Title page of the first edition, 1751

The Art of Fugue, or The Art of the Fugue (German: Die Kunst der Fuge), BWV 1080, is an incomplete musical work of unspecified instrumentation by Johann Sebastian Bach. Written in the last decade of his life, The Art of Fugue is the culmination of Bach's experimentation with monothematic instrumental works.

This work consists of fourteen fugues and four canons in D minor, each using some variation of a single principal subject, and generally ordered to increase in complexity. "The governing idea of the work", as put by Bach specialist Christoph Wolff, "was an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject."[1] The word "contrapunctus" is often used for each fugue.


Mus. ms. autogr. P 200

The title page of Mus. ms. autogr. P 200, which bears the title Die / Kunst der Fuga / di Sig.o Joh. Seb. Bach. / (in eigenhändiger Partitur).

The earliest extant source of the work is an autograph manuscript possibly written from 1740 to 1746, usually referred by its call number as Mus. ms. autogr. P 200 in the Berlin State Library. Bearing the title Die / Kunst der Fuga [sic] / di Sig[nore] Joh. Seb. Bach, which was written by Bach's son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol, followed by (in eigenhändiger Partitur) written by Georg Poelchau [de], the autograph contains twelve untitled fugues and two canons arranged in a different order than in the first printed edition, with the absence of Contrapunctus 4, Fuga a 2 clav (two-keyboard version of Contrapunctus 13), Canon alla decima, and Canon alla duodecima.

The autograph manuscript presents the then-untitled Contrapuncti and canons in the following order: [Contrapunctus 1], [Contrapunctus 3], [Contrapunctus 2], [Contrapunctus 5], [Contrapunctus 9], an early version of [Contrapunctus 10], [Contrapunctus 6], [Contrapunctus 7], Canon in Hypodiapason with its two-stave solution Resolutio Canonis (entitled Canon alla Ottava in the first printed edition), [Contrapunctus 8], [Contrapunctus 11], Canon in Hypodiatesseron, al roversio [sic] e per augmentationem, perpetuus presented in two staves and then on one, [Contrapunctus 12] with the inversus form of the fugue written directly below the rectus form, [Contrapunctus 13] with the same rectusinversus format, and a two-stave Canon al roverscio et per augmentationem—a second version of Canon in Hypodiatesseron.

Mus. ms. autogr. P 200, Beilage

Bundled with the primary autograph are three supplementary manuscripts, each affixed to a composition that would appear in the first printed edition. Referred to as Mus. ms. autogr. P 200/Beilage 1, Mus. ms. autogr. P 200/Beilage 2, and Mus. ms. autogr. P 200/Beilage 3, they are written under the title Die Kunst / der Fuga / von J.S.B.

Mus. ms. autogr. P 200, Beilage 1 contains a final preparatory revision of the Canon in Hypodiatesseron, under the title Canon p[er] Augmentationem contrario Motu crossed out. The manuscript contains line break and page break information for the engraving process, most of which was transcribed in the first printed edition. Written on the top region of the manuscript is a note written by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach:

N.B. Der seel. Papa hat auf die Platte diesen Titul stechen lassen, Canon per Augment: in Contrapuncto all octava, er hat es aber wieder ausgestrichen auf der Probe Platte und gesetzet wie forn stehet

N.B. The late father had written on the copper plate the following title, Canon per Augment: in Contrapuncto all octava, but had strucken it out again on the proof sheet and restored the title as it was formerly

Mus. ms. autogr. P 200, Beilage 2 contains two-keyboard arrangements of Contrapunctus 13 inversus and rectus, entitled Fuga a 2. Clav: and Alio modo Fuga a 2 Clav. in the first printed edition respectively. Like Beilage 1, the manuscript served as a preparatory edition for the first printed edition.

Mus. ms. autogr. P 200, Beilage 3 contains a fragment of a three-subject fugue, which would be later called Fuga a 3 Soggetti in the first printed edition. Unlike the fugues written in the primary autograph, the Fuga is presented in a two-stave keyboard system, instead of with individual staves for each voice. The fugue abruptly breaks off on the fifth page, specifically on the 239th measure and ends with the note written by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: "Ueber dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme BACH im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben." ("At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH [for which the English notation would be B–A–C–B] in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died.") The following page contains a list of errata by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach for the first printed edition (pages 21–35).

First and second printed editions

The first printed version was published under the title Die / Kunst der Fuge / durch / Herrn Johann Sebastian Bach / ehemahligen Capellmeister und Musikdirector zu Leipzig. in May 1751, slightly less than a year after Bach's death. In addition to changes in the order, notation, and material of pieces which appeared in the autograph, it contained two new fugues, two new canons, and three pieces of ostensibly spurious inclusion. A second edition was published in 1752, but differed only in its addition of a preface by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg.

