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Bach: Weimar Preludes and Fugues/Lippincott
J.S. Bach: Weimar Preludes and Fugues/Lippincott

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Program and Notes Reviews
J.S. Bach: Weimar Preludes and Fugues
Paul Fritts organ, University of Notre Dame
Joan Lippincott, organ

Bach's prelude and fugue compositions reached an extraordinary peak of sophistication and virtuosity during his tenure as court organist in Weimar (1708-1717). Joan Lippincott plays the Paul Fritts organ in a highly reverberant room that is not unlike the court chapel in Weimar.
Program Notes

Prelude, Largo and Fugue in C Major, BWV 545
     1 Prelude (2:26)
     2 Largo (5:47)
     3 Fugue (4:17)

Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543
     4 Prelude (3:46)
     5 Fugue (6:50)

Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537
     6 Fantasia (5:16)
     7 Fugue (4:33)

Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, BWV 534
     8 Prelude (4:20)
     9 Fugue (5:55)

Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532
     10 Prelude (5:39)
     11 Fugue (6:41)

Prelude and Fugue in D Minor (“Fiddle”), BWV 539
     12 Prelude (2:39)
     13 Fugue (5:56)

Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542
     14 Fantasia (5:49)
     15 Fugue 6:32

TOTAL 76:27

When one contemplates Johann Sebastian Bach and his role in the development of the prelude and fugue, one naturally thinks of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the famous collection in which he explored the possibilities of prelude and fugue writing in an encompassing, encyclopedic way. But the Well-Tempered Clavier represents Bach’s summary of a genre that he codified and refined at an earlier point in his life, in a series of adventurous and increasingly ambitious organ works. These works first emerged during his youthful years as a church organist in Arnstadt (1703-1707) and Mühlhausen (1707-1708) and then reached an extraordinary peak of sophistication and virtuosity during his tenure as court organist in Weimar (1708-1717), where the pleasure that the reigning duke took in his playing “fired him with the desire to try every possible artistry in his treatment of the organ,” as his obituary later put it.

This artistry is obvious in the works performed by organist Joan Lippincott on the present recording, which features seven preludes and fugues that stem from the Weimar period or shortly thereafter. The preludes display a wide range of experimental designs and styles and reflect Bach, the bold innovator. The fugues combine sophisticated four- and five-part counterpoint with bravura passage-work and illustrate Bach, the polyphonic master. One also senses in this music an unadulterated passion for organ playing. In the athletic pedal parts the feet are required to execute passages as difficult as those for the hands. Bach must have been proud of these pieces, which were so technically demanding that they could be performed only by the composer himself and a handful of his students.

What was the function of the preludes and fugues in Bach’s day? They could be used in the Lutheran worship service, of course, as preludes to other music or preludes and postludes to the entire service. Bach also utilized them as teaching material for advanced keyboard pupils, as the numerous surviving student copies attest. But they probably served mainly as recital material for organ concerts and examinations, where they functioned as masterful examples of free organ composition—that is, works not based on an existing melody.

Preludes and fugues were normally performed with a plenum registration, a rich combination of stops producing the sound of the full organ. Indeed, the manuscripts of many of the works on the present recording include the instruction pro organo pleno—for the full organ. But “full organ” had many interpretations in Bach’s time. While it implied an ensemble sound based on principal stops (the foundation tones of the organ), specific combinations could vary greatly, ranging from a few principals to principals with doubling flutes and strings to a full chorus with bold reed stops thrown in.

On the present recording Joan Lippincott uses a variety of full organ registrations. For the first and last works—the Prelude, Largo, and Fugue in C Major and the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor—she uses a plenum with the manuals coupled and the 16’ manual principal drawn. For the Fugue of the first piece she employs a reed plenum on the Hauptwerk. For the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor she uses the plenum of the Rückpositive division alone. In the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor she employs a small plenum of three 8’ Hauptwerk stops (Octave, Rohrflöte, and Viol di Gamba) for the Fantasia and the reed plenum of the Rückpositive for the Fugue. These and other registrations not only illustrate the variegated nature of full organ sounds but also display the rich variety of stop combinations available on the new Paul Fritts organ at the University of Notre Dame.

The Prelude, Largo, and Fugue in C Major, BWV 545, illustrates Bach’s interest in amalgamating the organ prelude and fugue with the three-movement Italian concerto. The work is passed down both as a straightforward prelude and fugue (in several slightly different versions) and a three-movement (fast-slow-fast) concerto-like format. The music for all three movements seems to have originated in Weimar, but it continued to undergo transformations into the Leipzig years.

