Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582

December 5, 2021: Paul Jacobs, organ

For the last work in this 335th anniversary celebration of Bach, we turn to the earliest work on the program and one of his most famous, the Passacaglia in C minor. Not only has this organ work been arranged numerous times for orchestra, piano, or various chamber groups, but it has made its way into popular culture through films and such diverse renditions as Jimi Hendrix’s Lift Off and the jazz flute version by Hubert Laws, both in 1973.

Precise dating of the Passacaglia is educated guesswork, but a range between 1706 and 1713 is typically given. Though no manuscript in Bach’s hand exists, the various sources show enough variants to suggest that the original version was written out in organ tablature (system of notation with numbers, letters, and other signs to indicate keys). The thinking is that Bach may have made such a version during his visit to Lübeck in 1705–06 or perhaps shortly after he got back to Arnstadt, where he soon felt stifled after the stimulation of Lübeck and moved to an organist position at Mühlhausen. Or it could be that a later version spilled over into his early years at Weimar (see the note for BWV 582 for more about Weimar).

The form of a passacaglia, often indistinguishable from that of a chaconne, consists of a series of variations based on a repeating pattern in the bass—typically four or eight measures—and relies on traditional chord progressions. Such pieces flourished especially during the Baroque era, when many composers made use of existing passacaglia themes for their own sets of variations. In Bach’s case, his work consists of a theme and twenty variations, the last of which is extended without pause by a fugue, which could also count as Variation 21.

Some scholars have conjectured that Bach may have composed the Fugue first, basing it on two main subjects—the first drawn from a mass by French organist André Raison from his Livre d’orgue, published in Paris in 1699, and the second, which he would tweak to become the Passacaglia’s second half, placed as a pulsing countersubject to the first subject. Yet a third fugue subject in faster note values then enters as a countersubject to the combined counterpoint of the first two. The tweaked second half of the Passacaglia has been found to be similar to a passacaille in a different mass by Raison, which some view as just a coincidence. Whether or not the Fugue or the Passacaglia came first, both show added influences of other composers such as Buxtehude and Legrenzi whose works on repeating patterns Bach was studying around that time.

Many commentators have proposed theories of what sorts of symbolism or symmetries seem to be at work in the Passacaglia, and there are numerous differences of opinion as to where formal divisions and groupings lie. A general consensus, however, seems to be that there is a break in intensity after Variation 12, followed by an “interlude” of three variations and another group of five that ends with great majesty.

The Fugue is the work’s crowning achievement—more complicated than a fugue on a single subject and thus called a double fugue by many, though definitions vary. The upshot is that Bach was thinking about counterpoint in remarkably sophisticated ways and surpassing all of his models in creating an original design. After the first presentation of the subject and countersubject, this pair returns four times, migrating systematically among voices and moving out of and back into the home key—and at the same time incorporating a third subject (countersubject) as well as a layer of freely composed material. All of this leads with dramatic purpose to a resounding conclusion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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