Of the many musical forms that Johann Sebastian Bach cultivated during his lifetime, none has enjoyed more lasting influence than the prelude and fugue. Although these forms predated Bach, it was his extraordinary expansion and refinement of both the prelude and the fugue and his linking of the two in imaginative ways that put the pair on the map, that made it a touchstone for composers up to the present day. Such diverse figures as Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms, Franck, Reger, Saint-Saëns, Beach, Britten, and Shostakovich tried their hand at the prelude and fugue. Stravinsky arranged two movements of The Firebird as a Prélude et Rondo, Berg cast a scene in Wozzeck as a Fantasy and Fugue, and Bernstein turned to the world of jazz with his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs. If Bach had not demonstrated the potential of the prelude and fugue in the 18th century, surely all this compositional activity would not have taken place.
Bach explored the prelude and fugue in an encyclopedic way in the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier, but it was in his organ music that he initially developed the form and then brought it to its grandest realizations. Bach worked out the fundamentals of the prelude-fugue pair during his Arnstadt years (1703-1707), in works such as the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (“Cathedral”), BWV 533; the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 535; and the Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 550. These pieces show for the first time the compositional advantages of linking a fully rounded, improvisatory prelude with a fully rounded, contrapuntally rigorous fugue.
During his Weimar years (1708-1717), Bach brought the prelude and fugue to maturation, penning a series of large, ambitious pieces that relied strongly on concerto style. In works such as the Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532; the Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540; and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (“Dorian”), BWV 538, Bach took the prelude and fugue to new heights, creating large structures that matched the contemporary instrumental concerto in length and complexity.
And finally, in Leipzig (1723-1750), Bach returned to the prelude and fugue one last time, composing five pieces of supreme craft and refinement: the Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, BWV 544; the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (“Wedge”), BWV 548; the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546; the Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537; and the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major (“St. Anne”), BWV 552.
It was in his organ music, then, that Bach developed the prelude and fugue and expanded it to its architectural limits. In this recording, Joan Lippincott provides us with a beautifully rounded survey of Bach’s mature prelude and fugue compositions, from the Pièce d’Orgue, BWV 572, one of his boldest independent preludes, to the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (“Wedge”), BWV 548, one of his most ambitious organ pieces overall. To round out the recording, Ms. Lippincott also includes the Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch,” a large chorale prelude whose canons fulfill the contrapuntal function of a fugue.
The Pièce d’Orgue in G Major, BWV 572, also termed “Preludio” and “Fantasie” in early manuscripts, is not a prelude-fugue pair at all, obviously, but a monumental self-contained prelude, a work in which Bach explored new vistas in praeambulum design. Written in Weimar around 1710, it is unique—there is nothing else quite like it in the Baroque organ repertory. The French title probably refers to the weighty middle section, a lengthy Gravement whose five-part texture, ongoing deceptive cadences, and rich chromatic harmonies reflect the Grand jeu pieces of Jacques Boyvin, André Raison, Nicolas de Grigny, and other Classical French organ composers whose works were well known to Bach. In the Pièce d’Orgue, Bach frames the Gravement with an opening toccata-like Très vitement and a closing Lentement in a free fantasy style. The resulting design, Très vitement-Gravement-Lentement, echoes the tripartite structure of the Prelude in D Major, BWV 532/1. But the dimensions are larger in the Pièce d’Orgue, and the effect is grander. Bach appears to have composed the Prelude in D Major as an independent piece, too, but then paired it with the Fugue in D Major as an afterthought. Such pairing was not appropriate for the Pièce d’Orgue. It is complete in itself.
The Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541, is also a Weimar work, most probably written a few years after the Pièce d’Orgue. The influence of Vivaldi is clear in the Prelude and the Fugue, in the crisp, angular themes, the driving motoric rhythms, and the carefully spaced cadences that mark principal structural junctures. The Prelude begins with a single-voice passaggio, or passage-work section, followed by the main body of the work, an exuberant concerto movement. The Fugue is based on a repeated-note theme, a repercussio gesture reminiscent of North German organ fugues. Here it is used as the basis of an imitative concerto movement that moves vigorously to a climactic fermata near the end. The pause is followed by a closing series of stretto entries, in which the theme appears in overlapping pairs, first between the pedal and the alto, and then between the soprano and the alto.
Bach appears to have liked the Prelude and Fugue in G Major a great deal, for he returned to it twice during the Leipzig years (1723-1750) to add further refinements to it. At some point, possibly around 1730, he considered inserting the Un poc’ allegro from Trio Sonata No. 4 in E Minor, BWV 528, between the Prelude and the Fugue to produce a three-movement concerto in the manner of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564. Around 1733 he came back to the work once again, abandoning the idea of a middle movement and adding new refinements to the Prelude and the Fugue. This he accomplished while writing out a new copy of the work, apparently for use by his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, in his audition for the organist position at St. Sophia’s Church in Dresden in June 1733. Friedemann won the job—perhaps in part because of the effect made by the revised G-Major Prelude and Fugue.
The Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, BWV 544, is one of the five grand organ prelude and fugues that Bach composed during the Leipzig years. Although the structure of both the Prelude and the Fugue continue to show Vivaldian traits (in the use of ritornello and episode sections, for instance), one sees the new influence of vocal idioms in the pliant, expressive, primarily conjunct melodic materials and a tightening of structural elements. In the Prelude, for instance, there are only four ritornello sections, and the episodes are intensely contrapuntal. In the Fugue, the lengthy middle section, for manual alone, is followed by a return to the main subject, now accompanied by a new and powerful descending countersubject.
The Prelude and Fugue in B Minor appears to date from around 1727, and Bach biographer Christoph Wolff has recently proposed that it was composed for use in the Academic Memorial Service for Saxon Electress Christiane Ebhardine that took place in the University Church in Leipzig on October 17, 1727. If that is the case, the work would have served as an organ prelude for Cantata 198, Laß Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (“Mourning Ode”), which is also cast in B minor and whose opening chorus contains similarly expressive chromatic harmonies.
The Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546, is actually a pairing of an earlier five-part fugue from Bach’s Weimar period (1708-1717) and a prelude written around 1730. Like the Prelude in B Minor, it displays the strong influence of vocal writing (this time polychoral style, seen in the alternating chords at the beginning) and a structure that features four ritornello sections and highly imitative episodes. The Fugue seems to have been paired originally with an early version of the Fantasia in C Minor, BWV 562. In Leipzig, Bach appropriated the Fugue for use with his newly written Prelude. Together, the two pieces form an effective and powerful C-minor pair.
The Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (“Wedge”), BWV 548, another Leipzig work, dates from around 1728 or so. The Prelude shares many features with the Prelude in B Minor: its thematic material is similarly pliant and characteristic of vocal music, and its structure also features four ritornello sections. The Fugue, by contrast, is very different from that of the B-minor work. It is an unabashed Spielfuge, or virtuoso fugue, based on a theme whose notes leap to ever-widening intervals in the manner of a wedge. The lengthy opening exposition of the fugue subject leads to an even larger central section in which bravura episodes are punctuated by brief reappearances of the wedge theme. The episodes become longer and more virtuosic as the piece progresses, much in the manner of a Vivaldi concerto finale. Bach rounds out the movement by bringing back the opening fugal exposition, note for note, in the fashion of a da capo aria. With 231 measures, the Wedge is Bach’s longest organ fugue and arguably the most challenging to perform.
The Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch,” BWV 769, can be tied to Bach’s association with Lorenz Mizler’s Corresponding Society of Musical Sciences. In the spring of 1747, Bach became a member of the Society, joining fellow musicians Georg Philipp Telemann, Georg Frideric Handel, Gottfried Heinrich Stötzel, and Carl Heinrich Graun. As part of the admission process, Bach submitted the Canonic Variations, a set of five canons on the popular Christmas hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The piece fulfilled Mizler’s request for a “scientific piece,” but it also mirrors Bach’s passion for canonic writing that blossomed in other late works such as The Art of Fugue, The Musical Offering, and the Goldberg Variations (both in the Variations themselves and in the newly discovered “Goldberg Canons,” BWV 1087).
Bach published the Canonic Variations soon after joining the Society. To stress the work’s learned nature, he printed the music in enigmatic notation—that is, he indicated the entrance of the imitating voice in each canon but did not write out the part, in order to emphasize the rigor of the counterpoint. In the published version of the work the canons become increasingly intricate and build to a climax in the final variation:
│ Variation 1 – Canon at the octave, cantus firmus in the pedal
│ Variation 2 – Canon at the fifth, cantus firmus in the pedal
│ Variation 3 – Canon at the seventh
│ Variation 4 – Canon at the octave, by augmentation
│ Variation 5 – All types of canons, by inversion, with the cantus firmus
│ serving as the canonic voice: (1) at the sixth, (2) at the third,
↓ (3) at the second, and (4) at the ninth
At a later point Bach entered a performance version of the Canonic Variations into the manuscript of the “Great Eighteen” Chorales. In this copy, he notated the canonic voices in full and altered details of the musical text here and there. More strikingly, he changed the order of the variations, moving the complex “mixed” canon by inversion (Variation 5 of the published version) from the end of the piece to the middle. This changes the work’s character considerably, for the climactic mixed canon now stands in the center of the set, flanked by two canons on each side. The result is a symmetrical arch form:
┌ Variation 1 – Canon at the octave, cantus firmus in the pedal
│ Variation 2 – Canon at the fifth, cantus firmus in the pedal
│ Variation 3 – All types of canons, by inversion, with the cantus firmus
→ serving as the canonic voice: (1) at the sixth, (2) at the third,
│ (3) at the second, and (4) at the ninth
│ Variation 4 – Canon at the seventh
└ Variation 5 – Canon at the octave, by augmentation
The alternate version of the Canonic Variations reflects Bach’s lifelong love of experimentation and his never-ending quest for perfection. To Bach, no work was fully complete. Rather, it remained open-ended, presenting further avenues for exploration.
It is the original printed version of the Canonic Variations, which ends with the climactic mixed canon, that Joan Lippincott performs in this recording.