In spite of its revisions, the printed edition of 1751 contained a number of glaring editorial errors. The majority of these may be attributed to Bach's relatively sudden death in the midst of publication. Three pieces were included that do not appear to have been part of Bach's intended order: an unrevised (and thus redundant) version of the second double fugue, Contrapunctus X; a two-keyboard arrangement[2] of the first mirror fugue, Contrapunctus XIII; and an organ chorale prelude on "Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit" ("Herewith I come before Thy Throne"), derived from BWV 668a, and noted in the introduction to the edition as a recompense for the work's incompleteness, having purportedly been dictated by Bach on his deathbed.

The anomalous character of the published order and the Unfinished Fugue have engendered a wide variety of theories which attempt to restore the work to the state originally intended by Bach.


The Art of Fugue is based on a single subject, which each canon and fugue employs in some variation:

 \relative c'' { \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"church organ"
                \clef treble
                \key d \minor
                \time 4/4
                d,2 a' |
                f d |
                cis d4 e |
                f2~ f8 g f e |

The work divides into seven groups, according to each piece's prevailing contrapuntal device; in both editions, these groups and their respective components are generally ordered to increase in complexity. In the order in which they occur in the printed edition of 1751 (without the aforementioned works of spurious inclusion), the groups, and their components are as follows.

Simple fugues:

Stretto-fugues (counter-fugues), in which the subject is used simultaneously in regular, inverted, augmented, and diminished forms:

Double and triple fugues, employing two and three subjects respectively:

Mirror fugues, in which a piece is notated once and then with voices and counterpoint completely inverted, without violating contrapuntal rules or musicality:

Canons, labeled by interval and technique:

Alternate variants and arrangements:

Incomplete fugue:


Both editions of the Art of Fugue are written in open score, where each voice is written on its own staff. This has led some to conclude[5] that the Art of Fugue was intended as an intellectual exercise, meant to be studied more than heard. The renowned keyboardist Gustav Leonhardt argued that the Art of Fugue was intended[6] to be played on a keyboard instrument, and specifically the harpsichord. Leonhardt's arguments included the following:[7]

  1. It was common practice in the 17th and early 18th centuries to publish keyboard pieces in open score, especially those that are contrapuntally complex. Examples include Frescobaldi's Fiori musicali (1635), Samuel Scheidt's Tabulatura Nova (1624), works by Johann Jakob Froberger (1616–1667), Franz Anton Maichelbeck (1702–1750), and others.
  2. The range of none of the ensemble or orchestral instruments of the period corresponds to any of the ranges of the voices in The Art of Fugue. Furthermore, none of the melodic shapes that characterize Bach's ensemble writing are found in the work, and there is no basso continuo.
  3. The fugue types used are reminiscent of the types in The Well-Tempered Clavier, rather than Bach's ensemble fugues; Leonhardt also shows an "optical" resemblance between the fugues of the two collections, and points out other stylistic similarities between them.
  4. Finally, since the bass voice in The Art of Fugue occasionally rises above the tenor, and the tenor becomes the "real" bass, Leonhardt deduces that the bass part was not meant to be doubled at 16-foot pitch, thus eliminating the pipe organ as the intended instrument, leaving the harpsichord as the most logical choice.

It is now generally accepted by scholars that the work was envisioned for keyboard.[8] Despite disagreements on how (and whether) it was intended to be played, The Art of Fugue continues to be performed and recorded by many different solo instruments and ensembles.

Fuga a 3 Soggetti

The final page of the Fuga a 3 Soggetti fragment

Fuga a 3 Soggetti ("fugue in three subjects"), also referred to as the "Unfinished Fugue", was contained in a handwritten manuscript bundled with the autograph manuscript Mus. ms. autogr. P 200. It breaks off abruptly in the middle of its third section, with an only partially written measure 239. This autograph carries a note in the handwriting of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, stating "Über dieser Fuge, wo der Name B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben." ("While working on this fugue, which introduces the name BACH [for which the English notation would be B–A–C–B] in the countersubject, the composer died.") This account is disputed by modern scholars, as the manuscript is clearly written in Bach's own hand, and thus dates to a time before his deteriorating health and vision would have prevented his ability to write, probably 1748–1749.[9]

Attempts at completion

A number of musicians and musicologists have composed conjectural completions of Contrapunctus XIV which include the fourth subject, including musicologists Donald Tovey (1931), Zoltán Göncz (1992), Yngve Jan Trede (1995), and Thomas Daniel (2010), organists Helmut Walcha,[10] David Goode, Lionel Rogg, and Davitt Moroney (1989), conductor Rudolf Barshai (2010)[11] and Daniil Trifonov (2021). Ferruccio Busoni's Fantasia contrappuntistica is based on Contrapunctus XIV, but it develops Bach's ideas to Busoni's own purposes in Busoni's musical style, rather than working out Bach's thoughts as Bach himself might have done.[12] Other completions that do not incorporate the fourth subject including those by the French classical organist Alexandre Pierre François Boëly and pianist Kimiko Douglass-Ishizaka.


