BACH: The Art of Life
At first listen, it’s easy to dismiss J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, completed largely by 1742, as a dry collection of densely constructed fugues that do little more than prove the composer’s unassailable mastery of counterpoint. Counterpoint was an essential tool for any composer writing liturgical music, as Bach did. “Polyphonic music was often viewed by the church as one of the ways that we can see the logic in the universe—a way to prove the existence of God,” pianist Daniil Trifonov tells Apple Music. But The Art of Fugue is much more than musical posturing. Within it are flashes of the warmth, beauty, and humanity that characterize so much of Bach’s other music. In a rare display of pride, for instance, Bach writes himself into the final fugue, its countersubject based on his initials B – A – C – H (in English notation: B-flat – A – C – B).
In BACH: The Art of Life, Trifonov aims to reinforce this human side of J.S. Bach, preluding his performance of The Art of Fugue with music by the composer’s children alongside selections from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach—pieces used by J.S. Bach for teaching music in his household—and one of J.S. Bach’s most personal works, the Chaconne for solo violin, arranged here for piano by Brahms. And so Bach: The Art of Life becomes a portrait of Bach’s character—the family man, the husband, the devoted churchgoer. “He had an extraordinary life,” says Trifonov, “which was reflected in his music. The Chaconne, for example, is believed to have been written as a lament after the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara. It’s one of his most emotionally powerful works—you can almost feel the tragedy.” Here, Trifonov takes us through the music on BACH: The Art of Life.
Sonata No. 5 in A Major, Op. 17, No. 5 “This piece might have influenced Mozart quite a lot—J.C. Bach was already well-established, whereas Mozart was still in the early stages of his musical career. Although there are only two movements, structurally very different from Mozart, J.C. Bach’s music has a fantastic communicative style and a real sense of light.”
12 Polonaises, F. 12: No. 8 in E Minor “I love all of W.F. Bach’s polonaises. But the polonaise at that time was very different from the polonaise of Chopin’s period. In W.F. Bach’s time, the polonaise was not regarded as dance music but as pieces to be performed and listened to, and so they were a lot more lyrical, although this one is quite melancholy. It might even have had an influence on Chopin—he could well have been aware of this music.”
2 Clavier-Sonaten, 2 Fantasien und 2 Rondos für Kenner und Liebhaber, Wq. 59: IV. Rondo in C Minor, H. 283 “C.P.E. was the most innovative of all the Bachs. He tried to push musical language so far that nothing like it had ever been heard before. It was so experimental. In certain ways, this music almost feels like it was composed by a Stravinsky of the 18th century. C.P.E. Bach uses a really creative compositional process in the way he uses short musical elements and plays around with them so much.”
Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman’ “J.C.F. Bach is less known than his brother because he didn’t write so much for keyboard. He wrote this piece later in his life, completing it in 1792—already 42 years after the death of his father. It was a completely different era, and one in which Beethoven was writing the first of his piano concertos. These variations are on a popular tune; other composers also wrote variations on it, including Mozart. J.C.F. Bach’s variations are quite varied in style and include Sicilian and German influences. They’re quite innovative.”
Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, 1725 “This collection of music is a peek into the domestic life of a family. The Notebook, used for teaching, is made up of pieces from different periods of Bach’s life, including some that were written by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Some of the pieces are not even titled and many of them are anonymous. I could have included more music from the Notebook by Bach’s sons, but I wanted each piece on this album to have a tonal relationship from one to the next, and also to include pieces by Petzold and Stölzel. Stölzel’s ‘Bist du bei mir’ is an aria from an opera, and it’s quite telling that Bach should have included it in this collection, with its themes of love.”
5 Studies, Anh.1a/1: V. Chaconne (After Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach, Arr. for Piano) “This is one of my favorite Bach transcriptions. There have been wonderful transcriptions of the Chaconne by different composers, from Liszt and Feinberg to Busoni. But this particular transcription, by Brahms, is very close to the original in many ways, because he simply transfers the material from one instrument to the other. Bach allegedly wrote this piece for solo violin after his wife died. I think that’s quite evident in this music—it shows Bach in grief. When I play The Art of Fugue in concert, this is the piece I like to play beforehand to set the scene, as I have done here.”
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 “The Art of Fugue is quite incredible. It’s a testament to the genius of Bach that, within very strict parameters and rules of polyphony, he was able to create such complex yet such beautiful music. Sometimes, for the sake of complexity, Bach breaks the rules of harmony, but the way he arranges the fugues in this order feels like he’s telling some kind of a story. So, of course there’s the scientific aspect to this music, but there’s also a lot of drama, and a lot of it feels very contemplative. There’s a debate about which instrument The Art of Fugue was written for, but I believe Bach intended it to be played on more than one—his son C.P.E. Bach wrote that composers should compose keyboard pieces that would sound good on more than one instrument, whether harpsichord, piano, or clavichord.”
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, Cantata BWV 147: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Transcr. Hess for Piano) “Myra Hess’ arrangement of this cantata movement is very beautiful. In the original score to The Art of Fugue, there’s a chorale at the end, but I really like this particular transcription and I wanted to include it. I think it’s one of Bach’s finest works.”