2020/VIRTUAL Salon Series

Presented in 4K from Herbst Theatre, San Francisco



BACH: The Unanswered Question

November 24, 2020 | 8:00PM PT


WILLIAM SKEEN, violoncello
KRISTIN ZOERNIG, double bass


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Recorded at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco War Memorial on
October 30, 2020 in accordance with the Order of the Health Officer of the
City and County of San Francisco at time of capture

Audio recording production, engineering, editing and mastering: Michael Demeyer

Video recording production: Tal Skloot (Tritone Media)

Listen to the audio program notes below.


About The Program

Music Performed


14 Goldberg Canons, BWV 1087 (arr. Egarr)

Canon simplex
Canon all’ roverscio
Canon in motu recto e contrario
Canon in motu contrario e recto
Canon duplex à 4
Canon simplex à 3
Canon à 2 Alio modo per syncopationes et per ligatures
Canon simplex à 3
Canon simplex à 3. il soggetto in Alto
Canon in unisono post semifusam à 3
Canon duplex über Fundamental Noten à 5
Canon duplex übers Fundament à 5
Canon à 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem
Canon triplex à 6


“Fuga a tre soggetti”  Unfinished Contrapunctus XIV from The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080


Orchestral Suite in G minor, BWV 1070

Larghetto — Un poco allegro
Aria (Adagio)
Menuetto alternativo — Trio

The Players and Their Instruments


Andrea Guarneri, Cremona, 1660; on loan from Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Period Instrument Trust


Johann Georg Thir, Vienna, Austria, 1754


Carlo Antonio Testore, Milan, Italy, 1720

WILLIAM SKEEN, violoncello

Anonymous, Northern Italy, ca. 1680

KRISTIN ZOERNIG, double bass

Joseph Wrent, Rotterdam, Holland, 1648


John Phillips, Berkeley, 2010; after Johann Heinrich Gräbner, Dresden, 1722
Generously lent by Peter & Cynthia Hibbard

Program Notes

by Scholar-in-Residence Bruce Lamott


The composer John Biggs tells an old joke that defines “fugue” as a composition in which voices enter one after another, all the while the audience leaves one after another. This reflects the historical love/hate relationship that listeners have had with a compositional procedure that has nonetheless fascinated musicians since the Middle Ages. The penchant for writing melodies performed simultaneously, called counterpoint*, is a practice particularly found in the notated music of Western Europe. Music written with this contrapuntal or polyphonic procedure ranges from its strictest form, canon, in which all parts derive from the same melody, to fugue, a systematic treatment of a single melody known as the subject, often incorporating passages of free polyphony. Passages that allude to—but don’t completely follow through with—this kind of imitative treatment are called fugal*.

The Latin word canon* (rule) already discloses the fact that this is music composed according to fixed rubrics. The disciplined study of counterpoint, from the Latin punctum contra punctum, or note-against-note (in reality, melody-against-melody) is reflected in the German description of this as the “bound,” “strict,” or “learned” style. The rub here is that the manipulation of two or more simultaneous melodic lines must adhere to the proper resolution of dissonance into consonance—that is, until the 20th century, when all bets were off regarding acceptable discord.

This program demonstrates of J.S. Bach’s undisputed mastery of counterpoint contrasted with a suite of chamber music written in a style that reacts to such complexity. The canon simplex which opens the Goldberg Canons is about as simple as it gets: an eighth note bass line is played simultaneously with itself played backwards (called retrograde*). On the other hand, the Contrapunctus XIV from Bach’s Art of Fugue, which Glenn Gould called “the finest piece of music ever written,” is about as complex as it comes. The so-called Fifth Orchestral Suite, more likely composed by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, reflects the changing taste of the next generation in the genteel simplicity of the galant style, which prefers the “vertical” progression of harmonies (aka chords) to the linear interaction of intersecting contrapuntal lines.