In 2007, New Zealand organist and conductor Indra Hughes completed a doctoral thesis about the unfinished ending of Contrapunctus XIV, proposing that the work was left unfinished not because Bach died, but as a deliberate choice by Bach to encourage independent efforts at a completion.[13][14]

Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher, Bach discusses the unfinished fugue and Bach's supposed death during composition as a tongue-in-cheek illustration of Austrian logician Kurt Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. According to Gödel, the very power of a "sufficiently powerful" formal mathematical system can be exploited to "undermine" the system, by leading to statements that assert such things as "I cannot be proven in this system". In Hofstadter's discussion, Bach's great compositional talent is used as a metaphor for a "sufficiently powerful" formal system; however, Bach's insertion of his own name "in code" into the fugue is not, even metaphorically, a case of Gödelian self-reference; and Bach's failure to finish his self-referential fugue serves as a metaphor for the unprovability of the Gödelian assertion, and thus for the incompleteness of the formal system.[citation needed]

Sylvestre and Costa[15] reported a mathematical architecture of The Art of Fugue, based on bar counts, which shows that the whole work was conceived on the basis of the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio. The significance of the mathematical architecture can probably be explained by considering the role of the work as a membership contribution to the Correspondierende Societät der musicalischen Wissenschaften [de], and to the "scientific" meaning that Bach attributed to counterpoint.

Notable recordings

Main article: The Art of Fugue discography

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String quartet



See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Johann Sebastian Bach, the Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff, p. 433, ISBN 0-393-04825-X.
  2. ^ The printed indication of "a 2 Clav." and the counterpoint of the added voices do not appear to follow Bach's practice, evidencing that the parts were likely included by the editors of the printed edition to bolster the work.
  3. ^ Helmut Walcha, "Zu meiner Wiedergabe", in Die Kunst Der Fuge BWV 1080, St Laurenskerk Alkmaar 1956 (Archiv Production, Polydor International 1957), Insert pp. 5–11, at p. 7.
  4. ^ Anon. (n.d.). "The Art of Fugue – Types of Fugues, Part 1". American Public Media. Retrieved 28 April 2012.
  5. ^ Anon. (n.d.). "The Art of Fugue – Bach's Last Harpsichord Work: An Argument – Did Bach intend Art of Fugue to be performed?". American Public Media.
  6. ^ "images of front and back covers; The Art of Fugue – Bach's Last Harpsichord Work: An Argument (1952)" (PDF).
  7. ^ The Art of Fugue Gustav Leonhardt's 1969 liner notes for Harmonia Mundi HM 30 950 XK: Johann Sebastian Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge [1969], 3–8.; also for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi's CD edition 77013-2-RG (an extensive summary of his 1952 The Art of Fugue – Bach's Last Harpsichord Work: An Argument)
  8. ^ David Schulenberg. "Expression and Authenticity in the Harpsichord Music of J.S. Bach". The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 449–476
  9. ^ See e.g. the discussion in Johann Sebastian Bach, the Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff, ISBN 0-393-04825-X.
  10. ^ Walcha's conclusion to the last Contrapunctus has been recorded by Walcha himself, in his Stereo recording of the complete organ works by Bach for Archiv (1956-1971); and by Walcha's pupil, George Ritchie, in the documentary film Desert Fugue (2010).
  11. ^ "The Art of Fugue". Rudolf Barshai Memorial. Retrieved 6 February 2021.
  12. ^ See Donald Tovey's comments in A Companion to the Art of Fugue (2013 Dover reprint, ISBN 0-486-49764-X, page 177 footnote).
  13. ^ University of Auckland News, Volume 37, Issue 9 (May 25, 2007) Archived September 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ The thesis is available online: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/392
  15. ^ Loïc, Sylvestre; Costa, Marco (2011). "The Mathematical Architecture of Bach's The Art of Fugue". Il Saggiatore musicale. 17: 175–196.
  16. ^ a b c The recordings by Walcha (1970) and Moroney include both their completion of Contrapunctus XIV and the unfinished original, while Bergel's includes only his attempt.
  17. ^ Robert Hill: Recordings of Musical Offering & Art of Fugue, bach-cantatas.com
  18. ^ a b Partial performances on organ (Contrapuncti 1–9) and piano (1, 2, 4, 10, 11, 13 inversus, and Fuga a 3 Soggetti).
  19. ^ The recording, which includes both the unfinished original and Rogg's completion, in the year of its release won the Grand Prix du Disque from the Charles Cros Academy.
  20. ^ André Isoir: Recordings of Musical Offering and Art of Fugue, bach-cantatas.com
  21. ^ Published by Accentus Music: CD – J. S. Bach Kunst der Fuge – Zhu Xiao-Mei, Piano, No. ACC 30308
  22. ^ "video".
  23. ^ Paolo Borciani and Elisa Pegreffi with Tommaso Poggi and Luca Simoncini, as Quartetto Italiano, CD Nuova Era 7342, recording 1985.See [1]
  24. ^ "J.S.Bach – Juilliard String Quartet – die Kunst der Fuge (1992, CD)".
  25. ^ Except the canons, which are played by harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert on the recording.
  26. ^ "J. S. Bach: The Art of the Fugue – Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080". www.niederfellabrunn.at.
  27. ^ Jack Stratton: Contrapunctus IX (talkbox) on YouTube