Sunday, October 01, 2023
The very order and logic of his music sings of a universe ruled and governed by its Creator. Even more, Bach was able to put theology into the music itself. He did so without any loss to the musical art; the opus which we will be looking at is a masterpiece, as moving and inspiring as any can be for the sheer joy of the listening ear. But also, if you pay attention to the unfolding of this musical storyline you may perceive that it is a treatise of the doctrine of the Trinity. There are no words in the piece: The Trinitarian catechesis is in the actual musical notation of the “St. Anne” Fugue in E-flat Major for organ, part of Bach’s Clavier-Ubung, Book III, published in 1739 (the full work is the Prelude and Fugue in E flat Major, BWV 552, the “Saint Anne”).
The fugue is a contrapuntal form of music, which means that different lines of melody are played against each other, without strophic chords. A fragment of a melody is stated, which is called the “subject,” in one voice. It is answered and repeated in another voice, which enters, usually in the interval of a fifth, while the first voice plays what is called the “countersubject.” A third voice enters, usually returning to the root key, and so on. Most fugues have four voices, though a small number of them have more than four, and some only three. The art of the fugue lies in the development of the piece, with its subject always repeated, as it modulates into different keys and keeps the lines of melody moving with harmonic motion throughout. Sometimes the subject disappears very briefly, and we are treated to what is called an “episode.” The purpose of the “episode” is to lead us into the next statement of the subject.
The “St. Anne” Fugue is a triple fugue, a very rare animal indeed. Double fugues are rare enough. Each of the three sections, which I will identify as A, B, and C, is part of one fugue, and yet is at the same time itself a complete fugue. The feat is impressive by any compositional standard. The opening notes of the St. Anne tune, a melody written in 1708 by William Croft, was, as of 1719, best known as the melody to the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Those first few tones are easily recognized as the subject for the A section, or the first of the three fugues; either way of looking at it is correct. This A section develops as all fugues do, each voice entering while the fugue modulates from key to key. Rather suddenly it resolves to a logical but unsatisfying conclusion. This is because it is not really over, and we are meant to anticipate more.
Section B starts, with a mysterious-sounding subject, and we are treated to the typical fugal voice entries; but when it starts to develop, we hear that the subject of A has reappeared. Is it being used as a second countersubject to each subsequent entry of the B subject as it develops and modulates? It is as if the B section is begotten by the A section, proceeding from the music we had been hearing. In fact, they are never separated one from the other.
Then, as with A, section B also concludes too suddenly for us to feel that it is over, and the entrance of a very joyful-sounding lively subject is revealed as the third fugue, or the third section. Section C proceeds from the music that began with the opening notes of the A section that launched this triple fugue. C goes through its entries of voices with subject and countersubject, and then we hear the subjects of A and B played together in counterpoint, at first appearing to be an “episode.” But it has brought back both A and B so clearly that these sequences cannot properly be called episodes. The combination of A and B intersperse with the subject of C, between entrances of the C subject several times, until the whole piece ends with the clear statement of the A subject, the opening notes of “O God our Help in Ages Past” as the last line we hear taking us to the formal cadence that concludes the piece.
The fact that the piece ends with the subject of A unifies it and makes it one fugue, but it also sounds like three fugues. We can hear that B and C both derive from and remain intricately unified with A, yet each of them is equal to A. Is the “St. Anne” Fugue one piece or three pieces? The answer, which every ear can hear for itself, is that “these three are one.” The “St. Anne” Fugue does not explain the doctrine of the Trinity; rather it demonstrates it with mathematical complexity, and yet with the simplicity of genius. Such is the mystical musical notation of theology as only Bach could express it.