Reimagining Bach: Finnissy's Commentary on BWV 562

Michael Finnissy’s Commentary on BWV 562 is a refreshing recontextualization of J.S. Bach. As the title suggests, the piece is a musical ‘commentary’ on Bach's unfinished fugue from BWV 562. The work can be listened to here.

The piece begins innocuously enough. The distinctive contrapuntal idiom of Bach extends for almost a minute, settling the listener comfortably into a Baroque atmosphere.

A ruse.

The fugue truncates abruptly, giving way to a lively, virtuosic post-tonal idiom. The fugue then resumes its meandering journey, only to be interrupted yet again sometime later. The swapping of these two disparate idioms evokes the interplay between a literary text and its commentary, almost as if the post-tonal idiom functions as a commentary on Bach’s work.

At first glance, the work’s architecture seems predicated on the splicing together of these fugal and post-tonal fragments, much like a cinematic montage. On closer listening, one would notice that as the piece unravels, the two styles seem to ‘learn’ from each other, resulting in a cross-fertilisation of materials. The Bach fragments become increasingly transient, while the post-tonal sections grow in length. One could almost envision a musical journey through time: as the years march on, the past fades in our memory, while the future grows increasingly tangible.

The instrumentation is notable as well. The original Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 562 was written for the organ. On the other hand, Finnissy scored his piece for the recorder, violin and organ. A rather unusual trio, but extraordinarily effective in blend and distinctive in their combined contrapuntal character. The unorthodox instrumentation serves as a subtle hint from the start that the Bach piece is not what it seems.

While Finnissy’s work can be situated within the broader stylistic predilection of the 21st-century towards musical quotation, to merely call it as such is to miss how Bach is recontextualised in a modern piece. Personally, I find it more appropriate to consider it a musical analogue to metafiction, a form of fiction which alludes to its own artifice by continually reminding readers that they are viewing a fictional work. As mentioned above, the post-tonal idiom serves as a ‘commentary’ on Bach’s work, although its semantic content is up to anyone’s guess. The sudden interruptions of Bach by the former idiom serves to jolt the listener away from the Baroque soundscape and into the world of contemporary music, again reminding the audience of the piece’s constructedness.

One could also draw parallels between Finnissy’s work and the poetry of Gertrude Stein. Consider this excerpt from Stein’s Tender Buttons:

‘A single image is not splendor. Dirty is yellow. A sign of more in not mentioned. A piece of coffee is not a detainer. The resemblance to yellow is dirtier and distincter. The clean mixture is whiter and not coal colour, never more coal colour than altogether.’

While the words are everyday parlance, the syntax is unusual. Words often unrelated are juxtaposed beside each other, akin to a surreal artwork by Salvador Dalí. Similarly, The Commentary’s contrasting idioms serve to highlight a strange beauteousness when two seemingly unrelated musical objects are situated in proximity to each other.

To this day, the ending puzzles me. Why do the two disparate idioms coalesce into that final prolonged drone in the highest registers of the recorder and violin? Is there a narrative here that I missed? Why did the piece develop to this final apotheosis when it could have done quite the opposite and fade away? Why isn’t the piece developed beyond this point? Finnissy’s music is often programmatic to some degree, so I would not dismiss this as merely ‘the composer desires it for no other reason except for itself’. However, we can only guess the reason for the piece wrapping itself up in this manner.

Ng Yu Hng, January 2021

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