The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV 582) stands out among Bach's greatest organ pieces. At 293 bars, it is one of Bach's longest organ works; the Passacaglia has 20 variations on the base theme, and the fugue is a permutation fugue, basically meaning every possible layer and texture of the fugue is worked out. As well, it is among Bach's most popular organ works, and while it is not a church composition, it is among Bach's most soulful work, with majestic ascending and descending chords and a basic, primal, soulful theme.

Where, when and why it was composed

The Passacaglia and Fugue was composed somewhere between 1708-1712, during Bach's Weimar years, where he became famous as an organ virtuoso and improviser. A peculiar event of the time was "musical contests", so to speak, whereby composers and musicians would compete against each other in playing organ, harpsichord, etc. The most famous event like this happened in London when George F. Handel faced off against Domenico Scarlatti (both of whom, along with Bach, were born in 1685) in the harpsichord and organ categories. Apparently, Scarlatti cleaned house with harpsichord, but Handel edged him out in pipe organ.

Bach was in a similar competition, as he was scheduled to visit the court of Dresden for a showdown with Parisian church organist, Louis Marchand. Bach needed to uphold his reputation, so he decided to compose an improvisational-style piece.

To begin, Bach borrowed a four-bar theme from a passacaglia by the French organist André Raison, to which he added a four more bars to complete the basic theme. The notes are as follows (in the bass clef):

  • Raison's Theme: C, G, E flat, F, G, A flat, F, G (quarter and half notes alternating)

  • Bach's Addition: D, E flat, B natural, C, F, C (quarter and half notes alternating, with 2nd last note a dotted half and last a half note)
  • It's likely that Bach then improvised a set of variations on that theme, then copied down what he played. It's certain that Bach wanted to make the most of the theme, having improvised 20 variations, then a fugue based on that theme. What makes this piece an oddity is the fact that the passacaglia and fugue are linked together by a pick-up note after the 20th variation, creating a coherent whole, where in most cases a fugue's accompanying piece would be completely separate.

    The Passacaglia

    The passacaglia is considered by many to be among the best example of a baroque passacaglia. The following is a breakdown of each variation (if you have a copy of the song, you can follow along):

    • 1: Sets a solemn mood through syncopated suspensions; the gradually upward lifting notes creates suspense
    • 2: Nearly identical to the first variation, but here the musical sequences move downward, creating a pair for the 1st variation
    • 3: The upward motion and thin texture creates an even flow; rhythm and motion propels it forward from the first two
    • 4: here the anapest (eighth note followed by two sixteenths) is introduced, creating variety
    • 5: the anapest rhythm is continued, but the notes now make octave leaps. For the first time, the base theme is altered
    • 6: The melody turns into a series of upward-moving sixteenths, creating more suspense
    • 7: Same as 6, only downward
    • 8: Pairs of sixteenth notes ascend and descend simultaneously, adding to variations 6 and 7
    • 9: disjunct leaps in the upper and base voices break up the rhythm, similar to variation 5
    • 10: Basic theme is altered only to serve as chordal strokes, and with running sixteenths above, creates the centerpiece of the passacaglia
    • 11: Identical to the 10th variation, except that the base theme is now in the soprano ranges, and the variation in in the bass clef
    • 12: Considered the first climax and end of the beginning of the passacaglia. Here, the texture doubles from two voices to four, and includes descending turns (groups of four sixteenth notes)
    • 13: The anticlimax, here the number of voices are reduced from three to one, and more cantabile phrasing suggests a quieter section is approaching
    • 14: Here, the base theme is lost intirely, implied only by a running series of arpeggios
    • 15: This is the most quiet and intimate variation, with the solo arpeggios rising through four octaves; marks the end of the middle section
    • 16: Immediately explodes into six voices, with the base theme returning in full, and reflecting the harmony in the 1st and 2nd variations
    • 17: Here, voices become running triplet sixteenths, with intervals of thirds and sixths; building up to the final climax
    • 18: Introduces anapests similar to variations 4 and 5; acts as a breather before the final two variations
    • 19: Use of densely layered turns mimics the 1st and 2nd variations
    • 20: The final variation, the number of voices increases to five, and the two upper voices are doubled by two below, creating double counterpoint. A pick-up note leads to the fugue

    The Fugue

    The fugue is composed in permutational style, meaning that the composer tries to create as many contrapuntal textures as possible with the subject and countersubject. In this fugue, the subject is the basic theme from the Passacaglia, the 1st countersubject is composed of eighth notes, and the 2nd countersubject is similar to the 1st, except it uses sixteenth notes. As the fugue progresses, Bach "rotates" the voices, so to speak, to the next highest voice, until a midpoint where Bach uses inversion to variate the voices. At the end, Bach typically staggers the ending, holding the pedal on one note (C) while building up the tension, then releasing it in a key shift to C major.

    So why is it so popular?

    What draws many people to this piece is what some describe as the tremendous momentum; since the piece is composed in slow 3/4 time, it gives it a feeling of inexorable rotation, a lumbering progression towards a huge climax. As well, it is one of Bach's few works that is composed in C minor, which is a very striking, morose key.

    Ever since I discovered this piece five years ago, it has consistently remained my top favourite Bach piece. From the first solemn opening theme, it drew me in, as it has every time I've listened to it since. If you haven't heard it, then I implore you, if you don't listen to any other Bach, then listen to this. A whole writeup could try to convey the general feeling of this piece, but the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is really more of a piece to be experienced, rather than just heard.

    Quality Recordings

    One thing you will notice is that there are many recordings of this piece, and will vary in time from nine minutes to a drawn-out sixteen minutes. I've listened to many recordings, but in general I am drawn to three in particular:

    • Michael Murray: Bach: The Great Organ at Methuen. I love how Murray uses dynamics to build momentum; at the beginning, his playing is almost inaudible, but over the course of fourteen minutes it builds into a lush, loud crescendo. Make sure you're using a soft equalizer for this one.
    • Anthony Newman: Bach, Favourite Organ Works (infinity digital). Here, Newman's spirited playing breaks the mold of all other passacaglia performances; he rockets through the piece in just over ten minutes, and the organ he uses has an extremely deep and forceful sound. You can really hear all the intricacies of the piece with this recording.
    • Baroque Organ Works (I'm unsure of the performer): This has an extremely mellow, subdued sound. Exactly the opposite of Newman's recording, this sounds like it was recorded in a huge cathedral; you can hear the sound echoing off into the distance. It really adds to the majesty of the whole piece