The concise but effective Prelude, with its instrumental idiom and motoric rhythmic pulse, shows the early influence of Vivaldi. The Fugue is based on a white-note, alla breve theme that Bach treats in a masterly four-voice manner. The Largo is the early version of an organ trio that Bach later recycled as the middle movement of Trio Sonata No. 5 in C Major, BWV 528.

The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543, appears to be a product of the early Weimar years, written a few years after Bach’s famous visit with his North-German predecessor Dieterich Buxtehude in 1705-1706 but before his encounter with Vivaldi’s L’Estro armonico concertos in 1712. The rhapsodic, pedal-point opening of the Prelude and the free, pedal-cadenza close of the Fugue point to Buxtehude’s style and suggest that Bach was still looking to his forebear for compositional inspiration. But the second portion of the Prelude, with its imitative sequences and motor rhythms, and the general design of the Fugue, with its clear delineation of harmonic stations and modulatory episodes, point to the emerging Italian concerto — probably that of Torelli or Corelli rather than that of Vivaldi. At the same time, the dramatic sweep of the Prelude and Fugue and the technical demands of the pedal part point to no one other than Bach.

The Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 537, is handed down in just one source, a manuscript written by Johann Tobias Krebs and his son Johann Ludwig, on January 10, 1751—less than six months after Bach’s death. Both had studied organ with the composer.
Although the Fantasia and Fugue was long considered a Weimar work, its form and highly refined style are more characteristic of Bach’s Leipzig compositions. The somber Fantasia is based on two pedal points—the first on the tonic and the second on the dominant—and the imitative treatment of a slurred, two-note lament motive. The Fantasia concludes in an open-ended fashion on a half cadence, forming an organic bridge to the Fugue.

The Fugue is an unusual example of an A B A fugue, in which Bach takes a lyrical form—the operaticda capo aria—and uses it as a vessel for contrapuntal development. The A section is based an arpeggiated subject that initially leaps upward a fifth and then downward a diminished seventh. The theme is treated in strict fashion in four voices. The B section is based on a contrasting subject that climbs chromatically, half-step by halfstep, to fill in the interval of a fourth. After an expressive, dramatic development of the B theme, the A section returns in encapsulated form. The subjects of the A and B sections are never combined; Bach focuses instead on the contrasting nature of the two themes and their differing contrapuntal treatment.

One finds several other examples of da capo fugues among Bach’s Leipzig works: the “Wedge” Fugue of the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548, and Duetto 2 in F Major from Clavierübung III, BWV 803, both for organ, and the Fugue of the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in Eb Major, BWV 998, for lute, for instance. But nowhere is his writing more concise, direct, and intense than in the Fugue of the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor. It is humbling to think that this extraordinary piece might have been lost to posterity, had not the two Krebses taken time to copy it out on a winter’s day shortly after Bach’s death.

The Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, BWV 534, is an interesting example of what appears to be a work-in-progress. Although there is no reason to doubt the piece’s authenticity (as some scholars have done), it is clearly passed down in an unpolished state: its text contains a number of compositional errors that seem to reflect either an early rough draft of the music or a series of scribal errors. Since the Prelude and Fugue is preserved in just a single manuscript copy, written out many years after Bach’s death by a pupil of his famous last student Johann Christian Kittel, it is difficult to tell which is true.

The Prelude is based on two extended pedal points, the first on the tonic and the second on the dominant, and it achieves a noble grandeur by way of its steadfast forward motion. The Fugue is one of Bach’s earlier efforts at five-part contrapuntal writing. While not as refined as the five-part Fugue in C# Minor from the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, written approximately ten years later, it nevertheless reflects well on Bach’s youthful Weimar ambitions. Its theme, like that of the Fugue of the Prelude, Largo, and Fugue in C Major, is based on a whole-note alla breve idea, in this case one that climbs a minor third before falling a diminished seventh.

The Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532, most probably from the early Weimar years, illustrates Bach’s great interest in stylistic diversity. The Prelude is divided in three contrasting sections. The first, which serves as an introduction, draws on gestures found in the North-German Praeludium: bravura pedal and manual scales, extended pedal point with imitative entries, and an extended double trill. Such writing was intended to capture the attention of the listener. The more extended second section, in stricter rhythm, is a sprightly Italian instrumental movement. The third section, which serves as a conclusion, brings back the North-German idiom, this time in the guise of a dense, harmonically rich passage complete with double pedal.
The four-part Fugue is a spirited instrumental piece based on a twisty subject that requires virtuoso alternate-toe pedaling. Bach’s initial concept of the movement (BWV 532/2a) was considerably shorter and less refined. In reworking the music, Bach increased the number of thematic entries, expanded the harmonic scheme, and refined the text here and there. The Fugue reaches a brilliant climax with an extended pedal cadenza, leading the scribe of one early manuscript copy of the work to warn the player, “Note well: in this piece one must really let the feet kick around a lot.”

