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Discussions of Bach’s Instrumental Works - No. 4

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582



Francis Browne wrote (May 27, 2002):
The next topic scheduled for monthly discussion is the passacaglia and fugue in C minor BWV 582, one of Bach's most famous organ works. A performance by Wolfgang Rübsam can be heard online on the Naxos website. Information about the music and an analysis can be found at:

Some possibilities for discussion might be:
Why has this work achieved such popularity while much of Bach's later organ music is comparatively unknown ?
Would the work be complete without the fugue ? what does the fugue add?
How does it relate to Buxtehude's ostinato works ?
How successful are transcriptions for other instruments? (What transcriptions are there?)

As always discussion of particular recordings is of great interest.

Thomas Radleff wrote (May 27, 2002):
A recommendation that might serve as a base for discussing different instrumentations of the Passacaglia:

Passacaglia BWV 582 - Five Versions.
Signum 1998. 73:02
1. Bach ms.
Historic Silbermann organ; Christian Rieger
2. Eugene D´Albert
Piano; Ernst Breidenbach
3. Franz Liszt / J.G.Töpfer
Romantic organ; J.M. Michel
4. Max Reger
Piano 4-hands; O. Kolb & E. Breidenbach
5. Leopold Stokowski
Staatsorchester Frankfurt/O. Nikos Athinaios.

Wolfgang Rübsam recorded the work at least two times:
before 1977, when Philips released his complete Bach organ works (Metzler organ Frauenfeld), and 1992 for Naxos (Flentrop Univ. organ; AoF Vol.2)
Amazing difference of timings:
1977: 12´21´´
1992: 19´27´´

Juozas Rimas wrote (May 27, 2002):
< Why has this work achieved such popularity while much of Bach's later organ music is comparatively unknown ? >
Well, it's not immediately accessible - no nice tune that could grasp attention of a rookie right away but it creates a divine sound environment – those ascending/descending chords in the third minute (in Ruebsam's version) and later can indeed make fall you down on your knees etc etc

To be even more popular, the work IMHO should be played steadily, with a gradual build-up (starting very quietly) and without embellishments or occassionals hesitations, ie not in the Rübsam's way. For instance, Micheal Murray's version ("the Great Organ at Methuen") seemed much more rewarding to me (at least the first half). Rübsam's slow version has its own merits but I prefer the passacaglia to begin quietly and to flow thereafter...

Donald Satz wrote (May 27, 2002):
[To Juozas Rimas] Although the Biggs version of BWV 582 is my favorite, the Haga reading on Simax is a great alternative. Biggs increases the tension as he goes along; Haga starts off in the power mode and gives a twisting and very severe interpretation. It's likely the kind of performance that modern organ fans love to hate.

Bradley Lehman wrote (May 27, 2002):
[To Thomas Radleff]
Another orchestral arrangement of 582 is by Eugene Ormandy, on his "Bach By Ormandy" LP, Columbia 6180. On the back of the album, the annotator (David Johnson) points out that the work was composed not for organ but for pedal harpsichord. And the theme is borrowed (in part) from a "Trio en Passacaille" by Andre Raison. (Raison's First Organ Book, Paris 1688, according to the notes in Heinz Lohmann's edition, Breitkopf 6585.)

Lohmann points out that this notion of origin on pedal harpsichord is an error that is mostly Forkel's fault, and then the error has been cited countless times as people work from Forkel.


Whether Bach intended it for pedal harpsichord or not, originally, it does sound wonderful on pedal harpsichord: with the grandeur and the rhythmic clarity.


Speaking of timing differences in this work, I have two LPs of performances on pedal harpsichord. E Power Biggs on Columbia 6204 takes 14'23". The young Anthony Newman on Columbia 7309 rockets through in 9'36"!

I remember a Thanksgiving Day party at Edward Parmentier's house some years ago (c1993), a party for all his students. He had two of his harpsichords set up side by side in the living room, and various of us played through things for fun, sometimes making up accompaniment parts playing continuo on the other instrument. Bach, Couperin, etc, player plays the piece normally, and the other invents an accompaniment part from the bass line. At some point somebody pulled out the score of this Passacaglia and Fugue, and we put it on a music stand between the two harpsichords. Parmentier and I improvised an arrangement of it, sharing the three lines across both instruments and inventing continuo parts whenever we had a hand free. I don't know how it sounded, both of us sight-reading and faking things at high speed, but it sure was fun! (We could have used Parmentier's set of pedals, too, sticking them under one of the instruments and thereby turning it into a pedal harpsichord, but they were in another room at the time, and besides this was a party. So we just played some of the bass line in octaves whenever we felt like it.)


