If you were writing an essay on fugues, who would you most like to confer with? First choice would obviously be the Cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig and Royal Saxon Court Composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Ha ha! – what a mad fantasy! Aside from the great man being dead these 273 years.

But just imagine: Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg had that very privilege when he visited Bach at his home in Leipzig, a couple of years before his death in 1750. In 1753 Marpurg published his excellent Abhandelung von der Fuge, where he often refers to Bach as an authority and quotes 22 examples of his fugues.

We know about the visit because of a remark found in Bach Dokumente III, pp.144-5. The document quoted is part of a polemical exchange between two feisty characters: Marpurg and J. P. Kirnberger. They both fancied themselves the leading posthumous torchbearer of Bachian counterpoint, and worked for a time in the same Berlin circles. That type of situation never results in mutual good feeling. Kirnberger’s massive Die Kunst des Reinen Satzes in der Musik (1774) can be construed as his revenge for Marpurg’s (largely justified, in substance if not in tone) attacks on his previous publications.

Marpurg’s comment contains veiled criticisms. After praising Bach’s ingenuity in dealing with themes, he says:

“I once, while discussing certain questions relative to the fugue with [Bach] during my stay in Leipzig, heard him declare the work of a tedious old contrapuntist to be ‘dry and wooden’, and the fugues of a more recent, no less worthy contrapuntist as they appeared in the form of keyboard pieces, ‘pedantic’; the former because he always stuck with his main theme without any variation; but the latter because, at least in the fugues which we were discussing, he lacked sufficient fire to repeatedly enliven his theme with episodes [Zwischenspiele]. Methinks the judgement and examples of such a great man as the old Bach was, who could, so to speak, conjure all the textbook feats out of his sleeve, over only one of which most people would sweat for many days, and in addition to that, in vain – the judgements of old Bach, I say, add considerable strength to a principle of practical music which is strengthened by feeling [Empfindung] itself.”

Is it not exciting to get a lesson from Bach on the subject of fugues, in words rather than notes? His judgements seem rather caustic, which aligns with what we know of his personality. What would he have thought if he had seen the portentous word Empfindung in this context? He had already struggled for most of his life against galant.

It is impossible to know who the old “dry and wooden” composer might have been. More intriguing is the identity of the later pedant, (ironically?) deemed “no less worthy”. Marpurg apparently thought it better not to involve “old Bach’s” reputation in any recent controversy. Kirnberger was probably still too young at that point, but his eight short fugues, first printed in 1777, certainly qualify as pedantic. John Koster offered F. C. Hurlebusch (1691-1765) as a candidate. His two collections of harpsichord pieces, for which Bach was a sales agent, include four yawn-inducing fugues. This widely-traveled man, who made something of a fool of himself when he visited Bach in Leipzig, ended his peregrinations as organist of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam (from 1745).

Could it have been Handel, whom Bach more than once unsuccessfully tried to meet?* Someone close to the latter – almost certainly his son C. P. Emmanuel – certainly had a devastating opinion of the former, especially in regard to fugues. It was published in 1788 in the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek as a response to Burney’s nonsensical, chauvinistic praise of Handel at the expense of Bach (Bach Dokumente III, pp. 437-45).

I was shocked when, at a lesson in 1972 where I brought Gustav Leonhardt one of Handel’s “Great Suites”, my teacher referred to the composer as a “lazy dog”. When I asked him why, he replied, “His misused his gift.” It took me a longer acquaintance with the works of both composers to understand what he meant. Compared to Sebastian Bach, Handel was certainly, if not exactly lazy, then certainly often sloppy and cheap, especially in his endless operas. But he was sometimes capable of hitting the target emotionally in ways that often, in spite (or because) of what English critics called his “science”, eluded Bach.

I first thrilled to the fugues in “Messiah” as a boy of about ten years of age, at the then-annual performance of the work at Greenville College in my southern Illinois hometown. I still get goosebumps when I think of “For unto us a child is born”,** “And he shall purify the sons of Levi”, or the “Amen” chorus. But of course, at least a third of the piece was cut for that performance, as it is for most; and rightly so.

I think Bach’s main concern was musical craftsmanship to the glory of his God. Handel was more engaged with the here and now, in his life as well as his music. It remains one of history’s great oddities that these two contrasting giants were born within a month and eighty miles of each other.

August 11, 2023

His collection of six modest fugues, composed ca. 1715, was published in Paris in 1736.

**Not exactly a fugue, but: “And the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) Oh my word..

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