Brentano Quartet Honors ‘Art of Fugue’


The Brentano Spring Quartet performed music, read literature and performed a short play to demostrate the dynamic and complex “Art of Fugue”.

By John Gosselin, Senior Writer

The Brentano String Quartet performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Art of Fugue” on Saturday, April 29, in Robison Hall as the first part of the Middlebury Bach Festival, which also included a performance of Handel’s Esther. The Art of Fugue commands its place in the repertoire of classical music as the fullest existing exploration of contrapuntal technique, or counterpoint. This reputation can sometimes lead to dry performances that sound like a manual read aloud.

Thankfully, the Brentano String Quartet’s interpretation and performance style made for an interesting evening that reinvented this piece for the audience.

At every possible moment, the quartet educated the audience on the meaning of counterpoint and how the musical concept relates to other parts of our lives. At its most basic, counterpoint, or contrapuntal technique, is the combination of multiple subjects in a musical work in a rhythmically and harmonically pleasing way. A piece using the strict rules of counterpoint is sometimes called a fugue, but there exist many pieces that use counterpoint to some extent and they have many different names.

The overall aim of using these rules is to create a piece of music that combines different melodies in creative ways to create something greater than any of them alone. Most music uses two-voice counterpoint, or homophony, in which one voice takes the melody and the other accompanies it. The accompaniment can switch voices, but is always in a subservient position. In strict counterpoint, the voices are usually equal to each other for extended periods of time, sometimes sharing prominent positions but usually working with each other. Nearly all of Bach’s music employs counterpoint to some extent, but in “The Art of Fugue” he attempts (and succeeds in) documenting the possibilities that strict counterpoint allows.

The quartet, during breaks from the music, included readings from various literary works that used contrapuntal imagery to illustrate their ideas. These readings were diverse and even included a short play that showed in words what counterpoint means.

In the play, the first violinist began speaking about “The Art of Fugue” and its history. Then, the second violinist spoke about a contrary reading of the history of the work. After that, the first violinist spoke again with new information, but he spoke over the second violinist. Then, after the first violinist stopped speaking, the cellist spoke up with a third opinion about Bach’s work.

The players traded these words amongst themselves for some time, speaking over each other, to show the audience what counterpoint would look like if notes were substituted for words.

In addition to the play, which took place just before intermission, the lights dimmed every two or three pieces and the loudspeakers interjected with literary entries from Carroll to Sagan. This part of the performance gave the entire evening a feeling that it was about more than the music, that these pieces had an effect on more than just the world of music, but on everything.

Much of the music itself is similar in length to the modern songs we hear every day, but Bach’s pieces have a degree of complexity not seen elsewhere in the classical repertoire. The entire catalogue consists of 14 fugues and four canons increasing in contrapuntal complexity from beginning to end.

These fugues consist of subjects and countersubjects, sometimes called answers. Whenever the subject did not repeat in one of the voices in its entirety, that section constituted an episode in the fugue, meant to lengthen the piece and avoid too much repetition. The fugues included contributions from all the players in equal parts.

The original “Art of Fugue “did not include instrumentation markings, meaning that it can be played equally well by string quartet, harpsichord, organ, piano and my favorite, the saxophone quartet. The canons, on the other hand, included only two of the players for the entire piece. They traded musical material between each other in a lighter, less strictly contrapuntal way than in the fugues. Between the canons and the readings, there were plenty of opportunities to relax from trying to hear the interplay between the themes in the fugues.

Beyond the interesting music, the Brentano String Quartet provided an excellent and engaging concert in which they showed their skill and shared their extra-musical knowledge of the piece and those like it.