J S Bach’s final masterpiece, the Art of the Fugue, is one of the most challenging, intense and intellectual keyboard works of all time. The work also confronts the ultimate tragedy of music history: Bach died before finishing his most ambitious work, and for centuries musicians have pondered what Bach had in mind when he began the final triple fugue, based on the musical spelling of his name: B-A-C-H.
In the final Fugue a 3, Bach begins an audacious and exhilarating culmination to his massive work, combining three themes — the evolved derivative of the original theme, along with a jaunty second theme, each of which have just had their own extended sections in the piece — with a theme that spells his own name in notes (this is only possible if you think about the names of notes like the Germans do, go read about it). Unfortunately, he had barely begun when death claimed him, and the piece was left unfinished.
Performers have to make some hard choices when playing this work. What to do when you get to the last notes? Skip the section altogether? Some, like Glenn Gould, punch out the last note like a pistol shot, shocking the listener out of their musical meditation with the harsh reality that it wasn’t supposed to be over, yet. And a select few — perhaps a dozen over the last 260 years — have written their own ending.
Robert Douglass – ‘What 2000 Hours of Piano Practice Sounds Like‘
Completing an unfinished work presents many challenges – as those who have attempted completions of Schubert’s fragmentary piano sonatas and his ‘Unfinished’ Symphony have discovered. It is a daring undertaking – how can we know what the composer was thinking? Does one attempt to produce music which flows seamlessly to the end or put one’s own personality on it, based on what is already in the score? This is particularly tricky when tackling the music of the greatest composer of all time.
Pianist Kimiko Ishizaka, whose previous Bach projects include recordings of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’, has completed Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’ with her own composition of the final triple fugue. Meticulous study of all the pieces leading up to the finale, combined with her conviction that Bach would have concluded the work with something powerful, dramatic, expressive, and architecturally true to the musical structures at the point where he stopped. Kimiko presents her interpretation of the complete work at a concert at London’s St John’s Smith Square on Friday 23 September.
Here Kimiko discusses the special place the music of Bach has in her musical life and the challenges of composing and performing his music:
As a performer, you always try to understand what was in the mind of the composer. You pick apart the harmonies, the structures, and do your best to figure out why the composer wrote what they did. The resulting performance is hopefully a representation of the composer’s thoughts and emotions that is true to the quality and intensity of what they had imagined.
If one wants to perform a piece of music that is truly reflective of one’s own thoughts and emotions, it isn’t enough to rest on the compositions of others; one has to write one’s own. Only then are you in total control over what is in the piece, and how it is put together.
I started composing because I realised that I was having a musical experience in my mind that wasn’t written down anywhere. So I had to write it down to capture it. This turned into my first piece, after which I wrote more. I then realised that composing is a very enjoyable (albeit difficult, and draining) activity, and I especially like that you can do it out in nature; walking along while thinking, as opposed to being closed up in the practice room, chained to the piano.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career?
Without question, my careful study of J.S. Bach’s music has been extremely influential. Not only in my completion of “Die Kunst der Fuge” [The Art of Fugue], but also in the pieces that I write for myself. The complexity that results in carefully crafted counterpoint holds a strong attraction for me.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career?
Composing music takes me into a space so private, so deep, and so intense, that it leaves me drained and hollow when I’m finished. By pouring every emotional and intellectual resource that I possess into the music, I have nothing left for myself. It’s honestly been one of the reasons I don’t simply compose more of the time; I can’t bear the state of emptiness and loneliness that I’m in at the end of the process.
I think the completion of “Die Kunst der Fuge” held special challenges, because it had to spring from Bach’s work naturally and organically. That means I had to do my best to adhere to the constraints, as best they’re understood, that Bach laid down in the extant sections of the work, yet suppose what he might have been up to at the time he stopped writing. But still, I was the one who had to produce the notes, so they definitely bear my fingerprint as well, and I’m the one who had to decide whether they sound good or not. Bach could no longer lend me his good judgment on the matter.
How would you characterise your own compositional language?
The music I’ve composed recently is all fugal. Of the fugues I’ve written, the only thing that has been performed in public is the completion of “Die Kunst der Fuge”. I’m quite proud that nobody seemed able to put their finger on the moment when Bach’s music ended, and mine began.
How do you work?
I consider the structure of my works very carefully, and give each note due consideration. I keep track of the basic elements that are in use, and how they go together to create the big arc of the work.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I once played in a huge tent for 2,000 geeks and hackers who were attending a tech convention in the middle of a Dutch sheep field. It was probably the first live classical performance many of them had ever heard. I played Bach and Chopin, and the audience gave me every last bit of their attention, hanging on every note until the very end. It was magical for everyone.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Find your own way, and do what it takes to assure the highest level of quality that you are capable of.