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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

The Art of Fugue

Did Bach intend Art of Fugue to be his “last will and testament”?

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


Bach died in 1750 in the midst of preparing the first printed edition of Art of Fugue, and thus began the myth that he had intended it to be his “last will and testament.” Bach had been working on a series of large-scale works on single musical themes throughout the 1740s - The Goldberg Variations (1741-2), the Musical Offering (1747), and the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch (1748). After his death Art of Fugue was taken to be the final consummation of this series and, ultimately, his career.

It made a romantic story - that Bach died pen-in-hand - and one that Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (who supervised the work’s publication after Bach’s death) hoped would drive sales. C.P.E. began marketing Art of Fugue as his father’s “last work,” a story further embroidered in the second edition of 1752, which stated that Bach “was surprised by his own death which overtook him while he was in the middle of completing the last fugue …”. document [1]

Recent studies of Bach’s manuscript, however, show that his handwriting and the paper used are consistent with other works dating from the early 1740s. Moreover, a recent find in the Ukraine - some musical exchanges between Bach and his son Wilhelm Friedemann - show that Bach may have been toying with Art of Fugue’s principal theme as early as 1736-38. document [2] It is clear that Bach completed an early version around 1742, but then continued to rethink his ideas throughout the decade, adding new pieces and reworking earlier ones. He was, therefore, merely revising Art of Fugue for publication when ill health overtook him.

Next: document Did Bach really leave Art of Fugue unfinished?

[1] See references in The New Bach Reader (New York: Norton, 1998).

[2] Frank Morana, “Bach in America: American Bach Society Biennial Meeting” in The American Organist, July 2000, pp. 49-53.

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