Questions on Fugue No. 20
Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
by Johann Sebastian Bach
©2014 Timothy A. Smith

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  1. Confucius taught that we learn wisdom in three ways: by reflection (the noblest way), by imitation (the easiest way), and by experience (the bitterest way). With fugue often described as the most imitative of polyphonic forms, it is most like which Confucian way of learning wisdom?

    the noblest way
    the easiest way
    the bitterest way

  2. Continuing in the same vein, the mirroring technique of the counterexposition and 2nd development most resemble which Confucian way of learning wisdom?

    the noblest way
    the easiest way
    the bitterest way

  3. "The unexamined life is not worth living," so said Socrates. The inverse of Socrates' maxim would be: "The purpose of living is to examine one's life." As a musician, do you think that listening to music and making music are activities that should be examined? Do these activities make life worth living? Assuming that both answers are "Yes," then learning about the structure of this fugue __________.

    is one facet of examining my life.
    adds no meaning to my life.
    gives me purpose as a musician.
    None of the above
    Two of the above

  4. For Socrates the object is to examine the actual life in order to bring it into conformity with the ideal. The two are at odds, the actual versus the ideal. Socrates considered philosophy (the love of wisdom) as the best way of uniting the two. In this fugue it would be like saying that the ideal of its subject is a wholly inaudible melodic contour where its actual direction is immaterial. In music this ideal can actualize itself only in one melodic direction or the other, but not simultaneously in both. Finish the following sentence as if the foregoing argument were true.

    The closest realization that Bach could give to the ideal of this fugue is in:

    contradictory actualizations that can be heard as mutually generative.
    the serial development of less-than-ideal actualizations.
    Neither of the above
    Both of the above

  5. "I think, therefore I am." René Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum seems to resemble Socrates' maxim about the unexamined life. But it is different in the following respect. Rather than a duality between the actual and the ideal (Socrates), the Cartesian duality is between doubt and certainty. Think of these as opposites - negative versus positive - that cancel each other out. Doubt obliterates certainty and certainty doubt. But there is a problem in that one can't exist without possibility of the other. Descartes resolved this problem (to his satisfaction) by focusing on doubt. Michael Gillespie writes:
    The heart of Descartes' fundamental principle is the recognition that doubt, as a form of negation, cannot negate itself, that such a negation is in fact a negation of negation and thus a self affirmation. In this manner the will constitutes itself as a self and thus as the foundation or subiectum upon which everything can be established." [1]
    The key concepts of the foregoing quotation are "the will" and "the self." For Descartes, it is doubt that leads to self knowledge and awareness of one's existence. All certainty emanates of self awareness, which grows from doubt. Nothing is true unless the self deems it to be beyond doubt. Descartes develops this idea in what we now call the "empirical method," which is the foundation of modern science, technology, and some schools of philosophy. Now for the question.

    If the counterexposition of this fugue is conceived (in a Cartesian way) as a kind of "doubt" about the exposition, it follows that:

    the repetition of an expository process to the exposition would be the affirmation of an affirmation, therefore tautological and not resolving any of its doubt.
    the application of a counterexpository process to the counterexposition would be the negation of a negation and thus a fugal self affirmation.
    Neither of the above
    Both of the above

  6. Please think now about the difference between objective and subjective truth. In the former (the objective), the truth exists in the object itself, independently of interpretation by the self [2]. In the latter (the subjective), the truth is "subjected" to interpretation by the self, which assumes a higher authority than the object. Etymologically, the word "subject" comes from the Latin verb "subcio", which means to throw under or to put into submission as one might subjugate an enemy. With this in mind, any given musical idea is merely an OBJECT until it is formally developed and processed. It becomes a SUBJECT only when it is elaborated upon, as in a fugue. Choose the best ending to the following sentence:

    The concept of a fugue having a subject means:

    In the Socratic conception: the subject is an objective entity, subject to no other thing for its meaning to be clear.
    In the Cartesian conception: the subject is a subjective entity, subject to development only after which its meaning becomes clear.
    Neither of the above
    Both of the above

  7. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) constructed the most influential critical theory in literature and the arts today. Derrida's idea is that meaning is a construct (a fabrication) and that the scholar's purpose is to "deconstruct" the assumptions that prop up every interpretation of meaning. Deconstruction maintains that there can be no definitive meaning because language is always changing (and language is here interpreted very broadly as being any possible context for any thing). Every supposed meaning is therefore subjective to its context. Derrida did not accept the historical notion of objective meaning, maintaining that: "the intelligible face of the sign [objective meaning] remains turned to the word and the face of God." Commenting on this, Cambridge University professor George Steiner wrote:
    A semantics, a poetics of correspondence, of decipherability and truth-values arrived at across time and consensus, are strictly inseparable from the postulate of theological-metaphysical transcendence. Thus the origin of the axiom of meaning and of the God-concept is a shared one. The semantic sign, where it is held to be meaningful, and divinity "have the same place and time of birth" (Derrida). They constitute the Hebraic-Hellenic copula on which our Logos-history and practice have been founded. "The age of the sign", says Derrida, is essentially theological." [3]
    Steiner's book, Real Presences, deconstructs deconstruction by pointing out that artists themselves do not act as if there is "no there there" (meaning that there is no meaning in art). Nor do the countless scholars who comment upon their work seem to believe in such a thing. Rather, the massive corpus of artworks and commentary upon them presuppose something else - that purposive meaning is the "real presence" that undergirds the entire project. Given what you know from this short introduction to Derrida and Steiner, which of the following would be true?

