Bach’s Mysterious Fugues Get Persian Remix at Proms

Mahan Esfahani
Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. The young Iranian-American musician performs his arrangement of Bach’s "The Art of Fugue" with the Academy of Ancient Music at the BBC Proms, July 21. Photographer: Marco Borggreve/Rebecca Driver PR via Bloomberg

As enigmas go, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” has nothing on Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.”

The 1751 work (published posthumously) might or might not be for keyboard, is tantalizingly unfinished, and may contain a coded philosophical message. Riddle hunters have produced theory after theory to explain its meaning.

Now the dynamic Iranian-American musician Mahan Esfahani is about to unlock some of its secrets. His arrangement for the Academy of Ancient Music will premiere at the BBC Proms in London on July 21.

I meet up with the 28-year-old harpsichordist in Oxford, where he lives. In slacks, casual blue shirt and dark jacket, he looks like a young Oxbridge don. When he speaks in a passionate rapid-fire fashion, with ideas pouring out of him, he sounds like an evangelist. Which, in a sense, he is.

“How can you ever be sure of anything when you play music as great as Bach’s?” he says. “I love that sense of frustration. Bach is the best lesson in dedicating your life to something you probably won’t ever fully understand. I think of it as a calling.”

It’s just as well. “The Art of Fugue” has enough mystery to last several lifetimes.

Logical Rigor

A fugue is a formal piece in which a single melody is varied and played against itself. Rigorous and logical, it’s about the most difficult type of composition there is. “The Art of Fugue” contains 14 fugues, some of mind-boggling complexity, and four canons.

Amazingly, none of them sound academic or dry. Instead, they have the miraculous spontaneity of an improvisation.

From the score, it’s not clear whether Bach intended a keyboard or a small group of instruments to perform them.

“I’m convinced that he wrote them for keyboard,” says Esfahani. “So I’ve started my arrangement from that idea, and tried to recreate the colors which go through my head when I’m practicing it on the harpsichord alone at night.”

Surely Bach would approve. Won’t an orchestra have a greater range of color and dynamics than a harpsichord?

“Will it?” says Esfahani, his harpsichordist’s fighting spirit roused. “I think the jury’s out on what people think of as the limitations of the harpsichord. Bach would surely never have focused his life on an instrument which was somehow inferior to other instruments.”

Musical Colors

Naturally, therefore, Esfahani has included a harpsichord, which he will play himself, in his own arrangement. Other instruments will be solo strings, oboe, flute, bassoon and cornett.

“I’ve tried to explore the range of colors of each instrument,” he says. “I was probably the world’s worst tar player (a kind of Persian lute), but my teacher showed me how its sounds could vary. He would call its different registers ‘the grandfather,’ or ‘the son,’ and so on, and make a whole narrative out of them. I’ve used that idea of different colors and narratives here too.”

Esfahani was born in Tehran, and moved with his parents to the U.S. when he was three. After studying history at Stanford University, he was considering a law degree when the call of music -- his passion -- became too great.

He later moved to the U.K. to join the BBC New Generation Artists program, which was founded to help promising young talent, and became the first harpsichordist to give a solo recital at the Proms.

Esfahani retains strong links with Iran, and is in constant contact with his cousins and friends via Facebook.

Pizza Eaters

Western classical music plays a strong role there.

“The media here gives an incomplete picture of Iran,” he says. “Iranians are presented as fanatics or shown in a supposedly well-meaning way as being ‘safe’ because they eat pizza and listen to rock music. In fact, there’s a vital literary tradition in Iran, and authors older than Chaucer are read and discussed every day. Classical art is very much alive for us. We approach western classical music in the same way, as something living.”

One lively theory about “The Art of Fugue” is that it contains a hidden working-out of various Pythagorean philosophical principles. Is Esfahani excited by the “Da Vinci” aspects of the work?

“Yes, deeply,” he says. “I think Bach’s own audience would have been more aware of the possibilities it contains than we are now. I’d love to use multimedia in performance -- like rolling projections of the score, and other materials -- to recreate that knowledge. I think we could use inauthentic means to recreate an authentic experience.”

Mahan Esfahani performs “The Art of Fugue” with the Academy of Ancient Music on July 21 in Cadogan Hall as part of the BBC Proms. Information: or +44-845-401-5040 and

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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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