Art of Fugue (AOF) BWV 1080 represents Bach’s last great work. Having initiated its printing he died before it went to press. Along with the posthumous publication a compelling, romantic mythology grew up around AOF: the aged, suffering, blind master, unable to finish the last fugue, dictates a final chorale on his deathbed and then passes into eternity. Indeed, with this scenario in mind, hearing the last monumental fugue trail off into silence, and then the ‘deathbed’ chorale Before Thy Throne I Stand, can be profoundly moving. The music itself intertwined with this story of how it came about is irresistible. But it almost certainly did not happen this way. Research by several imminent Bach scholars including Christoph Wolff concludes that the final, ‘unfinished’ fugue was surely finished or at least sketched; the ‘deathbed’ chorale originated years before Bach’s death; and the editors of the first edition badly mishandled the task. Our recording presents AOF in light of this research. We bring no particular innovation to the music itself for we stand on the shoulders of great artists and scholars who precede us. But this is the first widely available trombone recording of AOF, whose sound perhaps introduces a new profundity and nobility to this great music.

Unless otherwise noted all tracks are performed on the following instruments in this stereo configuration:

[left]                             [mid-left]                      [mid-right]                   [right]
Conn 36h                    Bach 36                       Bach 42k                     Conn 62HCL
alto trombone            tenor trombone          tenor trombone          bass trombone

Chorale: Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit

Bach had no intention of including this chorale with AOF. The editors of the first edition added the 45 measure chorale Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When we are caught in dire distress) BWV668a “to make up for what is wanting to the last [unfinished] fugue.” The 25 and a half measure chorale Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Thy Throne I Stand) BWV668 was added to the second edition for the same reason, replacing Wenn wir. Both chorales are based on the 9 measure Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein BWV 641 from the Weimar Orgel-Büchlein. The editors of the first edition were apparently aware of Vor deinen but it was not available to them, so they published Wenn wir. Over the years a reverential myth ensued that Bach dictated Vor deinen on his deathbed, a spontaneous, final musical gesture. However, an examination of the evidence does not support this idea. According to Christoph Wolff’s hypothesis, in the last days of Bach’s illness his interest turned toward unfinished works. He may have begun to prepare a collection of chorales for publication. An associate played one of the chorales, Wenn wir, for the blind composer, who dictates improvements and the change of title to Vor deinen Thron. This transformation probably represents the master’s last artistic effort, a solemn moment. We begin this recording with Vor deinen Thron because Ralph Sauer’s stunningly beautiful setting for trombones establishes a profound tone; no more appropriate instrument could depict an audience before God.

Art of Fugue
Simple fugues

Contrapunctus 1 introduces the theme of the entire work, passed through four voices, soprano – Conn 36h, alto – Bach 36, tenor -Bach 42k, bass – Conn 62HCL.

Contrapunctus 2 restates this theme 14 times; B+A+C+H=14; AOF contains 14 fugues.

Contrapunctus 3 presents the theme upside down (inverted).

Contrapunctus 4 resets the inverted theme to include the seventh scale degree, leading to adventurous harmonic progressions.

Stretto fugues

Contrapunctus 5 uses the inverted Contrapunctus 3 theme with short notes filling between its intervals; this theme is then answered by an upside down version of itself. For the first time, Bach overlaps these themes so they sound at the same time; this is stretto.

Contrapunctus 6, a 4, in Stile francese uses the same themes as Contrapunctus 5 but sometimes played twice as fast (diminution), all in stretto with one another. The lilting rhythms and quick ornaments are hallmarks of French baroque style.

Contrapunctus 7, a 4. per Augmentationem et Diminutionem uses the same themes as Contrapunctus 6, sometimes stated slower (augmentation), sometimes faster (diminution), all in stretto. Within this complex counterpoint Bach never once repeats a previously used device or combination.

Double and triple fugues

Contrapunctus 8, a 3 introduces three new themes, a triple fugue, that are developed separately and eventually brought together in triple counterpoint. The third theme is an altered form of the Contrapunctus 3 theme. This fugue was presented in three voices; however, Ralph Sauer’s arrangement distributes them among four trombone voices.

Contrapunctus 9, a 4. alla Duodecima is a double fugue; a new theme is introduced to work in stretto against the original Contrapunctus 1 theme. The two themes appear both above and below each other creating double counterpoint.

Contrapunctus 10, a 4. alla Decima, another double fugue, introduces a new theme that is combined with its inversion. These are then combined with the Contrapunctus 5 theme creating more double counterpoint. The editors of the first AOF editions mistakenly included a superfluous, earlier version of this fugue, which they labeled Contrapunctus 14, a 4. We chose not to record it.

