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The Art of Fugue & late organ works
Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080
Played by Georg Ritchie (Organ)


J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue

CD-1: Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 [76:37]
Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080: [continued] [18:12]]
Chorale Prelude Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (I), BWV 668 [4:14]
Canonic variations on the Christmas hymn Vom himmel hoch, da komm ich her (II), BWV 769a [12:51]
Musical Offering BWV 1079: Ricercare à 6 [7:55]
Schübler Chorales:
Chorale Prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 [4:28]
Chorale Prelude Wo soll ich fliehen hin (I), BWV 646 [1:58]
Chorale Prelude Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (II), BWV 647 [4:01]
Chorale Prelude Meine Seele erhebet den Herren, BWV 648 [2:34]
Chorale Prelude Ach bleib' bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 649 [2:44]
Chorale Prelude Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter, BWV 650 [3:32]
Contrapunctus 14, Fuga a 3 Soggetti, completed by Helmut Walcha [11:20]
Desert Fugue [90:00]
George Ritchie’s Introduction to the Art of Fugue [111:00]

George Ritchie (Organ)

Fugue State Films FSF-DVD-0001

2007 [BWV 1080]
1986 [BWV 1079]
1994-1996 [organ works]

CD-1: / TT: 76:37
CD-2: / TT: 74:13
DVD / TT: 201:00

Organ by Richards Fowkes & Co., Opus 14 (2006) at Poinnacle Presbyterian Church, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA [BWV 1080 + Walcha’ completion]
Organ by Taylor and Boddy Organbuilders, Opus 9 (1985) at Collerge of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA [BWV 668, BWV 769a]
Organ by Bedient Pipe Organ Co., Opus 8 (1977) at Cornerstone, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA [BWV 1079]
Organ by John Brombaugh & Associates, Opus 26 (1986) - The Anton Heiller Memorial Organ at Church of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, USA [BWV 645-650]
Buy this album at: Fugue State Films

Bach: The Art of Fugue and late organ works
Review by Uri Golomb

Album containing 2 CDs (76 + 74 minutes) and one DVD featuring two films:

Desert Fugue, directed by Bill Fraser (90 minutes)
George Ritchie’s Introduction to The Art of Fugue (111 minutes)

Recorded 2007 (The Art of Fugue), 1986 (Six-Part Ricercar from The Musical Offering), 1994-1996 (organ works)
Fugue State Films FSF-DVD-0001 (2010)

This very generous album could have been an ideal introduction to the complex and highly expressive world of Bach’s Art of Fugue. In many ways, it fulfils the promise; in others, it represents something of a missed opportunity.

The album consists of two CDs and a DVD. The CDs contain a complete performance of The Art of Fugue, played on the organ by George Ritchie, supplemented by a selection of Bach’s late works – excerpted from Ritchie’s recording of the complete organ works – and by Helmut Walcha’s completion of the unfinished final contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue.

The DVD contains a documentary on The Art of Fugue, Ritchie’s approach to it, and his chosen instrument – the Richard & Fowkes Op. 24 organ of the Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. It also contains a spoken introduction by Ritchie to The Art of Fugue as a whole – and each movement within it.


The performance

The best thing about this set is the performance itself. I have my personal reservations about the choice of the church organ as a medium for this work; but, given this choice, Ritchie provides us with a sensitive, transparent and beautiful recording of Bach’s rich and expressive score.

I am something of a heretic when it comes to The Art of Fugue. Bach almost certainly wrote the work for a single keyboard; yet I ultimately prefer to hear it performed by a chamber ensemble – an option which might not have occurred to Bach. But then, Bach probably envisaged this work for players rather than listeners: the main audience he had in mind might well have been a single player seeking to study the art of polyphonic composition and performance, surrounded by a handful of listeners – a teacher, perhaps, or fellow-students and connoisseurs. As Charles Rosen put it, “it is, above all, a work for oneself to play, to feel under one’s fingers as well as to hear”. It relies, ideally, on the combination of four sensations (hearing, vision, touch and the sense of movement).

Yet there is such a wealth of profound expression, even drama, as well as technical and intellectual sophistication; this music is too good to remain the sole province of musicians. And I feel that for “mere” listeners, approaching this work through their ears alone, the music is best presented by a group of musicians. It makes little difference whether these musicians play on the same sort of instrument (viol consort, string quartet, saxophone quartet) or on a mixture of different instruments (e.g., a mixture woodwinds and strings). What matters is that each of the lines is shaped independently, so that the entire texture comes across as a lively conversation – a discussion, a dialogue, at times a confrontation. It is not impossible to realize this on a single keyboard, but it’s easier to do it with an ensemble. (Ideally, it should be an ensemble of soloists, not an orchestra – though there are some fantastic orchestral renditions, too).

