We have something special for you this week - our Musical Director Ieuan Davies shares his thoughts on J.S. Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, a truly spectacular piece we're looking forward to sharing at our Summer Concert in Lymington on Saturday.
"This work (originally for organ) is one of Bach’s great achievements. It was composed some time between 1706 and 1713 when the composer was in his early twenties. Looking back to earlier models and the work of Bach’s teachers, it absorbs the old style into a fierce vision of the new, combining a tour-de-force of keyboard skills with audacious compositional experimentation.
In the winter of 1705, the twenty-year-old Bach was given leave of absence to travel north, on foot, to the city of Lübeck on the Baltic coast. He had sought permission from his employers at the church in Arnstadt in Thuringia to stay away for four weeks, “to learn one thing and another about his art”. He didn’t return for four months, thus missing many important services. Despite this, the church authorities did not see fit to sack him. The teacher he went to visit and study with was the venerable Dieterich Buxtehude (circa 1637-1707) whose organ works represent a central part of the standard organist’s repertoire and are still frequently performed at recitals and in church services.
In the mid baroque period one of the most famous styles of organ display was that of the Passacaglia. Originally a Spanish dance in 3/4 time, a Passacaglia is built on a repeating bass line or ostinato, over which a series of variations appear in the upper voices. In principle it’s one of the simplest approaches to music-making, one that crosses all kinds of traditions, from folk to jazz and beyond: to keep the bass-line going and do something different above each repetition of the pattern.
Bach returned Arnstadt with several choice examples of these works; indeed, those that remain from Buxtehude survive mainly because of Bach’s efforts. The earliest source is found alongside Buxtehude’s music in a collection of music copied by Bach’s brother Andreas, who, for some inexplicable reason, turned the book 180 degrees to write in the Passacaglia. Perhaps, with that act, he was expressing a truth: that a great work turns the world upside down. Not only is the music notated upside down, but the principles of its construction are also inverted
This C minor Passacaglia and Fugue is longer and more complex than its predecessors. It’s theme first appears alone in the bass, a new way to begin such a work, and is both simple and challenging. The ostinato defined by the opening bass line, but it as if the old form cannot hold the imagination of the young composer. It breaks free, migrating up through the texture before being absorbed into virtuosic scales and broken chords. It becomes veiled yet still audible as it escapes its anchoring role to be dispersed across the voices and then to vanish off the very top of the keyboard into momentary silence."
By Ieuan Davies, Musical Director
New Forest Orchestra will perform Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in their Summer Concert at St Thomas' Church, Lymington, at 19.30 on Saturday 29 June. Tickets are available online now with an advance booking discount.