Contrapunctus 11, a 4, another triple fugue, this time given in four voices, uses the inverted versions of all three Contrapunctus 8 themes, developed separately then brought together in stunning counterpoint.

Mirror fugues

Contrapunctus 12, a 4. rectus, is a four voice fugue based on a triple meter version of the Contrapunctus 1 theme.

Contrapunctus 12, a 4. inversus, is the same music, note for note, turned upside down, a mirror image of the original. Rectus bass is played upside down and becomes Inversus soprano; Rectus tenor is played upside down and becomes Inversus alto, from beginning to end.

Contrapunctus 13, a 3. rectus, is a three voice fugue whose subject sounds like a free improvisation on the Contrapunctus 1 theme. Ralph Sauer’s arrangement distributes the music among four trombone voices.

Contrapunctus 13, a 3. inversus, is the same music, note for note, turned upside down, but not in exact mirror image, which would be impossible. The Rectus middle voice never appears in the Inversus middle voice but always either in soprano or bass. Achieving good musical results in this context is quite difficult; the texture is fascinating and complex.


Canon alla Ottava is comprised of one, single melody, a decorated version of the Contrapunctus 3 theme. Two voices play this tune chasing each other 4 bars apart, originally at the octave. But here both voices are played on the Bach 42k tenor trombone necessitating a unison interval between them.

Canon alla Decima. Contrapunto alla Terza. The Contrapunctus 3 theme is presented here in triple meter. Two voices play this melody, 4 bars apart; lower leads, upper follows a third higher. Halfway through, they start over with the same melody but trade places; upper leads, lower follows on the same pitch – this is double counterpoint. Both voices are played on the Conn 36h alto trombone.

Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta is based on the original Contrapunctus 1 theme, which is altered such that it comes across like an improvisation. Two voices play this melody 8 bars apart; Conn 62HCL bass trombone leads, Conn 36h alto trombone follows a fifth higher. Halfway through they trade places creating double counterpoint, but not before they diverge for 16 bars of unimitated counterpoint, a move that seems to ruin the canon. But ever the perfectionist, Bach brings these 16 bars into the ongoing double counterpoint at the end, creating an enigmatic, perfect canon whose imitation is staggered in a way that is difficult to conceive.

Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu is played on the Bach 42k tenor and Conn 62HCL bass trombone. It is among the most astoundingly complex canons of all time. Complexity can often render music impotent, but Bach fashions this canon into an exceptional expression. Its theme is an elaborately ornamented version of the Contrapunctus 1 theme. The top voice, tenor trombone, leads out. Bass follows playing the same music, but each note is twice as long and played upside down! Halfway through the canon, roles reverse as bass leads and tenor follows with the same music, at half speed, upside down, creating breathtaking double counterpoint to the end.

 Resetting of Contrapunctus 13

Fuga a 2. Clav. is an arrangement of Contrapunctus 13, a 3. rectus for two keyboards. A fourth part was added that generally sounds below the Contrapunctus 13 bass. The top line, played by alto trombone, is elevated as a featured voice in this and the Alio modo movement. While it is not clear that Bach intended to include these movements in AOF, or even that Bach arranged them, we include them in our recording because their re-orchestrated, more arpeggiated gestures present the irresistible opportunity to create even more affect from these brilliant fugues.

Alio modo. Fuga a 2. Clav. is not the mirror version of the previous piece, but a four voice, free arrangement of Contrapunctus 13, a 3. inversus. Short articulations here create a scherzo-like, humorous affekt.

The Last ‘Unfinished’ Fugue

Fuga a 3 Soggetti is a misnomer created by the editors of the first edition who did not understand the music enough to assemble it properly. Bach introduces three entirely new themes, one at a time, in three major sections of this movement. Made of long notes, the first theme and its inversion combine with free counterpoint to form a gorgeous, reverent opening section. A busier second theme is combined with first theme in the second section. Bach creates the third theme on the letters of his own name: B, A, C, H (H is the German equivalent of B-flat). He inverts this theme and then, just after combining all three themes, the movement trails off into nothingness, unfinished. The early editors assumed Bach was unable to complete it. But evidence indicates Bach intended this movement to be Contrapunctus 14 (B+A+C+H=14) and he almost certainly composed or at least sketched a fourth section based upon the Contrapunctus 1 theme, a theme that combines perfectly with the previous three. Indeed, the Bach obituary states, “His last illness prevented him, according to his draft, from bringing the next-to-the-last fugue to completion and working out the last one, which was to contain four themes and to have been afterward inverted note for note in all four voices.” The editors mistook the last, now lost, section of this mighty fugue for another piece, the “last one.” They published the “next-to-the-last fugue” with no ending. But since they did not know how to publish a fugue with no beginning they left out “the last one” altogether and it was eventually lost or discarded, not realizing they were handling one piece of music whose fourth part was separated from its first three parts. Bach stopped writing this fugue in the middle of the fifth page because the ruling of lower staff lines was deficient.

