Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547

December 13, 2020: Paul Jacobs, organ

Dating has proved extremely elusive for this remarkably masterful, surprisingly underperformed work. Scholars have proposed dates as early as c. 1719, which would mean post-Weimar (see note for BWV 532 for more about Weimar) when Bach was in Cöthen serving Prince Leopold as Kapellmeister, and as late as the 1740s in Leipzig (see note for Sinfonia from Cantata 29 for more about Leipzig), with some middle ground as “by 1725” (early Leipzig). The complexity of both movements and the parallels between them argue for Leipzig, but Bach’s mixture of originality, tradition, and scattered similarities to various works surely account for the differing opinions.

Both the Prelude and the Fugue employ short pithy motives that give no hint of the spontaneous excursions that Bach spins out nor what scholar Peter Williams calls their “carefully planned finality.” Each of the first three bars of the Prelude offers a distinct shape that proves recognizable in many variations throughout. The leaping jagged middle idea provides the basis for the leaping pedal, which never takes up the other two shapes. Bach creates the finality that will have its parallel in the Fugue with dramatic chords and a final sustained low pedal note that all point to home.

The Fugue subject also operates in one-bar segments, seemingly unfolding as a four-voice fugue with each manual responsible for two of the voices and a palpable absence of pedal. Unusual for Bach, he presents five slightly varied expositions with imaginative ways of linking them and the sheer number of times we hear the subject in myriad ways is stunning. Suddenly, two-thirds of the way into the fugue, the pedal thunders out in a fifth voice with the subject in longer note values (augmentation) while the other four voices perform miraculous strettos and inversions of the subject—pure contrapuntal wizardry. The coda takes place over the same low home pedal that Bach employed in the Prelude, now providing even grander finality by sustaining to the very end.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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