J.S. BACH 14 Goldberg Canons, BWV 1087 (arr. Egarr)

In 1975, the Harvard musicologist and Bach biographer Christoph Wolff, announced the discovery of Bach’s peronal copy (Handexemplar) of the first edition of his Goldberg Variations. Written inside the back cover, in Bach’s hand, are fourteen “diverse canons on the first eight bass notes of the [Goldberg] Aria” on which the thirty variations are based. Wolff suggests that when Bach writes “etcetera” after the 14th canon he is suggesting that further possibilities were inexhaustible, but that he stopped at fourteen as a “self-limitation to a musical optimum.” Fourteen was also an alphabetical cipher that Bach used elsewhere as a numerical signature (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14), according to the German scale in which B is B-flat and H is B-natural.

In these fourteen canons, Bach begins with the eight-note bass line played against itself in reverse (or retrograde). This is the only canon in which the voices begin together. As the figuration becomes more complex, it, too, is manipulated forwards, backwards, and upside-down against itself.

As in other pedagogical works, the canons increase in complexity and intricacy: canon simplex based on one subject (nos. 1-4, 6, 8); duplex with two different subjects, each with its own imitation (nos. 5, 12); and triplex (no. 13) with three different subjects, resulting in six parts. Bach also uses a number of compositional devices, including retrograde* (no. 2), inversion* (no. 3), chromaticism (no. 6), syncopation and suspensions (no. 10), and a tangled canon in unison per semifusam (no. 9) in which the second voice chases after the first voice after just one sixteenth note. The final tour de force is a canon “per augmentationem et diminutionem” in which the four parts play the same subject in different note values: as written, two, four, and eight times slower than the first–i.e., in sixteenth, eighth, quarter, and half notes. [For an excellent audio-visual demonstration of the Goldberg Canons, click here].

J.S. BACH “Fuga a tre soggetti” — Unfinished Contrapunctus XIV
from Art of Fugue, BWV 1070

At the end of his career and nearing the end of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach embarked on three projects that seemed primarily aimed at posterity—a rarity for a church musician tasked with onerous Sunday-to-Sunday obligations. What is now known as the Mass in B Minor was a monumental compilation and reworking of some of his greatest choral works, perhaps a sort of resumé for the hereafter. His Goldberg Variations were the ultimate intersection of his greatest talents of keyboard virtuosity and contrapuntal ingenuity. The Art of Fugue [Kunst der Fuge], published posthumously in 1751, was an exhaustive demonstration of the possibilities of contrapuntal procedures at a time they were increasingly regarded as antiquated. It was written in open score (i.e., on separate lines for each contrapuntal “voice”) with no indication of instrumentation and has been recorded on harpsichord, organ, piano, string quartet, viol consort, brass, orchestra, guitars, and a number of electronic instruments.

Like other poignant anecdotes about musicians debunked by musicologists, the oft-repeated story of this final fugue (Contrapunctus XIV) probably arose in the family grief surrounding Bach’s death on July 28, 1750, at the age of 65. In the autograph manuscript, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote, “In this fugue, at the point the name BACH is introduced in the countersubject*, the composer died.” This comment was published in the first edition along with an organ chorale-prelude Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before your throne herewith I come), said to be dictated by the composer on his deathbed. However, Bach’s handwriting at this point does not reflect the infirmity of a blind and dying man and was more likely to have been written a few years earlier.

Contrapunctus XIV begins simply enough, with a rising fifth (do-sol) descending stepwise to mi, rising stepwise in long notes to sol again before dropping a fifth back to the original do, producing the melodic contour of an M. Its second subject is its inversion, with a falling fifth, etc.—the contour of a W. The third subject, written in note values four times as fast as the opening note and introduced by the second violin, sounds like a change of tempo or an ornamental “riff” on the previous two subjects. When the original subject returns in the cello, its original values sound elongated (resembling augmentation) in comparison to the parts swirling around it. The viola introduces the B-A-C-H subject, which is taken up by all parts before Bach turns it into countersubject to be played against original subject introduced by the cello.

The “unfinished” Contrapunctus XIV may not be unfinished at all, but many prominent musicians and musicologists have undertaken to complete it. They may simply be taking up the gauntlet that Bach throws down. Ever the pedagogue, having led the reader through thirteen increasingly complex and ingenious contrapuntal manipulations, Bach signs off with his B-A-C-H signature and leaves the work midstream, as if to say, “OK, now you’ve seen how this is done; here’s your final exam.” Indeed, as you hear the viola trail off, notice how your ear continues the momentum of the other parts.