Christopf Wolff in Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Harvard, 1991) devotes chapter 23 (p306-316) to "The Architecture of the Passacaglia", going through this piece variation by variation and pointing out the symmetrical structure.

Thomas Braatz wrote (May 27, 2002):
< Bradley Lehman asked: Lohmann points out that this notion of origin on pedal harpsichord is an error that is mostly Forkel's fault, and then the error has been cited countless times as people work from Forkel. >
The NBA KB IV/7 (1988) has a fairly complicated assortment of manuscripts for BWV 582, only few of which mention the fugue separately. Some are from Bach's lifetime (an important one is the Andreas Bach Buch,) some were thought to be the autograph, but turned out not to be. The early printed editions, Dunst (1834), Peters (Griepenkerl) (1844) and Berra (c. 1850) might have been based in part on the autograph score. Griepenkerl refers to the Guhr (owner of the autograph) manuscript, but never really saw it. He based his editing on a copy that supposedly had been made from this original. Even the BGA and Spitta could no longer find this autograph for comparison. Even Mendelssohn in a letter to Fanny writes about the existence of this autograph, but at the time Mendelssohn was more interested in acquiring a set of original chorale preludes (BWV 599-644) that were also available from Guhr.

One of the early copies during Bach's lifetime has the pedal line marked in red ink (obviously a version written out on only two staves, or is it staffs?) This is a bit like Bach using special red ink for the cantus firmus in his SMP score.

Forkel, who owned one of these numerous manuscripts, has listed it (or someone else recorded it as such in listing his estate) as :

Passacaglia con Pedale C moll.

Griepenkerl for Peters has only PASSACAGLIA (he did not even see the autograph)

Here are the titles on the other manuscripts (the 'b' stands for a flat accidental):

PASSACALJA ex C b con Pedale di Giov. Bast. Bach.
Passacalia ex C moll con Pedale di J.S.Bach
Passacaglia con pedale in C b da Giov. Seb. BACH
Passacalia. in C b. per l'Organo, di J.S.Bach
Passacaglia J. S. Bach
Passacalia en C. b. con Pedale di Givo: Bast: Bach.
Passacalia ex C b. Con Pedale die Sign: Giov. Sebast: Bach
PassacaLJA. in C b Con Pedale dell. Sigre: Giovanni Sebastiano Bach.
Passaglia. Da Johann Sebastian Bach
Passacaglia con Pedale C moll
Passacaglio con Pedale pro Organo pleno
Passacaglia p. l'Orgue
Cicaccona et Fuga ex C moll. del Signore J.S.Bach

A few have a special title for the fugue:

Fuga cum Subjectis
Fuga con Subjectis
Thema fugatum

This piece is fairly well documented in that there are 5 separate copies made during Bach's lifetime with quite a bit of agreement among them (perhaps not regarding the title and the instrument for which it was intended.) Nothing seems to say specifically that it is intended for pedal harpsichord, but it would be easy to read this inthose titles that mention pedal without designating the organ.

Bernard Nys wrote (May 27, 2002):
I discovered the P & F quite recently, when I was reading the notes of Stokowski's Symphonic Bach by BBC Philharmonic on Chandos : "it's in music what a great Gothic Cathedral is in architecture - the same vast conception - the same soaring mysticism given eternal form. ... It's one the most divinely inspired contrapuntal works ever conceived".

You all know me: this is the kind of highly subjective, poetical, non-scientific-musicological comment I like to read. It's the kind of comment that urges me to run to my complete works and to look it up. I listened dozens of times to the orchestral and the organ version (by Ton Koopman). And yes, it's true : it's so massive, so vast that it seems coming down from heaven on to you. It's mighty, powerfull, broad, sublime, celestial bliss, heavenly, mysterious, supernatural, vitalizing, straight, logical, structured, it's 100 % Bach, and only Bach.

Francis Browne wrote (June 2, 2002):
I have listened to three versions of the passacaglia. Each performance taken by itself was enjoyable, but the differences were also striking.

