J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue


Signum is delighted to announce the debut disc of the organist Colm Carey on Signum Records.

Die Kunst der Fuge: is one of J.S.Bach’s great contrapuntal masterpieces – extraordinary for each movement being in the same key. It is a remarkable cohesion of material and style; Bach, at the end of his life, seems to be in pursuit of a pure and abstract contrapuntal beauty, which encourages a retrospective foray into the works of past masters such as Palestrina and Frescobaldi.

Playing the van Leeuwen/Flentrop organ in the Dutch Church, London, Colm Carey confronts and examines the nature of the music; its emotional impact and relevance in the context of the early 21st century.


Colm Carey

The organ of the Dutch Church, Austin Friars, London

Release date:21st Jun 2001
Order code:SIGCD027
Barcode: 635212002728

Music Web

The Art of Fugue remains a mystery. Bach specified no instrumentation; Schweitzer described it as ‘purely theoretical’. No composer has ever matched it in contrapuntal ingenuity or the unfulfilled promise of the great, final four-subject fugue tailing away incomplete at Bach’s Death.

For myself, I believe that Bach intended the work for didactic purposes but would certainly have expected the work to have been performable and performed. As for which instrument or instruments it should be played on or by “well you pays ya’ money and takes ya’ choice”. I am not sure that it really matters. You can have harpsichord, or piano (Glenn Gould is interesting) or organ as here, or as instrumental chamber music. You could for example decide on the Keller Quartet (ECM 457 849-2) or intriguingly for Saxophone quartet on CPO, which is, I admit, a somewhat curious choice, or the Amsterdam Bach soloists on modern instruments (Ottavo C48503). What about Robert Hill on Hänssler (Cd 92.184) playing the harpsichord or the great unsurpassable Gustav Leonhardt (special Gustav Leonhardt edition) Yet… yet… yet the organ, despite very scholastic viewpoints, does seem to be appropriate and helpful for the listener.

In the Henle Verlag edition of the score the harpsichordist Davitt Moroney comments: for “The Art of Fugue we now know that Bach had the harpsichord predominantly in mind” because “Bach used open score notation … as was conventional in intricate contrapuntal music by Frescobaldi, Froberger and others.” This type of notation does not prove that this is organ music, indeed Bach used open notation for harpsichord works at other periods.

In the booklet notes Colm Carey remarks: “the harpsichord can bring out intimacy in the work … On the other hand, the organ can actually achieve this as well in spite of the fact that it promptly summons to mind oceans of vast sounds filling large spaces.” He adds: “Indeed a small organ in a modestly sized church fulfils the role remarkable well”.

It is true therefore that the organ can offer “colour and drama … and (he says later) it can achieve subtlety of touch and articulation … and bring another dimension to the work through the spectrum of sound colours and dynamic variation”.

Looking at pages 16, 17 and 18 in the booklet, the organ is described and the registration for each Fugue set out so that the variation of sound spoken of can be clearly understood. One is even told the bar numbers where the registration was altered.

This is an interesting instrument located in the City of London. Sadly I always found the church locked when I have made various attempts to see the instrument. The stops are not in any way ‘English’, for example there is a ‘Baarpijp’ (mercifully probably rarely used here!) and ‘Ruispijp’ of five ranks and a 16-foot Bazuin. The organ’s restoration in 1995 was costly but of tremendous worth. Colm Carey handles it with considerable subtlety and only really lets go in Contrapunctus 12 – the last one.

Incidentally there is considerable debate concerning the numbering of these pieces and the twelfth piece is normally printed as Contrapunctus 14 in many editions as in the Henle Verlag.

I should say at this point that the reason why this is a single CD is because, as he explains in the notes, Carey here only plays the twelve fugues or contrapunctus. The brief Contrapunctus 12, Contrapunctus 13 which Bach arranged into a version for two harpsichords and the four canons are omitted. Other recordings may have these, sometimes interspersed between the fugues. Carey says that playing “the twelve consecutive contrapuncti without the mirror fugues and canons gives the work a real sense of the narrative developing”. I completely agree. Nevertheless at over an hour it is a major act of concentration for the listener to take all of these fugues in one go to “experience the narrative”. Best to take them in order but in groups of say four. A mini-drama unfolds which can also be gripping, following the related fugue subjects in their various shapes and guises: a counter-subject becoming the fugue subject, the melody heard in augmentation or inversion but all in one key; that of D minor. Does the key make for sameness? I say definitely not. Colm Carey’s registration does continue to build and helps you to follow the contrapuntal argument although there were times when I said ‘come on let’s have some red-blooded passion’.