Still, the fact remains that Bach wrote this work for the keyboard; and (as George Ritchie and Christoph Wolff note in the accompanying DVD) there are strong arguments in favour of playing it on the church organ. The organ can sustain Bach’s long notes in their notated values – as most other keyboard instruments can’t; and it gives the work a sense of monumental grandeur. It also allows a single player to play the entire work – including the Mirror Fugues, which require an additional player on the harpsichord and the piano (on the organ, they require the use of the foot pedals in addition to the hands). In any case, it seems like such a natural choice for a work by Bach – who was, after all, a fantastic organist himself; and The Art of Fugue fits the instrument as well as many of his genuine organ fugues.

Ritchie certainly makes a convincing case, providing us with one of the most satisfying and eloquent versions of The Art of Fugue on a church organ. His tempi are moderate and flowing, stable but not rigid; the mostly-mellow registration allows for both beauty and textural clarity; and he phrases individual voices and figures with refined sensitivity. There is a greater sense of flow here than in many rival versions on the organ (including the one by Helmut Walcha, Ritchie’s mentor and inspiration, to whom the set is dedicated).

I still can’t shake my misgivings, though.1 The Art of Fugue has long been viewed as a monument – music of great complexity and profound, even mystical beauty, but not powerfully expressive. As I wrote in an article on this work,

Musicians who believe that the work’s rigorous complexity should be reflected in a severe, “objective” performance can project their view in any medium – be it solo keyboard (for example, organist Helmut Walcha on Archiv Produktion), chamber ensemble (for example, the Emerson Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon) or orchestra (for example, Karl Münchinger on Decca).

That said, the organ is certainly a more natural medium for the Art-of-Fugue-as-monument vision – both because of the sustained, unwavering sounds of the instrument and because of the grand, church image it evokes in most people’s minds. Ritchie does not carry this monumentality to extremes, but his performance still retains an aura of objectivity which I’d rather do without.

This, however, is a largely personal preference. Ritchie is aware of the tension and drama in Bach’s music, and allows them to unfold and emerge (whereas operformers actively stomp the dynamic urges of Bach’s music). I prefer performances which at least nudge the music forward at the appropriate moments, but other listeners could well have the opposite response.

Ritchie appends other items on the second CD, drawn primarily from his set of Bach’s complete organ music, recorded in the 1990s (Raven OAR-875). Not all of them are equally successful. The oldest recording – a 1986 recording of the Six-Part Ricercar from the Musical Offering – suffers from that rigid monumentality which Ritchie avoids in his Art of Fugue. But other items – such as the Schübler chorale – have a beautifully appealing, unforced eloquence. Ritchie concludes the package with another recording of The Art of Fugue’s final, incomplete contrapunctus – this time in a completion by Walcha, which I did not find entirely convincing.

Whatever my reservations, this is a very fine achievement indeed. Listeners looking for a version of The Art of Fugue on the organ need look no further, and anyone interested in this work would do well to investigate this release.



The DVD accompanying this album features two items: a three-part documentary on Ritchie’s recording, which documents both the work and his approach to it, and the organ on which he plays it; and an introduction to the Art of Fugue

Introduction to the Art of Fugue

Ritchie’s lecture on The Art of Fugue lasts almost two hours; it is conveniently indexed so that viewers can watch the introduction to each fugue separately. For all its insight and fascination, however, this lecture is the least successful aspect of the entire package.

Ritchie clearly loves and understands the work, and raises many valid and interesting analytic points. But he proves that even the most eloquent musicians are not necessarily inspiring lecturers. There is something overly calm and unvaried about his approach. Sitting at the organ keyboard and speaking to a nearby camera, hardly varying his tone of voice, his posture or his expression, he looks like a teacher giving a private lesson – not like a lecturer approaching an audience.

Indeed, Ritchie’s lecture might reflect one of the uses that Bach had in mind for this work. He gives the sort of technical pointers that a counterpoint teacher might give, showing students the various ways in which a single theme can give rise to rich and fascinating polyphonic music.

