Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue

I have never heard a composition so deep, rich, and stringently logical, both in terms of its internal order, and by the designs of genre, as J. S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, for organ, BWV 582.

And, I’m by no means the only one compelled by its authority.

According to professor Annette Richards, music scholar, Bach’s brother recorded this piece — earliest known copy of the work — into a musical book upside down, which signifies a profound recognition of sorts, either that he was too engrossed to pay attention, or that he intended to say of this piece, explicitly, that it is different from the rest of the organ repertoire.

It was also powerful enough to inspire Jimi Hendricks roughly 250 years later, and Francis Coppola, director of the Godfather, who kept a scene in the film merely because of it, not to mention countless other arrangements and performances up to the present time.

My guess is that it will continue to inspire artists and thinkers for decades more, if not centuries, and I’m willing to call it one of the supreme achievements of human history.

That’s not bad for a young man in his twenties. Though, that isn’t nearly so shocking. Bach, even young Bach, has proved through his production a remarkable talent for purely systematic thinking, which has given him the popular respect as a mathematical musician, whether or not such ascriptions are accurate, or sensible.

Bottom line, I recommend this piece to anyone interested in music, music history, or the history of ideas.


The Image of Telemann

Unlike Sabastian Bach or Handel, the figure of Telemann is weak currency; it occupies no space in the mind, despite the fact that at one time, Telemann was one of the most famous (and prolific) composers in 18th century Continental Europe.

In addition to being an operatic composer, opera director, and church and civic musician, Telemann was also busy executing and administrating a complicated music publication enterprise, in which he successfully distributed his music across Europe, and which involved marketing and network distribution processes that are still not understood by scholars of music history and commerce.

Telemann’s approach to publication and distribution would explain his far-reaching celebrity as a composer (even in Paris, where he was exalted!). Publishing while other composers rarely did so, or less frequently, allowed him to dominate the attention economy of old Europe.

While the figure of Telemann is now vague, perhaps that should change? Telemann is one of those rare figures who are equal parts artist and administrator (like Goethe), enterprising businessman and perceptive poet (like Alexander Pope, thriving on the royalties of a Homeric translation); he ought to figure as a model of the ideal Capitalist, someone who can produce substantial material, quickly, and distribute it to audiences wide.

In short, Telemann is the classic commercial artist.



The Pipe Organ

Ah … the Pipe Organ, the King of Instruments, so called by Mozart.

Indeed, the Pipe Organ is not only a large physical instrument, sometimes weighing several dozens of tons, but they also produce an equally large sound, powerful, provocative, and beautiful.

However, the Pipe Organ was not always the colossus it is today. The instrument has an origin in antiquity — specifically Greece — where it was no larger than a dresser, one manual, and powered by water and gravity. Water would sit in a chamber, and when a key was pressed, the water would fall by gravity down a pipe mechanism, forcing air through a reed, producing a sound.

Modern organs are powered by the same principle, except in Bach’s day, the air was collected in a wind chest, and supplied by foot billows, which had to be pumped by an assistant; and with today’s organs, an electric fan or some electric arrangement supplies air to the wind chest.

An organ stop is a device which engages certain pipes, which produce certain sounds.  Some large organs have dozens of stops, and therefore sounds, like the principle stops, woodwind stops, horn stops, and so on.

In terms of sound variety, and dynamism — loud or soft — the organ can match an orchestra in range of expression.

One of the unique features of an organ is the foot manual, the foot pedals. A talented organist can play three or even four lines of counterpoint at a time, by dividing the lines between the hands and feet. It is said that Bach was such a master of the foot manual, that he could play a complicated sequence with his feet what others could not play with their hands.

There is so much more on this topic to discuss, but I have to limit myself.

Here is a recommendation for entry listening:

Try Bach’s Fugue in G major, BWV 577.

While listening, follow the subject as it travels from tenor to alto, then to soprano, and concluding — gloriously — in bass, this section being played by the feet.

Or, try Mozart’s Organ Fantasie in F minor.

This is the Grand Organ of St. Jacob’s Cathedral in Austria, for example.



