The Collaboration Centuries in the Making
J. S. Bach has, since the 19th century, earned a place in the history of Western concert music that is perhaps unrivaled by any other composer. His name is enshrined as the first of Hans von Bülow’s holy trinity of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and Bach did in fact figure significantly in the music of both of those later masters. In fact, Bach serves as a through line that connects each of the composers on this program.
But Bach was not always a household name, and even in his own lifetime it was as an organist that his reputation was established. It is his organ music, in particular the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537, that provides an interesting connection between Elgar and Strauss. Edward Elgar (1857-1934) considered J. S. Bach as his “ideal,” and was fascinated with the Baroque master his entire life. Later in life, following the death of his wife, Alice, in 1920, Elgar had the opportunity to rekindle his old friendship with Richard Strauss. Interaction between the composers was curtailed as a consequence of the First World War. A meeting between them in 1920 led to the idea of a collaboration intended to create a transcription of the Bach Fantasia and Fugue with Elgar arranging the fugue and Strauss the prelude (Fantasia). Elgar completed his part of the arrangement in the spring of 1921 and a performance later that fall convinced him that his full-scale orchestration of Bach’s music was in fact a good idea. With no sign that Strauss was likely to fulfill his part of the collaboration, Elgar decided to go ahead and make his own arrangement of the Fantasia, completed in June of 1922.
Bach’s organ work is a masterpiece of Baroque counterpoint, the simultaneous sounding of multiple independent lines of music, the artistic pinnacle of which is achieved in the musical composition known as fugue. In the case of this Fantasia and Fugue, counterpoint abounds not only in the fugue but also in the more freely structured fantasy. Here the contrast between fantasy and fugue lies more in the musical character of each section, the fantasy more colored by pathos, the searing opening leap marks this theme with pain and longing, whereas the fugue subject heard in four successive voices rises to a repeated note that asserts grave confidence. A second main idea in the fugue, a rising chromatic figure, further intensifies the driving character of this section. Elgar provides a rich palette of orchestral color, giving a full range of tonal variety, including harp and percussion, without sacrificing the clarity of the interweaving lines of Bach’s masterful counterpoint.