be the last word on the fugue? Or a new question?

document Art of Fugue home page.


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