Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
by Johann Sebastian Bach [playing time 14:19]  [Download the MP3]

J. S. Bach (1685-1750)
The greatest of them all

"Who's your favorite composer?" is as tired a question as "Whomever I'm listening to at the moment" is an answer. If pressed, however, and with apologies to Ludwig, Wolfgang, Pyotr, and all the other greats, I would give the nod to Bach. His supreme blending of beauty, logic, and inventiveness has never been surpassed, and much of my avocational music-making is devoted to listening, learning, and making synthesized realizations of his music.

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The span of Western music is so vast, the diversity of genres so broad, that to pick a supreme work seems like folly. However, after three decades of listening to music almost every day of my life, from Gregorian chant to Steve Reich, I would call this work the ultimate sonic creation of the mind of man. The ground comes from an idea published in the Premier Livres d'Orgue by the French organist Andre Raison (1650-1719). Bach took the four-measure idea (from the opening C to G in the excerpt below) and expanded it to an eight-bar whole that ends on the low C in the organ pedal:


On this ground, Bach produces a Passacaglia of twenty variations, followed by a fugue that...well, more more about the fugue in a moment.

I have heard many performances and read many analyses of this work. Opinions about it differ. I have always found it most effective when the ground is stated at the outset in a mournful whisper, as if coming from someone sounding it in the distance. Variations 1 through 12 (0:23 - 5:02 in my realization) present a steadily increasing and complex texture. From the sighing syncopated motives of Variations 1 and 2, Bach develops the ground into a huge climax in Variation 12. Then come three progressively thinly scored variations (13-15, 5:02 - 6:11). The final five variations (16-20, 6:12 - 8:10) create a massive conclusion that mirror the first five; variations 16-18 present rhythmic variations on the ground (as with 3 - 5), while 19 and 20 (as with 1 and 2) are very similar in their scoring.

But then...the fugue. The subject, repeating Raison's ground, rises seamlessly from the final chord of the Passacaglia at 8:10, with two countersubjects in quavers and semiquavers entering around it. The construction of subject (in half notes and quarters), countersubject 1 (in eighths), and countersubject 2 (in sixteenths) gives this work an inexplicable pulse that, in the words of the liturgy of the Episcopal Prayer Book, "passeth all understanding." However, if you do want to understand this "permutation fugue," you can hardly do better than the fascinating analysis by Dr. Tim Smith of Northern Arizona University. Find his interactive study of this work here.

From a purely emotional standpoint, this fugue is supreme music. Listen to the exposition at 8:10, the inexorable buildup with the return of the pedal at 10:33, the intensity of the rising sequences at 11:24, the titanic F minor entrance of the subject at 12:10, the thunderbolt landing on the Neapolitan sixth at 13:34, and the C Major apotheosis at 13:43, and see if you're not similarly moved.

But more deeply, perhaps the best summation of this work is that I'm not at all happy with this realization. That doesn't surprise me, since despite all the recordings of this piece I have listened to, I have never heard it performed the way I hear it in my mind, the way I think it ought to sound. Why? Because Bach has given us an edifice that, uniquely among all music, cannot be adequately performed. And several weeks of MIDI sequencing, orchestrating, tweaking, and re-tweaking while trying to realize it on synthesizers has only made that more evident. This piece is the lone example of musical incompleteness, a concept explored in fascinating fashion by Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach. We know from the great 20th century developments in quantum mechanics by Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and colleagues, and the incompleteness theory of Kurt Gödel, that the cosmos is pervaded by uncertainty, unprovables, things that are true and good but which can never be proven, or, in the parlance of digital music, which can never be properly realized. Thus the fundamental failure of my performance. This music is transcendental, a window to forever. I wrote in the liner notes of my Trinity CD a few words that are tailored to this one piece of music: if you seek evidence of the existence of the God of Abraham, you hardly need look farther than the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the work that defines that statement. Listen, and hear the mind of God.

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