However, if Ritchie is also aiming at making the work more accessible to non-musicians, then I’m afraid he’s failing in his mission. Even the presentation is not exactly friendly for non-musicians. Apart from Ritchie and the organ keyboard, the only visual element in this introduction is a series of music examples drawn from Christoph Wolff’s Peters edition. But Ritchie often points to individual voices or chords in his talk – and what we see is the entire score. It should not have been too difficult to highlight the specific strains or chords that Ritchie speaks of; even this simple step has not been taken.

Even more serious problems affect Ritchie’s text. Ritchie fails to explain the meanings of several terms (such as “chromaticism”) which are indeed familiar to musicians, but which are not exactly common currency for a wider audience. A non-musician, seeking a way into the music through Ritchie’s explanations, is likely to be confused and disappointed.

Beyond this, there is a weakness in Ritchie’s approach to the work’s expressive character. He tells us the music is intensely expressive – but he doesn’t really say what he means by that. He repeatedly uses the word “beautiful” – too often for it to be truly meaningful. Indeed, the overuse of this word serves to underwhelm Bach’s music. Much of the work’s emotional power is drawn from Bach’s masterful handling of musical tensions – harsh harmonies, frustrated expectations, delayed resolutions to dissonant chords, clashes between voices, and so forth. Several of the chords that Ritchie finds beautiful are rather dissonant and strained, and bring with them a sense of dislocation and uncertainty. Ritchie virtually ignores this element.

In the booklet essay accompanying this set, Ritchie writes:

The Art of Fugue is one of the greatest achievements of the human mind and a perfect blend of intellectual and emotional expression. While the individual pieces are among the most intellectually complicated works ever composed, their beauty alone makes them richly rewarding to any listener. They please the mind and the ear in equal measure.

He uses almost exactly the same words in his spoken introduction, speaking against a purely cerebral view of the work; but he ends up reinforcing that view. Ritchie meticulously demonstrates the work’s intellectual attractions, its complexity and sophistication; he also reveals some of its sensual allure. But he gives little or no insight into the work’s emotional, dramatic and rhetorical potential.

In short, the lecture is valuable to aspiring musicians coming to grips with The Art of Fugue, wishing to understand it better. But is not really useful for a wider audience, or even for musicians who want to understand the work’s capacity to move the heart as the well as the mind.

Desert Fugue

The other item on the DVD is a film titled Desert Fugue, which provides a broader introduction to the work and its background, as well as to aspects of this particular performance. In the opening sequence, we are told that the film aims to address several specific questions:

  1. What is the general history of the work, and why did Bach write it?
  2. If it is played on the organ, then what kind of organ should it be played on?
  3. Why, if the organs that might be most suited for it are in Saxony and Thurigina, did we go to the Arizona desert to record it?
  4. What should the performer bear in mind, in terms of style and performance practice?
  5. How do we approach the fact that the work is missing its ending?
  6. And what can we learn from The Art of Fugue about Bach and his age?

The film approaches all these questions, mainly in the order in which they are presented. The first part of the film – titled “The Music” – is dedicated to the first two questions. The second – “The Instrument” – is dedicated to the third question. The rest of the questions are dealt with primarily in the third part, titled “The Legacy”.

This very meticulousness meshes well with the character of Christoph Wolff – Ritchie’s musicological mentor and one of the main speakers on this film (alongside Ritchie himself, and organ builders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes). Though Wolff is not in fact averse to fanciful speculations, he projects, both in his writing style and in his manner of speech, an image of methodical sobriety which is very much apparent in this film. This is one respect in which the film’s presentation mirrors its content: an orderly presentation to a view of The Art of Fugue itself as an intellectual work, a work in which Bach explored the limits of harmony, polyphony and tonality, and whose beauty is akin to the beauty of a mathematical proof or a scientific theory.

The other respect in which the film resembles its subject is in the concept of self-dialogue. Wolff was evidently filmed in two separate locations, and the editing switches from one of these to the next, overlaying Wolff’s voice with Bill Fraser’s (the narrator), with Ritchie’s – or with his own from a different location. It’s a clever but ultimately frustrating idea: simultaneous dialogues between two voices, switching focus from one to the next, work wonderfully in music and can be effective in drama, but in a documentary film they are rather distracting. Another distracting feature is the occasional mismatch between what we see and what we hear – pictures of Leipzig and Scottsdale serving as irrelevant backdrops to discussions of Bach’s society and philosophy, or issues of organ building and playing.2

For all this, the film is enjoyable and illuminating. It provides a lucid introduction to the thorny issues of the work’s history – from different versions Bach himself produced, through the riddle of its incomplete final Contrapunctus, Bach’s reasons for writing it and, finally, to the way the work has been re-arranged and re-created in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the first part makes a case for playing the work on an organ, they acknowledge that the work is written primarily with the harpsichord in mind. On the other hand, Wolff presents his hypothesis that Bach did complete the final Contrapunctus – that the ending has simply been lost – without mentioning counterarguments (e.g., by Laurence Dreyfus) that have been raised since Wolff first published this hypothesis.