Wolfgang Rübsam's version is very slow in tempo. This gives the music in places an impressive majesty and much of the finer detail of some of the variations can be heard more clearly in this recording than elsewhere. But overall I feel that this performance does not convey the overall structure of the work well but loses itself in detail on the way. Majesty becomes ponderousness, and the fugue in particular - which seems to me an integral part of the whole work- does not convey the sense of liberation, expansion Bach must have intended when after twenty variations, marvelllously varied as they are, the passacaglia theme is answered and undergoes further

I have enjoyed Rübsam's performance's of the English and French suites on Naxos - they seem refreshingly unmannered and straightforward - and if this were the only performance of the passacaglia I had heard I would be impressed with the music.But as it is I am disapointed with this version. Thomas Radleff pointed out that Rübsam's earlier version for Philips was over seven minutes quicker - an amazing difference in a work of this length.

The performance by which I first came to know the work was Ton Koopman's on the organ of the basilica at Ottobeuren. The sound of this instrument is very striking - the first statement of the theme is arresting in its rough, dark sonority. Koopman's playing is well judged , each variation is characterised well and he maintains a sense of momentum throughout the variations and fugue

The sound of the last version I have heard is again very different from Koopman. Christopher Herrick plays the Metzler organ of the Stadtkirche,Zofingen, Switzerland -a richer, smother sound than Koopman and as if to match Herrick's playing seems smother, less occasionally angular than Koopman's. The performance is slightly slower than Koopman's and seems to me to convey better the overall structure of the work. Of the three versions this is the one to which I would most readily return.

The J.S. Bach Home page ( lists more than thirty recordings of the work, and I do not think the list is complete. One way forward for these discussions of individual works might be if more people were prepared to post an opinion or reaction to whatever version they have heard of the work. In no way would this have to be as formal and considered as a full scale review. It could be as brief or as detailed as people wish. But collectively list members probably could cover many if not all of the most readily available recordings available for each of Bach's
works we discuss. Such an informal collective survey of available recordings would be of interest in itself and become a valuable resource for all who listen to Bach . I see this not as replacing in any way but complementing the more detailed reviews available elsewhere.

If like me you would like to read a survey of what a range of listeners think of the available recordings of the passacaglia - or the concerto for two violins, or the Art of Fugue, the next works scheduled for discussion - why not share your opinion of whatever recordings you have heard ?

Bernard Nys wrote (June 2, 2002):
I have 3 versions of the Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582
1) Ton Koopman 1984
2) Stokowski's Symphonic Bach by the BBC Philharmonic (Matthias Bamert) on Chandos
3) Hans Fagius (less "fat" sound than Koopman)

My favorite: Koopman.

Santu De Silva (Archimedes) wrote (June 3, 2002):
Like Don Satz, I think my favorite recording is by Biggs, but i also like the one by Schweitzer, a slow, lumbering sound. Practically anyone except Rubsam.

one writer--I can't remember who--remarks that only J.S.Bach had the nerve to top a 7-minute Passacaglia with a 6-minute fugue on the same subject! That was Bach all over. Percy Scholes, in one of his books for young people observes that Handel was the more elegant composer, but Bach was the more thorough. one hardly dares to make such preposterous claims these days, but this perception that bach was never satisfied with 'first base' [Don Satz?] persists even today. When a certain theme or motif grabbed him, he had to work it out until it was out of his system, whether it took 48 bars or 480.

A curious thing is the great 'concerto' that closes the well-known Aria 'Mein glaubiges Herze' from BWV 68. It's written for soprano, obbligato [baroque] cello, and continuo, initially. It bops along, quite pleasantly, until the aria is over, and the cello has finished its commentary on the aria.

Then, out of nowhere, it becomes a trio for violin, oboe and cello! For some thirty-odd bars it becomes a complete movement, simply bursting with spontaneous, almost unstoppable joy of almost childlike innocence!

Alec Roberts, I believe, simply says that the movement was taken from the BWV 208: the Hunting Cantata (which it is, and you can verify it; the cello obbligato is recognizably the same) and perhaps, brother Alec surmises, Bach liked the little sinfonia at the end so much that he couldn't bear to leave it out, so it was carried in with the aria, right into the Cantata, too.

