John Stone  composer

Recording by the viol consort, Phantasm

Harmonia Mundi: A Bach Wheel

For optimal viewing, full screen mode recommended.

Three Poems on the Subject of the Last Fugue from Bach's Art of Fugue

Road Map for a Fugue


Enter on a curving road with nothing

in sight but the curved road itself.

Seven paces forward, you arrive

in the place where you began, but it is not the same.

A new path arises in the clearing like the first,

and then another and another; all seem

to contain the same landmarks. Strange,

these roads that always bring you home

whose scenery is ever changing.

Now the road that introduced you

to the city from the barren stretch

has curved the opposite direction.

Soon enough it is the view

that overtakes your notice from

the curving roads that keep recurring.

Stranger still,you find yourself unable

to keep for long to any single avenue,

but are transported from one to another

guided by the logic of things

surrounding you,and not your will.

The map you hold is for a city out of Heraclitus,

never to be navigated the same way twice.

After walking at a slow and steady rate

you feel the ground beneath your feet

has dropped and you have broken from

the crosshatch of the city's passageways,

and have become a peregrine

who traces giant spirals in its wake.

First, you glide, falling and rising, then

divide and divide: four falcons in formation.

Below, the city's curving roads still

are visible. From the vantage of up high

their routes that always point the way to home

seem carved into the earth. Their permanence

almost mocks your aerial display,

but then your winding freeform flight

as one and then another plunge and spiral up

half-mocks their graven fixity.

Home may just as well be in the sky.

Beyond the heights and depths that you have traveled

a mountain opens to your view that

changes everything that came before and

how you saw what came before. A narrow,

crooked stream emerges from the ice,

descends and slowly

climbs to rest before

discovering other streams that thaw to form a brook.

In-between water and ice, it rolls through itself

and etches a road between sky and ground.

Which of two worlds would you choose to inhabit,

the one that endures but never changes

or the one that moving never lasts?

Is the topography of the eternal

complete without

the fleeting?

At length you arrive at a point

where ice floe,

curving ground

and flight of birds

converge.

You are fixed,

your feet on the ground

at the edge of a precipice,

but you are flung,

your will abandoned

to the will of circling birds.

Frozen in mid-flight,

you leave the world

behind​

on a single, twisting path

whose ending is

suspended.

J.S. Bach in his Library, 1749


I often imagine him in the year of his death, in the exact middle of the eighteenth century, bending with clouding eyes over The Art of Fugue, a composition whose aesthetic orientation represents the most archaic tendency in Bach's oeuvre (which contains many orientations), a tendency alien to its time, which had already turned completely away from polyphony toward a simple, even simplistic, style that often verged on frivolity or laziness.

-- Milan Kundera


I.


Great music is abandoned in its death,

reviled as strict, complex, unnatural,

or even worse, it simply is ignored.​

The art of counterpoint lies moribund

while simple little ditties take its place.

Everywhere, fashionable music-makers

belt their threadbare, galant melodies,

drinking songs and pleasant, empty tunes,

yet modern taste proclaims these trifles Art.


Where are you now, you architects of sound

who built us sanctuaries in the mind,

conjuring cathedrals and geometries

from notes on paper, voices in the air?

Dear Palestrina, first I look to you:

your composition was a kind of worship.

You must have heard the motions of the spheres

or else caught wind of angels singing Mass,

for something of the perfect world's reflected

in the order of your harmonies.

Victoria, you inherited his art

and spread it far afield your native Spain.

And Lasso, you who sang so sweetly you

were kidnapped several times by rival choirs,

you were like a painter painting forms;

stained glass is not as rich as your sweet sound.

Gesualdo, De Rore, you whose madrigals

meandered far and wide through every key,

you celebrated God chromatically.


II.


In this library, Tallis, I turn to you,

reflecting on your wondrous counterpoint,

the gradual unfolding of 'Spem in alium'

whose otherworldly grandeur stirs my heart.

I have among these early manuscripts,

O Tallis, engravings and volumes gray with age

containing sacred music, keyboard works

and consort suites of yours and your countrymen.

Leafing through them, I resurrect a world

of deep devotion, consummate artistry,

page upon page of contrapuntal skill

with names that now mean little more than names.

John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, Dunstable,

still I feel the freshness of your themes.

Jenkins, Morley, Tomkins, Parsons, Locke,

Coprario, Mico, Lawes, in your own styles,

you wrote exquisite music for the viols.

Ah, Henry Purcell, you who died so young,

from what dark depths did your Fantasias spring?

In your short life, you excelled in every form,

just as William Byrd, who lived so long.


This library's a garden of polyphony,

these books, its variations of the art

containing forms throughout the lands and ages,

masses and motets, canons, fugues,

inscribed and pressed onto the folded pages.

All the knowledge, industry and beauty

scattered over centuries and nations

here exists, ingathered, bound by love.

Journeys are accomplished in a glance:

opening your 'Missa ad fugam,' Josquin,

I instantly travel to you, and you to me.

And like a bee amidst the sweetest blossoms,

I dart from flower to flower, alighting on

the masterworks of Schütz, Muffat, Dufay,

now on Machaut, Monteverdi, Couperin, Tye.

These disconnected fragments that I glean

compose themselves inside my mind into

a single, luminous map of counterpoint

with which I glimpse an order never seen

or heard on earth, a heavenly symmetry.