The Harpsichord

During the Baroque period, harpsichords were used as solo instruments, for suites or fantasies, for example, or as supporting instruments for chamber ensemble, in which they supplied the bass along with viol de gamba (ancestor to cello) or bassoon, and supporting harmonies.

J.S. Bach was the first composer to use the harpsichord as a solo instrument in the concerto form, a novelty to which we owe the piano concertos of the Classical period.

The harpsichord remained the professional keyboard instrument for composers and musicians until the piano forte replaced it in the early 19th Century.  Pianos still existed in Bach’s time, but design defects made them an awkward and impractical choice.


Bach’s Ambition

In 1703, Bach wrote a letter of resignation to the council of Muhlhausen in which he — at the very young age of 23 — wrote that his life’s design was to compose a well regulated church music.  And it turned out to be one of those famous moments which transcend time, and which extend beyond the immediate circumstance in which it was born; like that letter from Newton to Hooke in which Newton declared that he was standing on the shoulders of giants; or like that letter from Voltaire to Rousseau in which Voltaire wrote sarcastically that Rousseau’s prize winning thesis had almost inspired him to grow beastly and revert to all fours.  Anyways…

Why did Bach write the letter?

He felt that the ecclesiastical counsel did not provide him with a sufficient livelihood due to a cantor and organist; he had a somewhat lame organ with which to work, that I believe he was forced to repair, and he did not have permission to expand on the repertoire, but simply to play the old hymns preferred by conservative members of counsel and congregation. Thus, he intended to satisfy his ambition by finding new employment.

But what does he mean by a well regulated church music?

I would like to try to give an interpretation of this phrase, so that someone new to Bach might understand his meaning, and thus grow to appreciate a preponderance and focus which is so unusual in young age, and so peculiar to Bach’s character in general.

By a well regulated church music, Bach meant to say that his life’s work was to compose a church music which is consistent along technical lines and aesthetic lines. In other words, Bach intended to write music which is uniformly built according to the principals of musical craftsmanship — in the Italian or French way, the laws of the ear.



Music History

I’m providing context for readers who are not familiar with the Baroque period, by creating a simple — if a little inexact — sketch with which to think about its place in History. This is not a scholarly construction, it’s only intended to supply a basic idea.

So, here it is:

Post-Modern – 21st Century

Modern – 20th and 21st Century

Romantic – 19th and 20th Century

Classical – 18th and 19th Century

Baroque – 17th and 18th Century

Renaissance – 16th and 17th Century

Middle age and Renaissance composers developed a style of music writing of many independent musical voices called polyphony. The first examples of polyphony are derived from the Gregorian Chant, and originate in Medieval Paris, where the style was taken up and refined by French and Italian theorists and composers.

The formal technique of polyphony is called counterpoint. The Baroque period inherited this technique and gave it its most extravagant and systematic expression. In turn, the counterpoint of the Baroque gave over to the homophony of the Classical period — a style in which one voice is supported by harmonic constructions.

I do not mean to suggest that counterpoint was abandoned by composers of the Classical period.  Indeed, Mozart gave us very good examples of it in his Great Mass in C minor, for example, or Haydn in his Creation, or Beethoven in his Mass in D Major, but it was no longer the defining or prominent feature of that style.

Now, counterpoint is just one of many compositional techniques.

Bach: His Style and Time

I find it interesting that scholars conflate the end of the Baroque age with the death of it’s most enigmatic composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, a man who by some accounts (Goethe and Nietzsche), had more in common with a distant and hazy Age (Medieval) than with his own (Flindell 4).

We all know a connection exists between Bach and Vivaldi’s courtly and gallant style, the style of the late Baroque. Indeed, Bach’s concertos (not the Brandenburg Concertos so much) are compared in subsequent relation to the technical formulas of Vivaldi. But for all of Bach’s music which feels Baroque, there is that much more which does not. These probably include the organ and vocal works, the passacaglia, fugues, canons, motets, etc.

Is there truly a connection between Bach and Medievalism?

And if such a connection exists, would it alter the classification of Bach as an eminent Baroque composer? Would it even change the nature and scope of the classification itself, since the two, Bach’s death and the end of the Baroque, are so intimately connected?


Flindell, Frederick. “Bach and the Middle Ages.” Bach, vol. 36, no. 2, 2005, pp. 1-119.