Johann Sebastian Bach: Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor, BWV 582

Every once in so often I set up to write one of these little entries and come up with somewhat of a false start.  I usually try and accomplish a few things in a typical Listening Friday entry.  First off, I primarily use it as a vehicle to introduce a work.  Accompanying that I will also try and build some sort of transfer to another topic of interest, something that I usually use as an "A Theme" to introduce things and get the ball rolling.  This can range from a current event, an idea, a pop-culture tidbit or really anything that I can find some leap between that will create a sort of contrast that can help break up the dialog a bit and maybe even supplement a narrative that's related to the piece or possibly my own interpretation of the music being discussed.

Occasionally this is not as easy as it sounds.

I had a great English literature teacher in 7th grade.  To be honest, I've been fortunate enough to have great English teachers for most of my life, but in 7th grade I had a teacher who forced us, against our will and frequent protestations, to write 5 paragraph essays every single day of class.  There would be some sort of prompt, usually a sentence or two about a topic or current event and we'd have to write some cohesive opinion about it following the simple rules that would allow you to create a cogent mini-thesis on whatever the topic was about.

Despite my lack of reverence for this methodology, it has endowed me with the ability to write ad nauseum about essentially anything.  It came in handy when presented with exams with essay sections since they really don't care about whether or not you actually understand the topic but more so that you can create an organized pattern of thinking without drooling on the paper.

You'd probably be right.  But here's the thing- one of the biggest writing hurdles I hear most people talk about is just getting started.  It's so prevalent that real writers actually came up with a name for it- Blank Page Syndrome.  The cure I've found for that sort of phobia is to just start freaking writing! Anything.  Everything.  Just begin to put words on the page.  The beauty of the electronic age is that you can type as much or as little as you want and copy and paste it all over the place.

Here's an example.  I started this very entry with this phrase:
"How long can you listen to the same 16 notes repeated before you lose your mind? 
"According to J.S. Bach (1685-1750) about seven and a half minutes.  Fourteen if you count the fugue. in this case.  His Passacaglia..."

And that's about as far as I got.  I was staring at a blinking cursor.  Originally, I felt that this might be a cool way to start things out talking about Bach's Passacaglia, but after seeing it on the screen it just felt a bit silly.  A portion of overt dramatics.  I mean, it's really cool that he repeats the same 8 bars 20 times and adds stuff in to make it interesting enough to listen to, but that's really just what a passacaglia is.  You take an ostinato (a short phrase that's repeated throughout a composition) put it in 3/4 time, play it in a minor key, riff all over it 10-20 times, and you've got your passacaglia.  It's very similar in nature to a chaconne.  The trick really comes into composing it so your musicians and audience alike don't expire from boredom prior to the conclusion of the piece.

Here's the thing about Bach- he was the last son born into a musical dynasty.  His father was music director in their town and several of his 7 siblings were instrumental (ha) in building musical talent within the young Bach, particularly his older brother Johann Christoph.  Bach's parents died 8 months apart from each other when he was only 10 and JC Bach took JS under his wing.

JS Bach adapted early to the organ and found a strong following for his talents at the keyboard for the remainder of his life.  Surprisingly his compositional talents were not truly appreciated until some time after his death, well past the Classical era (1750-1820) as the titans of the Romantic Era (1800-1850) were getting their footings on the mount of the musical world.

He was married twice, his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach, died unexpectedly while Bach was away on business.  It was a tragic event for Bach, who had 7 children with Maria (three of which died young).  He remarried Anna Magdalena 18 months later with which he had 13 children (7 of which died in infancy or childhood).

So here's the deal- Bach wrote some 1120 pieces of music that we know about.  He lived 65 years, which would mean that at a minimum (assuming he started composing at let's say age 8) that's still an average of 20 pieces a year, some of which were massively lengthy (and granted some of which were relatively brief works), but all of which were published.  I have one kid and can barely write 1000 words a week about music!  Either he had the best au pair in history or he just never slept.

Another facet of Bach's music (which you will observe in the Passacaglia and the Fugue) is that it is intensely technical.  So much so that many of his contemporaries had great difficulty replicating it and even today some of his organ works are more commonly performed by ensembles as opposed to individual organists simply because there aren't really that many people on the planet who can play the organ well enough to create a reasonable facsimile of what Bach wrote.

This piece you're about to listen to is really two pieces melded into one giant bit of awesome.  It starts with the Passacaglia (which we explained above), but at about 7:30 it turns into a fugue- particularly a double fugue.  This type of work is a highly structured format that uses a theme (in this case two themes made up of the bisected ostinato from the passacaglia) and presents them with each voice of the ensemble one at a time and then develops the fragmented theme statements into a new idea (or development section).  The best explanation I've heard comes from another Listening Friday favorite, and somewhat of a Bach scholar himself, Chris Thile.  He has performed a number of Bach's works on mandolin successfully and when describing a partita that he was about to perform he explained that "Bach just kinda riffs on the shit he just did."  That's pretty much what goes on halfway into the fugue section as Bach just plays with the melodies he created.  You hear the themes broken up and shared amongst the different voices that had introduced them and through it all another theme is created (called a countersubject).  Now these three themes are performed together, but never by the same combination of voices twice, making it a permutation fugue.

To help you out, you'll hear the fugue section start with the bassoons (around 7:35) and then the oboes take a turn, followed by the low voices and so on.  It just all swirls around as Bach experiments with the different texture and dips into Bb and Eb major, giving the theme an altogether different experience from what we just heard.

At this point, I would traditionally try to steer back toward my original thought from the beginning of the entry and wrap it up with some witty or clever transfer that puts a nice bow on the entry.  This format usually works quite nicely as it gives a strong sense of finality to everything.  Given that my "A Theme" was in fact a diatribe about how I had nothing to write about and more so on the actual format I ascribe to for the blog, it's proving difficult to "wrap it up" as it were.

Perhaps then, I can just say this- Bach lost his parents young, lived with his brother, worked his fingers to the bone playing organ and composing, lost his wife (who was buried before he even knew she had died) had 20 children, half of which died in childhood.  Granted, this sort of life was not entirely out of the ordinary for his day and age, Bach himself died following some sort of eye surgery (which in 1750, I can only imagine the field of optometry was a guy with a magnifying glass and a butter knife), so death was a pretty common event, hence the need to create a lot of progeny in order to preserve one's lineage. But even still, it had to have had an effect on the man.  He himself never lived to even comprehend the sort of acclaim his name garners to this day- and yet, he gave the world so much in spite of it all.

To me, that's always been an inspiration to create no matter the cost, no matter the hurdles.

See you next Friday.


The example from today comes from the annual Proms at Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton performing the Respighi setting of the Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor.  Turn up.