So, should you purchase this recording? Well I can only say that if you are not an organ fan and you want to get to know the work then I would first try an instrumental version. If you like the harpsichord then try Leonhardt, remembering that Bach was as much harpsichordist as organist and that either medium works in the hands of a sensitive and imagination musician like Colm Carey.

Gary Higginson

Classical London – Number 66

A weekly classical music news letter edited by Malcolm Galloway

Bach With Listening Aids – Peter Grahame Woolf

The Art of Fugue (Colm Carey, organ) Signum SIGCD027

The Art of Fugue & Canonic Variations “Von Himmel hoch” (Jaroslav Tuma, organ) Supraphon

CD Sheet Music: Complete Works of J S Bach (Theodore Presser)

The two recordings of “Die Kunst der Fuge” are very different and equally desirable. Some experts believe that this consummate demonstration of Bach’s contrapuntal skills (monothematic on a vast scale, and all in D minor!) was never intended to be performed. It goes well on the organ and both these recordings are equally recommendable. Colm Carey plays a fine Leeuwen/Flentrop instrument in the City of London’s Dutch Church and he chose to omit the canons and two of the fugues “to give a real sense of the narrative developing compositionally as well as emotionally”. Jaroslav Tuma gives us the entirety on 2 CDs… He plays an early 20th century. organ at Budejovice, “the only instrument in Bohemia capable of providing a stylistically sound rendering” of Bach’s great organ works. Both performances are well documented and they provide hours of rewarding listening to Bach at his best; by no means is this just dry or academic music.

I followed The Art of Fugue on the single CD-ROM which has “J S Bach Complete Works for Organ plus The Art of Fugue and Musical Offering” (over 900 pages), from the CD Sheet Music Series distributed by Theodore Presser Co. LLC, New York, at absurdly low prices (www.cdsheetmusic.com). The UK agent is United Music Publishers. These CD Sheet Music scores look good on the screen, and are easily printed out, crystal clear, at whatever size you desire, whether for the armchair or for the music stand. Their low cost is possible because the editions reprinted are older ones, out of copyright, which means that you can build up a huge collection of standard works inexpensively (c.15$ – 19$ in USA), and one that takes up little space. The range of repertoire available on CD Sheet Music is vast; something for Christmas?

Early Music Review, October 2001

The Art of Fugue, so both sets of booklet notes tell us, was written for harpsichord. Why then, one might ask, record it in a different format? And which, if either, is the more sucessful: organ or orchestra? Whatever the historical background to the piece and various statements about how completely it has come down to us, it is a monumental work (made more difficult to pull off in performance because each of the movements is, of necessity, in the same key) which requires both technical mastery and structural vision. Both recordings do not fail us in either respect. Colm Carey gives us Contrapuncti I-XII, while Labadie and his band add Contrapuncti XIII and XIV, as well as variants of XII and XIII and four canons and a completion of XIV ‘afrter Davitt Moroney’. I thoroughly enjoyed Labadie’s orchestration of the Goldberg Variations and I have to say that I’m equally impressed by the playing here. It does, however, seem slightly strange, to argue that the four lines of the original represent four instrumental threads and then play a hybrid sequence with some of the movements on harpsichord or organ alone. That, though, is my only minor quibble with the CD. Colm Carey is a fine young organist (though I’m not sure I like the idea of all artists inviting us to visit their websites!) and I thoroughly enjoyed his version, despite my gross dislike for the tremulant in any repertoire: its apprearance in Conrtapunctus III was almost enough to make me skip the track. The organ of the Dutch Church in London dates from 1954, with restoration work carried out in 1995, and it sounds splendid – as much as triibute to the fine recording as the pipework, I imagine. Bach scholars should have both recordings, of course. If you’re new to the Art of Fugue, either will stand you in good stead. 


  1. Contrapunctus i – J. S. Bach – 3.46
  2. Contrapunctus ii – J. S. Bach – 3.07
  3. Contrapunctus iii – J. S. Bach – 4.57
  4. Contrapunctus iv – J. S. Bach – 4.49
  5. Contrapunctus v – J. S. Bach – 3.02
  6. Contrapunctus vi – J. S. Bach – 5.38
  7. Contrapunctus vii – J. S. Bach – 4.10
  8. Contrapunctus viii – J. S. Bach – 7.18
  9. Contrapunctus ix – J. S. Bach – 3.12
  10. Contrapunctus x – J. S. Bach – 7.16
  11. Contrapunctus xi – J. S. Bach – 7.06
  12. Contrapunctus xii – J. S. Bach – 8.41