About this work
This work was probably written during Johann Sebastian Bach's service at Weimar (1708-1717), most likely in 1712. Sometime after 1740, Bach revised the piece. At one time, J.P. Kellner, an organist, copied out the work, adding the first 13 measures of the Andante from Bach's Organ Sonata No. 4 in E minor as a kind of an intermezzo between the prelude and fugue. Bach's obsession with repeated notes and chords in this work seems to be an attribute of his "Weimar style." Repeated notes are a salient feature not only of the fugue (a characteristic associated by some with the north German school), but of the prelude as well, where the repetition of entire chords plays a significant role. Repetition to this degree is somewhat unusual in works of the time, found in little organ music and almost no harpsichord works. A graceful passage consisting of a single line elegantly opens the triple meter prelude, filling in harmonies and providing no hint of the thicker texture to come. When the other voices enter, the device of repetition begins immediately, alternating measures of repeated chords with the fluid line of the opening. At times, the chords become very thick, while only the pedal part maintains the constant sixteenth note movement. As a motif of six repeated eighth notes moves from voice to voice, Bach passes through numerous chromatic alterations of the melodic material. Unlike some of his later works, which employ repetition to prepare suspensions, the reiteration of notes and chords here is for its own sake, creating rhythmic drive.
The fugue subject is built principally of repeated notes with little melodic contour. Beyond this and the key of G major, there is little relationship to the prelude, for the repeated notes do not grow into repeated chords. In an unusual move, Bach takes some of the middle entries of the subject through the tonic minor, and a Neapolitan cadence near the end is striking. Although there is only one extended episode, this and the other, shorter, episodes amount to half of the fugue. This work is a dense, motivically intense piece that is more a study in compositional rigor and harmonic adventurousness than in the presentation of tuneful material.