The Prelude and Fugue in D Minor (“Fiddle”), BWV 539, dates from shortly after Bach’s Weimar stay—either from his tenure as court chapel master in Cöthen (1717-1723) or from his initial years as Cantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig (1723-1750). The Fugue is a keyboard transcription of the second movement of the Sonata in G Minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1001, a work completed in 1720. Bach also arranged the Fugue for lute (BWV 1000), and one can certainly understand why he returned to the music several times: based on a crisp, incisive Vivaldi-like theme, it has a relentless forward movement that makes it immensely compelling. The Fugue concludes with a short cadenza in a free style—a remnant of its violin origins.

The modest manual Prelude that precedes the Fugue has an arpeggiated texture and a simple, rounded binary form. It resembles the type of fashionable, uncomplicated harpsichord music that was becoming increasingly popular during Bach’s later years. Paired with the much-longer Fugue, the Prelude serves as a perfect foil for the extended contrapuntal writing that follows.

The monumental Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542, probably originated as two independent pieces. The match is a magnificent one, with the Sturm und Drang chromatic tension of the Fantasia finding release in the extroverted Fugue.

The Fantasia is a superb example of the Baroque fantastic style, in which organists were encouraged to improvise as freely and daringly as the imagination—and the rules of harmony and counterpoint—would allow. One finds similar writing in the Fantasia of the famous Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, for harpsichord. In the G-Minor Fantasia Bach alternates free sections of recitative-like writing and chromatic chordal progressions with stricter sections of imitative counterpoint, producing an overall A B A B A design. The harmony ranges as far afield as Eb minor, a very unstable region in Bach’s time.

The Fugue seems to have been one of Bach’s most popular organ pieces, to judge from the fact that it is handed down in numerous manuscript copies. Bach appears to have played it during his visit to Hamburg in 1720, when he auditioned for the organist post at the St. Jacob’s Church. Johann Mattheson, a Hamburg-based theorist, later quoted its theme, which is a rich elaboration of the Dutch folksong “Ick ben gegroet.” The figural play of the subject sets the tone for the entire piece, which progresses through an extended series of animated expositions and episodes until it reaches its climactic close. The Fugue is one of the most virtuosic organ movements Bach wrote. Indeed, in several manuscripts it is termed “The very best pedal-piece by Mr. Bach.”

Bach went on to write a number of additional preludes and fugues. But the works presented here show an exuberance and innovation that were never surpassed.
—George B. Stauffer

An note about the organ used for this recording...

The new Fritts organ built for The University of Notre Dame is similar in many ways to the organs Bach played in Mühlhausen and Weimar. Although the popular view of Bach’s organ works is that they were written for extremely large instruments (perhaps due to Hollywood’s overdose of Toccata and Fugue in d minor), the organs Bach wrote for in Mühlhausen and Weimar were two-manual instruments.

The Mühlhausen organ featured a Rückpositiv and main case, just like the Notre Dame organ. The organ in Weimar Court Chapel, which burned during Bach’s lifetime, was more unusual in its configuration. A single extant painting of the chapel interior shows a tall room with two stories of balconies inset into the walls, similar to those of the Reyes Organ and Choral Hall. Also like Reyes Hall, the sides of the room were arrayed with arches and pillars. It is likely that the room was very live, acoustically; the picture shows no permanent furniture on the floor other than the altar and altar platform. Above the canopy over the altar, there appears to be a cloth train, connected to a round medallion on the ceiling. Ascending on this train is a series of angels that lead to the ceiling. Next to the ceiling attachment is a rectangular opening, which exposes a musicians’ gallery in the attic. During church services, the choir, and optionally a small orchestra would stand next to the organ around the railing of this hole in the ceiling, projecting their voices downward, creating the effect of music descending from heaven.

The organ in this space was understandably modest in size compared to three and four manual organs in the parish churches of larger cities. However, it did have two complete manual divisions of approximately equal power, unlike the organ Bach played at his first Church job in Arnstadt. There, the second manual was a Brustwerk, which was significantly smaller than the main keyboard, the Hauptwerk.

The O’Malley Organ, with its configuration of two large divisions of almost equal power and presence, coupled with the reverberant acoustics of Reyes Hall, produce an environment that is quite sympathetic with Bach’s own work space in Weimar. The abundance of North German style reeds on this organ would no doubt delight Bach, who praised the number and variety of such reeds on the organ of the St. Catherine Church in Hamburg. The wide variety of plenum combinations that are possible on the Fritts organ is also indispensable for these works, which traditionally require organo pleno registrations.
—Roger W. Sherman

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