W.F. BACH Orchestral Suite in G minor, BWV 1070

The four authenticated suites which Sebastian Bach titled Overtures and have come to be known as “orchestral suites” comprise his frustratingly scant contribution of multi-movement works for larger instrumental ensemble. Other than its title, this Ouverture in G minor bears little resemblance to the Big Four despite its BWV (Bach Werke Verzeichnis) number in the catalog of Bach’s works, as it reflects more the musical taste of the galant style of the generation of Bach’s sons. It may be the work of his eldest, Wilhelm Friedemann, considered closest to his father in musical style and prone to some of the quirkiness found in this suite.

Fifth Suite or not, in this program it provides a refreshing contrast with the more cerebral works that precede it and draws into sharp focus the distinction between the contrapuntal writing of the Baroque period and the elegant simplicity of the Galant. The Larghetto opens with sighing melodic figures characteristic of the “sensitive” (Emfindsam) style repeated in an echoing alternation of forte and piano, not the regal pomp of the French overture in the Four. A decidedly un-contrapuntal freeze-frame passage follows, in which the cello spins out rolling arpeggios while the upper voices sustain a simple chord progression. These chord progressions are heard even in the faster fugal section–a nod to the second portion of the typical French overture—enlivened with syncopations and vigorous repeated notes.

The arcane title of the second movement, Torneo (“tourney”) may refer to a seventeenth century genre of music played before tournaments and horse ballets. Its quirky flurries of descending scales conjure images of a tumbling match in which the contestants halt midway in a brief moment of quizzical chromaticism. The Aria movement, unlike similarly titled movements in the Third Suite and the Goldberg Variations, does not spin out a melodious vocalise but rather reflects the mercurial emotions of the sensitive style, with momentary changes of mood tinged with chromaticism. The playful Menuetto is enlivened by syncopated hemiolas*, wide leaps, and coquettish sighs, while the bucolic Trio evokes the drone of the pastoral bagpipe.

The final Capriccio resembles a fugue at first sight but becomes a send-up of strict contrapuntal procedure. The subject, usually tasked with defining the key, instead begins on a note outside of the key and a countersubject* interrupts only three notes later. The voices enter in turn, but the whole fugal texture melts down when the cello stalls on a prolonged descending scale, forcing the upper three parts into an interchange of two-note chord progressions. Further ideas seem to lose sight of the fugal intentions of the beginning until a surprise recapitulation. The severity of the rules of fugal procedure, that champion of thematic unity and textural consistency, has been subverted in a “caprice” of unexpected outcomes.


Contrapunctus. Latin term for a piece written in counterpoint, or fugal style.

Counterpoint, contrapuntal (adj.). Music written in simultaneously sounding “horizontal” melodic lines (called voices) as opposed to a single melodic line supported by the “vertical” harmonies of chords.

Canon (round), canonic (adj.). A type of fugue derived strictly from a single melody.

Fugue, subject, countersubject. A composition in which a theme (called the subject) is imitated contrapuntally by other parts (voices). A subordinate theme which regularly appears with the subject is called the countersubject.

Fugal, fugato. Musical passages in counterpoint that introduce parts (voices) in the manner of a fugue.

Hemiola. Momentary displacement of regular accent (i.e., syncopation) in triple meter which combines two 3-beat measures into one 6-beat measure:
1 2 3 | 1 2 3 becomes 1 2 3 4 5 6.


  • Most everybody knows the canon, aka round: ROW, ROW, ROW YOUR BOAT.
    It’s called a perpetual canon because there’s no place to stop until the camp counselor gives you the signal to quit. You can use it as an example to try out some of Bach’s contrapuntal techniques.
  • Divide into two groups and you’re singing what Bach calls a canon duplex.
  • You can also make a canon triplex or quadruplex by dividing into more groups. Four’s the limit, however, because there are only three places (after BOAT, STREAM, and MERRILY) where groups can join in.
  • To make a canon in inversion, what goes up must go down by the same interval:
  • To make a canon al’roverscio, or canon in retrograde—as Bach does, you must sing the pitches and rhythms in reverse. It’s OK to sing the same words, but the pitches and rhythms must correspond to:

(At this point, aspirin is suggested.)

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