Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Pieter Dirksen (Netherlands Bach Society)

J.S. Bach and the tradition of the moto contrario

Already in the earliest version of the Art of Fugue – which in all likelihood dates from 1742 when it comprised just twelve movements – Bach included three lengthy examples of counter fugue – a supremely esoteric category of fugal writing. In addition, the same collection includes an important canon in motu contrario. These four pieces stand firmly in a long North-European tradition stretching back to the sixteenth century. Before this massive exploration of the counter fugue Bach used the technique only sparingly, which makes the actual cases all the more important and interesting. In the keyboard music – to which the Art of Fugue of course also belongs – it appears only in the late repertoire, while in the vocal music – most notably in the chorale chorus “Wär Gott nicht mit uns dieser Zeit” (BWV 14/1) dating from 1735 – the examples are on the whole somewhat earlier. In this paper these pieces are analyzed and compared, their historical and theological roots traced, and Bach’s position in the history of this special niche of fugal writing assessed.

Last updated on 09 May 2004