    Bach would likely have AGREED with Derrida's statement that "The age of the sign is essentially theological."
    Bach would likely have DISAGREED with Steiner's statement that "the origin of the axiom of meaning and of the God-concept is a shared one."
    Neither of the above
    Both of the above

  8. The narrative that accompanies this fugue is about the problems of purpose and meaning in art. They are problems firstly because modern critical theory denies that the artist's purpose has anything to do with meaning in the work of art (the so-called "intentional fallacy"). They are problems secondly because modern theory denies the very possibility of definitive meaning. Rather, modernity maintains that anything can mean whatever the reader "purposes" it to mean. Now for the question:

    Do you personally believe that narratives like that which accompanies this fugue are attempts to find meaning in the work of art and that the preternatural quest for meaning, as exemplified in the massive body of literature and art, and their parasitic commentary, suggests that there is indeed a "real presence" or some kind of definitive meaning behind it all?

    Yes
    No
    I'm not sure at this point exactly what I believe about this important question.
    No answer

  9. Question 8 alludes to the "intentional fallacy" which holds that we can't evaluate the worth of a work of art by criteria that the artist has himself devised. This fallacy is often erroneously applied in such a way as to separate the artist's ideas about the artwork from any determination of its meaning. But what is the artwork itself if not the artist's idea! Oxford University professor Laurence Dreyfus [4] cogently rebuts the misapplication of the intentional fallacy by pointing out that the underlying assumption of all music scholarship, particularly music theory, is that things are the way they are for a reason, and that attempts to tell those reasons are efforts, equally, to tell the composer's intentions. Select the best answer from the following.

    In our coming to understand its form and process, this fugue hints of Bach's intentions and of the fugue's meaning.
    Philosophical and linguistic meanings resemble some types of musical meanings in that all three are logical (as most certainly is this fugue).
    Neither of the above
    Both of the above

  10. In the following extended quotation Oxford University's Chichele Professor of Moral Philosophy, Charles Taylor [5], observes that meaning is impossible without a "framework" in which it can be born and thrive. But frameworks are problematic today because they are not universally held as believable. Increasingly individual people find themselves unable to "join" a framework and are left to invent one for themselves. Taylor borrows Alasdair MacIntyre's word "quest" for this search. Read the quotation then select the best statement in response to it.
    Taylor: To the extent that one sees the finding of a believable framework as the object of a quest, to that extent it becomes intelligible that the search might fail. This might happen through personal inadequacy, but failure might also come from there being no ultimately believable framework. Why speak of this in terms of a loss of meaning? Partly because a framework is that in virtue of which we make sense of our lives spiritually. Not to have a framework is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. The quest is thus always a quest for sense.
    Two paragraphs later Taylor writes of Luther's existential crisis. This is important to this discussion and fugue because Bach knew Luther's ideas well, accepted them, and devoted most of his compositional output to expounding them.
    Taylor: To see the contrast, think of Luther, in his intense anguish and distress before his liberating moment of insight about salvation through faith, his sense of inescapable condemnation, irretrievably damning himself through the very instruments of salvation, the sacraments. However one might want to describe this, it was not a crisis of meaning. This term would have made no sense to Luther in its modern use that I have been describing here. The 'meaning' of life was all to unquestionable for this Augustinian monk, as it was for his whole age.
    Then in the next paragraph Taylor contrasts the Lutheran framework and its certainty of meaning with the troubling uncertainty of our own age.
    Taylor: The existential predicament in which one fears condemnation is quite different from the one where one fears, above all, meaninglessness. The dominance of the latter perhaps defines our age.

    The American poet laureate Robert Frost said that "Every time a poem is written, it is written not by cunning, but by belief." The belief of which Frost wrote is in the plasticity of meaning and the inadequacy of frameworks such that people of different times and places cannot possibly apprehend the same meaning in a poem.
    The French impressionist painter Renoir wrote that "painting done for a community was possible when painters and community shared the same vision of the world." Taylor would have called this "vision" a "framework", and those who would have heard this fugue in Bach's lifetime would have shared an understanding of its meaning even if they might not have liked the fugue or have disagreed with its meaning.
    Neither of the above.
    Both of the above

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1. Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2008) p. 199 [Return]

2. Such forms of truth exist in mathematics and logic. [Return]

3. George Steiner, Real Presences (The University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 119-120. [Return]

4. Laurence Dreyfus, “Bachian invention and its mechanisms,” ed. John Butt, The Cambridge Companion to Bach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 171 ff. [Return]

5. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 17-18). [Return]