About this Piece
Composed: c. 1750; 2001
Length: c. 8 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, alto flute, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
The name of Johann Sebastian Bach is practically synonymous with counterpoint, deployed with staggering imagination and skill in almost every possible musical situation and context. In the last decade of his life he began writing down complex canonic and fugal explorations of single subjects, including sets of canons on the chorale tune "Von Himmel hoch" and on the first eight notes of the bass of his Goldberg Variations theme, as well as The Musical Offering, compiled for King Frederick II of Prussia in 1747.
In the early 1740s Bach began developing the fugues that would become The Art of the Fugue, a set of fugues (Bach used the term 'contrapunctus' here) of increasing complexity using every theoretical device. The set progresses to double, triple, and mirror fugues, culminating in a quadruple fugue (Contrapunctus XIX) that was incomplete when the book was finally published posthumously in 1751. Bach wrote this music in open score, leaving the performing medium unspecified and plenty of scope for subsequent arrangers.
Luciano Berio (1925-2003) had one of the most distinctive voices in post-war modernist music. Largely trained at home in his youth - his father and grandfather were organists and composers - Berio entered the Milan Conservatory in 1945. A hand injury sustained while training as a conscript in Mussolini's army prevented him from pursuing a career as a performer and he began to concentrate on composition, studying with Giorgio Federico Ghedini at the Conservatory and, after graduation in 1951, with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood.
A consistent focus in his work was the quotation, recreation, manipulation, and/or expansion of existing music, whether by himself or by others. His arrangements range from folk songs and three Lennon/McCartney songs to the Brahms F-minor Clarinet Sonata, Op. 120, No. 1, orchestrated as a concerto and premiered by Michele Zukovsky and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Daniel Lewis, in 1986. His arrangement of the Contrapunctus XIX was done in memory of conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli, for Berio's "L'Arte della Fuga" project, which toured European music festivals in 2001.
"I'm interested in transcription when it's part of a design, a coherent and homogeneous musical vision, even though at times it's primarily motivated by considerations of practicality and custom," Berio said. With its emphasis on the woodwinds, his warm, dark arrangement often sounds like a particularly voluptuous organ. Instead of completing the fugue contrapuntally, Berio ends it by bringing his instrumentally variegated lines together on the pitches of B-A-C-H (B-flat; A; C; B-natural) for a sort of dissonant amen.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.