Okay, what was this protracted coda doing in the Hunting cantata, then? Why not an 8-bar closing (such as fellow-listmember Rimas proposed for the great unfinished fugue)??

This is the kind of capricious thing that is so delightful about Bach. Even his pleasure in using instruments such as oboe d'amore and viola d'amore (which were even at that time supposedly considered out of date) are instances of this pleasant eccentricity. It is this juxtaposition of the earnest and serious with the mischievous and eccentric that makes Bach and his music such a pleasure -- for those who know!

To get back to the Passacaglia and Fugue, I think the reason why it is so effective -- for me, at least -- is that it is another of Bach's many, many works that have an incredible sense of momentum. Pieces in slow triple time have this feeling of slow, inexorable rotation. Imagine the scene of the rotating earth seen from space, with the Passacaglia going in the background, and you have an idea of what i feel. (remember 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the Blue Danube playing while the space station slowly rotates?)

The massivity that I associate with organ music is considered, nowadays, an anachronism. The organs of Bach's day are thought to be--and I support this belief--agile, lightly-voiced instruments (supplied with a surprising variety of pungent stops, but not the overwhelming chorus flutes of modern organs). No doubt they could be massive when needed, but the massivity that almost permeates Schweitzer's performances are considered to be stylistically inappropriate. (No doubt someone will discover that bach's organs in fact were made by Cavaille-Coll, and that the lightly-voiced impostors that are considered to be the ones he played were put there by clever space aliens.)

Still, there is an implied mo(angular momentum, actually, for you physics maniacs) in the music itself, and even in those ethereal moments when the theme dances up and down the manuals with the pedals 'tacet', one feels that the entire stone church itself is quietly spinning in the background.

And then after the passacaglia, the fugue is simply more massive. remember I'm talking about a massivity of idea, not of registration. the deliberate triple time, embellished with running notes, simply serves to add to the slow momentum of the rotating mass; like a flywheel that is growing in weight; slower, but more unstoppable.

This is why Rubsam's Rubato does not work. I hear all the time that rhythm is how an organist emphasizes notes. Okay. Just don't mess with the Passacaglia and fugue, alright? I mean, there's a time and a place. I personally don't think I need an organist to go emphasizing notes for me. I know all the blankety blank notes, and I emphasize them in my own head. I just need to be REMINDED of them! (I think that's not an original idea.)

There are wonderful moments in the fugue. I wish i knew which bar I'm talking about... I seem to remember the highest part going, in medium notes, something like C - Eflt -Aflat - C - Bflat - G
Bflat - D - G - Bflat - Aflat - F
with the alto popping along in shorter notes, so light and fluffy, and all the time we know that the spinning church will speak any minute. and when it does, it is yet delicate and controlled, and even when, at the end, the pedals thunder out the theme, or echoes of it, with that laughing rising fifth, it is a benevolent power, not a crushing one.

unlike the Ciaconna, I must say, the Passcaglia and Fugue BWV 582 is a happy work, despite the minor key. this is just my opinion, but there is triumph and joy, even if there is a touch of sorrow here and there. (the same can be said of the Badinerie from the Orchestra Suite in B minor [BWV 1067?] which is in the minor key.) the Ciaccona, in contrast, whether or not you believe the Morimur folks, is very plausibly a meditation on death, or at least, a study of grief, or mortality.

the fugue also has the incredible advantage that it can modulate further afield than the Passacaglia (which modulates too, amazingly enough, but that's like the explorations of a man in shackles exploring the window-ledge; he has to come back a lot sooner than he wants to. Or perhaps a woman, to be even-handed, but perhaps that's not appropriate.)

i advise everyone to recommend this work to all their friends who are intent on being exposed to bach, before it's too late, and it's discovered that it was really written by Christopher Marlowe. (This Marlowe is known to have forged the handwriting of everyone from Bach, to his sons, his copyist, his students, his wives, both of them, Wolfgang Schmeider, and Forkel, may god rest their weary bones. Nothing, not even time, can stop him. Ah what sinful times we live in.)

arch, going to supper

Gordon Rumson wrote (June 4, 2002):
At the Gunnar Johansen article I wrote a long time ago, we posted his performance of this composition on a Moor Double Keyboard piano. All wrong from authenticity's view, but what a grand performance.

Please check it out:

The page's a linked to continue through the article. The Bach performance is at:

You will need RealAudio...

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