III.


I never cared for learned treatises

expounding on the rules of harmony

or theories governing polyphony:

good music is itself the finest guide.

Such wisdom you imparted, Frescobaldi,

within your volume, 'Fiori Musicali',

with one eye looking forward, one eye back,

you folded history into your pen

and made instruction inseparable from your art.

I remember as a young boy deeply pouring

over cherished volumes night and day,

performing what my little hands could play,

for that was study; never was it boring.

Herrs Pachelbel, Reinken, Froberger, Kerll and Böhm,

the only manuals you used were on

the organ, planting theory underground

with music shooting forth as budding blooms.

Years ago, I copied out your works

and others' which I kept inside a book.

Those labors were a pleasure; what joy it was

to trace with my own hand the paths you took,

to reconstruct your elegant designs

and analyze the poetry of notes

on vertical and horizontal lines

that sprung, expanding outward, from their roots.


I was ever searching manuscripts

for fresh ideas, original motifs,

to watch the ways inventions were borne out,

the way great music always sprouted from

its themes, for all is in them and comes from them

like flowers from seeds. Those compositions once

were muted mirrors in which I sought myself;

in those changeless patterns I would find

subdued reflections of my changing mind.


A library is filled with memories

not only of what's recorded, but what's lost,

between the spaces and the book-lined shelves,

of earlier readings and our distant, earlier selves.

Looking now in de Grigny's 'Livre d'orgue,

'in 'Tabulatura Nova,' 'AriadneMusica,' in 'Hortus Musicus,'

I catch faint shadows of my childhood face.

Something of me lives in you, Sweelinck,

and turns in the rapid scales revolving round

your solid, humble cantus firmus themes.

Another shade of my former self inhabits

pages of 'L'Estro Armonico' and from

your example, Vivaldi, learns to truly think.


O Buxtehude, in my innocence

I turned to you and now return again

when opening your 'Templum Honoris',

I'm back with you in Lübeck, reverend master,

taking part in your 'Abendmusiken,'

listening to the organ of St. Marien.

To hear you play I journeyed miles by foot;

now my pilgrimage is of the mind,

a flight inspired by your awesome craft.

In you, the ancient and the modern merge,

and nations' disparate styles are synthesized;

your organ works are glorious and strange,

massive in range and sheer diversity,

infused with passion and yet a noble order.

My debt to you is great: You are my father,

from your boldness, my own boldness grew.

You lifted me that I am more than I.

You carried me once. Now I carry you.


IV.


There is no silence where there is the book.

The manuscript forever sings its soul,

the notes reveal themselves to those who look

and lie asleep for those who look away.

Unfurl the sacred scrolls and David will

sing joyous psalms of praise unto the Lord

accompanied by music of his lyre.

I take the oldest tome down from the shelves

and lay its giant binding gently open:

still the priest and congregation share

their antiphons, responses and plainchants

although their souls lie folded up in silence.


Yet, what use the music no one heeds,

the contrapuntal gems that lie in darkness

for an audience that yearns for newer charms

that gleam with showy, polished radiance?

These books preserve the treasures they contain

as well as oceans protect a sunken ship.

A century, more perhaps, the vessel remains

intact, yet hidden on the ocean floor,

its precious cargo buried in the sand.

A future diver takes the downward plunge;

if lucky, he will find the foundered craft,

or maybe it forever lies unfound,

submerged within immense eternity.

Beloved old masters, who now opens your scores,

who gives new life to your lives of long devotion?


V.


Could I spin a web to catch the past?

Could a work of man spun on a single

thread spread out and out and capture history

inside its fragile lines? Could I condense

the orders of the universe to fit

the circling cycles of a set of fugues?


I would capture, for whose eyes and ears

I do not know, the art of counterpoint,

and then its slow, eventual eclipse

would seem less dark, less like a death, and more

a phase inside a larger period.

Once I had vision. Now that too is fading,

a cloud descends on everything. Still,

I have my powers and my memory.

I would shape a monument that like

the moon shone softly with a borrowed light:

all the knowledge I have gathered, there

might be recorded and distilled to teach

the student and exemplify the art

even if my audience be one.


Within the fabric of my tapestry,

proportioned for the hands or for the mind,

I shall weave you, too, my ancestors:

Veit the baker, who played the cittern even

as he worked; uncles Johann Michael

and expressive Johann Christopher

whose motets glorified the Lutheran church;

cousins Johann Bernard, Nicolaus;

Ambrosius and your many instruments,

you and all the multitude of Bach's

shall be reflected in the monument.

Within the last, quadruple fugue which I

shall carve in ancient and in modern styles,

I'll set the name of BACH, as much to say

we gave ourselves to music and to God,

and also, though imperfect be my work,

that I might join the web of my design

and pray to join the perfect one some day.


Looking inward, I shall motion outward,

surveying without, I shall recoil within.

All will be a searching starting from

a theme and radiating back again

so one might feel the joy and anguish of

a lifetime's journey in the widening arc.

In the final fugue, all will race

or slowly crawl around a mighty theme

whose seven almost static notes will read

the same in each direction, a perfect calm.

This shall be the changeless face of Him

Who set us on our circling locomotion

out of dust and back to dust again.

For His sake polyphony was sprung

that we might offer up our highest praise

and tell and never stop our telling the story

of our grace. To God alone the glory.                                                            -- John Stone