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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

The Art of Fugue

Is Art of Fugue a keyboard work?


document Introduction | document Page 1 | document Page 2 | document Page 3 | Page 4 | document Resources | document Types of Fugues

Bach’s use of “open score” notation in his manuscript of Art of Fugue - meaning that each fugal voice was written on a separate staff - seemed to leave the question of instrumentation “open” as well. Was it meant for the keyboard, or could it be played by any instrument or ensemble?

The recently discovered advertisement of 1751, announcing that Art of Fugue was “arranged for use at the harpsichord or organ” appears to have solved this question. Yet even without this clue, several factors indicate a keyboard work. For example, the range of the individual fugal voices - especially the tenor - do not completely correspond with the range of any wind or stringed instruments existing in Bach’s day. Moreover, practically all of Art of Fugue is playable by two hands on a keyboard instrument, a feat not possible with any other of Bach’s ensemble compositions. Only two sections cannot be played by one pair of hands-the pedal-point finale of Contrapunctus VI (for the pedal harpsichord or organ), and the two mirror fugues.

Bach enthusiasts debate which keyboard instrument is best suited to Art of Fugue. The spare, unsustained sound of the harpsichord appeals to some, while others argue that the organ’s richness, and the possibility of adding color through different registrations, brings out the subtle beauty of Bach’s complex composition.

Curiously, whatever Bach’s intentions, Art of Fugue has been successfully arranged for all types of instruments and ensembles-from solo piano to string or saxophone quartet, mixed chamber ensembles, and small orchestras. The fugues have even been “jazzed” by the Swingle Singers, and given a colorful modern orchestration - with many percussion instruments - by William Malloch. (See document discography.)


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