Passacaglia & Fugue

Johann Sebastian Bach

Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor


Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Even though he was one of music's great conservatives, it is often (and rightly) remarked that J.S. Bach was a great cosmopolitan -- in his music, the north countries meet southern Germany, France, and Italy in striking ways previously almost unknown. In the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, Bach joins together elements from distinct nations and traditions in ways that may be heard very close to the musical surface indeed. The eight-bar ground bass upon which the Passacaglia is based (and also the Fugue, which is actually not marked by Bach as a distinct and separate piece, but rather as just another use of the passacaglia ground bass, "Thema fugatum") seems to have been extracted from a sacred work by an obscure contemporary French composer named Andre Raison. There are, leading up to the fugue portion, 21 statements of the ground bass in all, starting with the unharmonized bass solo at the very opening and growing ever more active until at last a full-blown frenzy of imitative sixteenth notes in the upper voices leads the way to the fugue; during a few of the middle variations, the ground bass moves up into the soprano and then into the alto voice. The fugue makes use only of the first four bars of the French ground bass, transforming it into a subject upon which Bach can, over the course of 124 bars, exercise the full glory of his wholly northern-learned contrapuntal genius. Since the fugue is not really separate in the manner of, for example, Bach's preludes and fugues, the work is sometimes known simply as the Passacaglia.