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Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue, BWV 903

March 19, 2023 – Rachel Naomi Kudo, piano

Bach’s first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote of Bach’s celebrated Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue: “I have taken infinite pains to discover another piece of this kind by Bach, but in vain. This fantasia is unique, and never had its like.” Forkel had duly taken note of the Fantasia’s bold chromatic improvisatory flights, the unusual use of recitative in an instrumental piece, and the drama and harmonic adventurousness in both the Fantasia and Fugue, and was astonished to find that Bach had written no other works like it.

Bach may well have composed the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue before 1723, and it may have been one of the pieces he wrote for the new two-keyboard harpsichord for which he traveled to Berlin to acquire for the Cöthen court. The work most certainly was the product of Bach’s practice of improvising at the keyboard and appears to have gone through many stages in the way that Bach himself played it. One manuscript for the work states that the piece had reached its final form by 1730, but many versions postdate this manuscript, including versions known to have been played by Bach’s sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. Bach scholars have identified some thirty-seven different roughly contemporary manuscript sources for the work—some that wound up as far afield as Vienna, Italy, and France, attesting to the work’s universal appeal. The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was also championed by nineteenth-century piano virtuosos such as Liszt and Busoni.

With its chromatic flourishes and broken chords, the opening of the Fantasia sounds extemporized. It also contains progressions that Bach wrote out in chords but that are meant to be played in arpeggiated style—these often take daring harmonic excursions. Bach also borrowed from vocal tradition by including a passage marked “recitative,” which imitates speech in its free declamatory style.

The ensuing three-voice Fugue is all the more remarkable when one considers that Bach originally conceived it in all its complexity on the spot. Though he and other keyboardists of the day were trained in such improvisation, and though he no doubt polished the Fugue over successive years as he performed it and used it as a teaching piece, the achievement is still remarkable. The Fugue subject itself is an especially lengthy one that contains several different motivic elements for later elaboration: a four-note chromatic ascent that occurs twice, a little three-note “dip” at the peak, a four-note descent that balances the previous ascent, and a stepwise rhythmic sequence based on a repeated eighth note and two sixteenths. At several points Bach heightens the drama by introducing a pedal tone (a long held note), under or over which figuration unfolds until the tension is released by the resumption of motion in the pedal voice. The last of these occurs with great drama at the conclusion, where the release launches a descending version of the rhythmic sequence over which a series of massive chords unfolds, bringing a final flourish and cadence.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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