For all the interest in the first two parts – including the insights into debates on the extent to which modern organ builders should adopt historical models – the third part was, for me, the most interesting and moving. Ritchie speaks here of his own background – his discovery of the analogies between Bach and jazz, and his profound experiences of studying Bach’s music with Helmut Walcha – and of his performance philosophy. His description of Walcha – as a dedicated Bach lover (who overcame his blindness by learning each strand separately, from hearing, and then piecing them together in his head), fine player and inspirational teacher – is especially fascinating, and one can clearly sense his intense admiration and affection for his late mentor. While his speech here remains restrained, it is livelier than in his introductory lectures.

Ultimately, this film projects a very specific image of The Art of Fugue – as a primarily intellectual piece, showing how Bach explored his musical universe with the meticulousness of a scientist, and bequeathing his findings to future generations of musicians. As in Ritchie’s lecture, there is much talk about refined sophistication and sensuous beauty – but little about expressiveness. There is much truth to this view of The Art of Fugue and its legacy, and the film presents it persuasively and cogently. But it’s still a view is ultimately one-sided view; musicians as different as Hermann Scherchen, Laurence Dreyfus, Rinaldo Alessandrini and Bradley Brookshire have revealed, in their writings and performances alike, the work’s expressive and dramatic character.



For all my reservations, I still recommend this package strongly. Ritchie’s musical performance is deeply satisfying in its unforced eloquence, beautiful sonorities and textural clarity; and the two films, for all their drawbacks, are filled with insights into the work’s history, structure and significance.

I know that harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire plans to supplement his already-released performance of The Art of Fugue with a multimedia tutorial. Brookshire’s approach to the work and its performance is almost at the opposite end of the scale from Ritchie – dramatic, highly personalised, enthusiastically exploring the music’s tensions. I assume – and hope – that his detailed analysis would be more energetically communicative, more revealing about the music’s more “dangerous” aspects, and more sensitive to the requirements of non-musicians.

Even when released, Brookshire’s tutorial would probably complement, rather than replace, this package. The package as a whole makes a cogent case for the ‘classical’ view of The Art of Fugue. As I noted, anyone interested in hearing this work on the organ can invest in this package without hesitation; and anyone interested in learning more about this work should invest in it, too. It does not tell the whole story – but then, no single performance, film or essay ever could cover all facets of this marvellously complex and profoundly expressive music.

© Dr. Uri Golomb, 2010


1 There are also historical arguments against the organ: the organ is a predominantly public instrument, used in church services and concerts; whereas The Art of Fugue was probably intended for a domestic keyboard. But this same argument can be used – with even greater force – against the type of ensemble performance that I prefer.
2 The Richards and Fowkes organs are based on historical models, seeking to emulate the aesthetics of 18th-century German organs. They discuss their own reputation as “antiquarians”, and the debate on the possibility and desirability of reconstructing such organs in 20th- and 21st-century American churches. They also give us insights into the technical challenges of building such organs.


Contributed by Uri Golomb (June 1, 2010)

Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
AOF - E. Aldwell | AOF - R. Alessandrini | AOF - M.v. Delft | AOF - J. MacGregor | AOF - Phantasm | AOF - G. Ritchie | AOF - H. Scherchen | AOF - P. Taussig
General Discussions:
Part 1 | MD: The Art of Fugue
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
AOF - T. Koopman
The Art of Fugue: Expanding the Limits! [E. Demeyere]

George Ritchie: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
The Art of Fugue & late organ works - played by G. Ritchie [2-CD+DVD]

Instrumental Works: Recordings, Reviews & Discussions - Main Page | Order of Discussion
Recording Reviews of Instrumental Works: Main Page | Organ | Keyboard | Solo Instrumental | Chamber | Orchestral, MO, AOF
Performers of Instrumental Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


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