To 19th century middle-Europe Bach was the Parnassus, the ‘pictorial musician-poet’, of the age. Worshipped by Beethoven (1801)—‘first father of harmony’. Monumentalised by Weber (1821)—‘a Gothic cathedral dedicated to the arts’. Deified by Schumann (1840)—‘unapproachable, unfathomable’. The Bach Awakening was a peculiarly German/Anglo-Saxon affair. It elevated one man’s genius. It gave the Baroque Romantic pertinence. It made History acceptable to programme. Sailing by the flag of German fugue, Mendelssohn the conductor, Liszt the pianist, led the way, promulgating Bachian aesthetic for the common good. Bach’s keyboard output spanned his life. Music for private, public or pedagogical use, universally destined if at the outset confined to the locale of his appointments—for ‘Bach and his fellow organists and cantors belonged to a closed society [not to the “larger world” of the “great centres of Europe”] His reputation as an organist was widespread, but it was a provincial fame, far removed from the European reputation that Handel enjoyed’ (Max Graf, Composer and Critic
, 1947). The organ works comprise chorale settings plus preludes, fugues, trio sonatas, duetti, fantasias, toccatas and arrangements—mostly from the secular years pre Leipzig and duties at the Thomaskirche. The 292-bar Passacaglia in C minor towers among the most regal and visionary. If, as widely assumed, it was written in Arnstadt or Mühlhausen where Bach was organist (1703-08)—the period when he walked to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play—then, astonishingly, it’s the statement, the profundity, of a young man still in his late teens/early twenties. In the typical passacaglia style of the day, the music presents a set of continuous variations on a repeating basso ostinato (an eight-bar triple-time ground initially unaccompanied on pedals) and the harmonic logic implicit within its contour. Notated with a key-signature of two rather than three flats (following baroque convention), and without tempo indication (save the adagio of the last two bars), the ebb and flow is dictated by quickening or slowing note-values within a constant pulse. Re-aligning precedent and procedure to consolidate the model championed by Beethoven and Brahms, Bach significantly doesn’t confine his ostinato to only the bass register; nor does he adhere routinely to its short-long iambic metre—modifying the rhythm as early as bar 40, using semiquaver couplets and rests to break-up the legato phrasing. In 88/89ff he transfers the melody to the upper voice; similarly in 168/69ff where, marked Thema fugatum, it becomes the subject of a four-part fugue (ASBT exposition). Elsewhere he arpeggiates the chordal scheme, sketching a chaconne-style toccata progression on the manuals, 120/21ff. Transmoding, transposing or adapting the ground into other keys (fugue, 197/98ff) is also ventured. All devices, he would have claimed, designed to create ‘a well-sounding harmony to the Glory of God’ (courtesy of Friedrich Niedt).
from notes by Ates Orga © 2007