This unfortunate turn of events frustrates but leaves us no less moved than the legendary deathbed myth. Whatever the reason for the unfinished state of this last fugue, it remains the mysterious culmination of a glorious work of craftsmanship and creativity.

As a graduate student, Ralph Sauer’s fantastic recording Ralph Sauer, Trombone, Plays Handel, Telemann, Haydn, Serocki, Larsson & Sulek, (Crystal CD380) inspired me to perform early music on modern trombones. Recording his transcription of AOF is an honor. Mr. Sauer lowered the pitch center from D to C providing a more playable range for trombones. And even though the voices are arranged into a more compact tessitura to suit trombones, Mr. Sauer has taken care to maintain the integrity of Bach’s counterpoint. While much of the ornamentation, tempi, articulation and phrasing heard in this recording are mine, Mr. Sauer’s transcription is exquisitely edited for live performance rendering it approachable by trombone ensembles from intermediate to professional. His careful preparation of this edition represents a labor of love, for which we are grateful. Mike Hall

MIKE HALL teaches trombone/euphonium and brass chamber music at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, and serves as Literature Reviews Editor for the International Trombone Association Journal. He previously served on the faculties of the University of Kansas and Eastern Michigan University. Dr. Hall has performed extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and China performing a range of styles and literature with symphony orchestras, wind and chamber ensembles and as featured soloist. He also has an extensive background in commercial music backing entertainers, playing in large and small group jazz settings, and performing in theater and studio recording ensembles. His extensive study of Baroque performance practice as applied to low brass instruments has led to three previous solo recordings: Arcangelo Corelli Solo Chamber Sonatas, Opus 5; J.S. Bach: The Gamba Sonatas and Benedetto Marcello Solo Sonatas, Opus 1. Mike Hall is a C.G. Conn and Selmer Bach performing artist.

Disc 1

  1. *Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (Before Thy Throne I Stand) 4:04

Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

Simple fugues

  1. *Contrapunctus 1. 3:03
  2. *Contrapunctus 2. 3:03
  3. *Contrapunctus 3. 2:57
  4. *Contrapunctus 4. 3:15

Stretto fugues

  1. *Contrapunctus 5. 3:32
  2. *Contrapunctus 6, a 4, in Stile francese. 3:44
  3. *Contrapunctus 7, a 4. per Augmentationem et Diminutionem. 2:54

Double and triple fugues

  1. *Contrapunctus 8, a 3. 5:03
  2. *Contrapunctus 9, a 4. alla Duodecima. 2:32
  3. *Contrapunctus 10, a 4. alla Decima. 4:25
  4. *Contrapunctus 11, a 4. 4:04

Total time: 42:36

Disc 2

Mirror fugues

  1. *Contrapunctus 12, a 4. rectus. 2:21
  2. *Contrapunctus 12, a 4. inversus. 2:20
  3. *Contrapunctus 13, a 3. rectus. 2:16
  4. *Contrapunctus 13, a 3. inversus. 2:16


  1. Canon alla Ottava. 3:58
  2. Canon alla Decima. Contrapunto alla Terza. 4:37
  3. Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta. 3:47
  4. Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu. 4:31

Resetting of Contrapunctus 13

  1. Fuga a 2. Clav. 2:17
  2. Alio modo. Fuga a 2. Clav. 2:29

The Last ‘Unfinished’ Fugue

  1. *Fuga a 3 Soggetti. 8:02

Total time: 38:54

* transcribed by Ralph Sauer; edition published in four volumes by Cherry Classics Music.

©2010 James Michael Hall. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited by law.

Recorded May 18-June 12, June 24-July 10, August 1-14, 2009 in Virginia Beach, VA.

Engineered and produced by Mike Hall. Post production: Steve Latham.


Conn 36h E-flat alto trombone with B-flat valve attachment. Greg Black standard weight, custom mouthpiece, similar in internal size and shape to Bach 18.

Bach Stradivarius 36 B-flat tenor trombone with detachable, F valve attachment, light weight nickel hand slide. Schilke 50 mouthpiece.

Bach Stradivarius 42K B-flat tenor trombone with F valve attachment, standard brass hand slide. Greg Black standard weight, custom mouthpiece, similar in internal size and shape to Bach 5G.

C.G. Conn 62HCL B-flat bass trombone with independent F/G-flat valve attachments. CKB 1½G mouthpiece.

Microphone: AKG C414

Mike Hall is a C.G. Conn and Selmer Bach performing artist.

Special thanks to Toni Craig and Steve Latham.