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Johann Sebastian Bach: "Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor," BWV 582

Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: March 31, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Composed: c. 1708-1717

Original Instrumentation: Cembalo (Harpsichord with pedal)

Transcribed for Symphonic Wind Ensemble by Donald Hunsberger, 1975

Duration: 12 minutes

Johann Sebastian Bach, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582

Dallas Wind Symphony, Frederick Fennell, conductor

Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582 is not only Bach’s longest organ work, it is one of his most imposing instrumental creations, regardless of medium. It is not known precisely when Bach composed the work, but sources point to the period between 1708 and 1717, during his second residence in Weimar. The autograph manuscript of BWV 582 is currently considered lost; the work, as is typical for Bach's and contemporary composers' works, is known only through a number of copies. Bach originally composed the work for cembalo (harpsichord) with pedal; it was later transcribed for organ, and, in this version by Donald Hunsberger, for Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

In his Passacaglia and Fugue, Bach utilized two of the Baroque era’s most pervasive musical forms. In the Passacaglia, true to form, a set of variations unfolds above a repeating bass line. The simple eight-measure melody, borrowed from a Trio en Passacaille by André Raison (1650-1720), is repeated throughout the piece, carried by various voices, while a series of twenty brief, contrasting variations are layered over it. Nineteenth-century composer Robert Schumann described the variations of Bach’s C minor Passacaglia as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.” After the development of each variation, a double fugue follows without pause where the ostinato is transformed into two opposing subjects. Bach was fairly consistent in closing each statement of the theme with an authentic cadence (C minor: V-I).

Despite these brief attempts at finality there remains a flow of continuity provided by a frequent rhythmic acceleration during the closing measures of the variation, anticipating the rhythmic pattern of the following variation. The Fugue utilizes the first half of the Passacaglia theme as its subject, introduced twelve times, followed by a countersubject.

This setting of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor has been crafted for the expanded orchestra wind section instrumentation, with the philosophy that each of the twenty variations and twelve statements of the fugue subject shall constitute an identifiable coloring – each different enough from its neighbor to insure individualism, but not so differentiated as to cause disjointedness. The instrumentation selected provided a wealth of solo colors in both the woodwind and brass sections; octave doublings and timbre couplings have been utilized to employ the outer tessituras of each instrument. There has been no direct attempt to reproduce the vast tonal resources of the pipe or electronic organ, although Hunsberger bore in mind the coupling principle inherent in the overtone mechanism of the organ.

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