Prelude & Fugue

Johann Sebastian Bach

Prelude & Fugue in Eb major

BWV552 • “St. Anne”

About this work

Johann Sebastian' Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, owes its nickname "St. Anne" to the close similarity between the theme of the fugue itself, and the eponymous hymn tune by William Croft (1678-1727), to which the words of Isaac Watts' great hymn "O God our help in ages past" is normally sung. There is, however, no evidence whatever to suggest that Bach might have known Croft's hymn tune "St. Anne," which was not known to be sung outside of the British Isles. This work was included in Part III of Bach's Clavier-Übung (literally "Keyboard-Practice") which was first published in September 1739. It was Bach's first major published edition devoted to new organ pieces, and was issued with the rather cumbersome subtitle of Dritter Theil der Clavier Übung bestehend in verschieden Vorspielen über die Catechismus--und andere Gesaenge, vor die Orgel (Third Part of the Keyboard Studies Comprising Various Preludes on the Catechism and other Hymns for Organ). The complete volume was made up of multiple settings of the German Kyrie and Gloria, pairs of settings of each of the six catechism chorales, and four duets. Surmounting all these was the superb and majestic E flat Prelude and Fugue, the "St. Anne." It is not possible to determine whether or not Bach wrote these pieces with any particular occasion in mind, although some authorities have suggested that he may well have played some or perhaps all of the set in a recital he gave on the newly installed organ of the Frauernkirche, in Dresden, on December 1, 1736. Others have opined that the occasion of the first performance may have been the celebrations held throughout Lutheran Germany on August 12, 1739, to commemorate the bicentenary of the Confession of Augsburg. However, possibly the most likely impulse for these works was Bach's newly rekindled interest in the church chorale, which had been occasioned by his work for the Schemelli Hymnal project of 1736. Gregory Butler, a noted authority on the original manuscripts of Bach's organ works, has written that "Clavier-Übung III represents a landmark in Bach's oeuvre. In it are forecast many of the preoccupations which dominate the works of his last decade; a concentration on the techniques of fugue and canon... an interest in highly abstract, recherché musical thought; and a preoccupation with saying the last word in a given genre with an attendant monumentality of conception." The "St. Anne" Prelude and Fugue attests powerfully to Bach's attainments in each of these areas, and stands as one of the most noble and eloquent utterances among his many organ compositions.