Just yesterday I had the pleasure of talking with Jeannette Sorrell, Music Director of Apollo’s Fire, the highly acclaimed period orchestra based in Cleveland, where she founded it twenty-three years ago. Today, rather like the venerable Cleveland Orchestra, Apollo’s Fire tours extensively in North America and Europe, bringing Ms. Sorrell’s warm, expressive vision of Baroque playing to both seasoned and neophyte audiences. Tomorrow, July 2, she will lead them at Tanglewood in a program called “Bach’s Coffee House,” referring to the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig, where first Georg Phillipp Telemann and later Johann Sebastian Bach organised free public concerts. The program will include excerpts from Telemann’s incidental music to Don Quixote, Bach’s Fourth and Fifth Brandenburgs, and short pieces by Handel and Vivaldi.
If the fugue is the highest form of counterpoint it’s because it is truly an art. No one would deny that fugues do not write themselves, yet they are based on simple, sincere imitation, the first, most obvious ingredient one hears, yet the freedom of the voices is the fugue’s sina qua non. Different voices “speak” their individual melodies, and miraculously the result is not only coherent but harmonious too, and, at least under the masters, such harmonies! From one point of view the fugue is the highest composer’s art, even over-specified, yet it is a form-texture deriving from the performer’s highest art, improvisation, the fantasy. The fugue is in a way the quintessence of music, taking something which initially seems rigid and rule-bound, well, at least over-obedient, and sheds those rules completely to become free and creative, the fundamentally horizontal linear elements become nonlinear, sounding just as sensible vertically; sound, a dumb mathematical, physical process obeying laws of time and space, is refined into an art which can speak directly to something deep inside a warm human being. So the fugue, even as theoreticians have for centuries tried to define it and the rules of its creation (without much success), culminating in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722), at the end of which he discusses fugues and how they are written, finally saying they cannot be reduced to general rules, except “le bon goût ou la fantasie.” J. S. Bach in turn put it most aptly of all... in his music.