The G-minor Fuga
In the fugue … [Bach] stands quite alone, and so alone that
far and wide around him, all is, as it were, desert and void.
Never has a fugue been made by any composer which could
be compared with one of his. He who is not acquainted
with Bach’s fugues cannot even form an idea of what a true
fugue is and ought to be.
On Johann Sebastian Bach’s Life, Genius, and Works,
by Johann Nicolaus Forkel (1802), trans. possibly by
Augustus Frederic Christopher Kollmann (1820)
Bach’s era accorded fugue a highly honored position among compositional genres. Around the time Bach composed his solo-violin works, Johann Joseph Fux, a peasant’s son who had become Capellmeister in the imperial capital of Vienna, was preparing a lavish edition of his Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), the most long-lived composition text in the entire history of Western music.1 We commonly respect Gradus for its masterly treatment of species counterpoint, but it is fugue that occupies the highest step to which Fux leads his student. In the very same decade, Jean-Philippe Rameau published in Paris his Traité de l’harmonie (Treatise on Harmony), launching the modern study of harmony. To demonstrate his new harmonic system, the sole composition of which Rameau includes an analysis is one of his own vocal fugues.2
And in Cöthen, Bach at age 37 took pride in a major achievement: the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier. His ceremonial title page proudly surpasses that of a respected musician who held the prestigious musical post that Bach shortly assumed: Johann Kuhnau (1660–1722), cantor of the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig. In the 1680s and 1690s, Kuhnau had published two sets of partitas in the major and minor keys. The title page of his first volume reads:3