J S Bach Preludes And Fugues

J S Bach Complete Preludes and Fugues For Organ 2023

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Complete Preludes and Fugues – In Production

Please respect these recordings as unreleased samples.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) BWV 531-536, 539, 541, 544-552, 566

The Music in Context

In German Luteran churches during Bach’s lifetime, preludes and fugues were popular forms of music and were used in religious services to create an atmosphere of solemnity and reverence. The prelude was used to introduce the musical theme and set the tone, while the fugue was used to develop the musical idea and create a more elaborate musical form. Johann Sebastian Bach (JSB) wrote his Preludes and Fugues for Organ from the start of his career as a church organist between 1708 and 1717. This was expected of him as part of his duties during the Sunday Lutheran Services where music played a central part in the towns and villages of northern Germany. He was not expected to use the compositions of other composers, few of whom could match him for mastery of his art (listen to Baroque Miniatures For Organ for comparison).

Even his elder brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721) who fostered JSB from the age of 10 after the death of his parents, apparently denied the boy access to works probably collected when Johann Christoph was a pupil of the famous Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706). This despite JSB secretly copying them by moonlight, or so the story goes!

Most of the manuscripts of the Prelude and Fugues that still exist are copies from JSB’s pupils. The dates of composition appear to be from as early as 1703 when JSB was 18 until at least the late 1730’s if not even later still. In a way, we have a lifetime of musical development to explore.

JSB was born and lived most of his life in Thuringia, a state of north-central Germany at the time. We need to understand that JSB’s world was a poor one, a Germany still in recovery from the horrors of The Thirty Year War (1618-1648) which was one of the longest and most brutal wars in human history, with more than 8 million casualties from military battles, famine and disease caused by the conflict.

JSB was a determined youngster who was beset by personal tragedy, but he wrote “I worked hard. Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.” . . . We might doubt this, but the sentiment is central to JSB’s character, and we can hear the hard work from the very earliest pieces to the much later and mature.

He benefitted musically as a child from the Latin School system set up by Luther, where music in terms of the Lutheran Chorales played a central part of daily singing exercises and games of musical invention and harmony were created around musical canons, often cited as the origin of the fugue.

These same chorales were sung in church on Sunday, the organist playing a chorale prelude before the congregation sung the words, either accompanied or unaccompanied depending upon the church.  Luther’s emphasis was on the meaning of the words and installing those words into the congregation.

The Preludes and Fugues, were, I understand played at the beginning of the Sunday service prior to the Precentor starting the service.  Complaints to the local Consistory Court in Arnstadt about the length of these were sometimes made against JSB as being too long, or too short! Certainly, some of the later compositions would have been enjoyed, even if too long! Such continuous composition in a single movement was not surpassed until Beethoven.

The pieces are full of emotion, of joys and of sorrows as can be heard in the great crunching chords.  The pieces are full of dance rhythms and JSB was happy to experiment and achieve some really impressive affects.  I hope throughout, I have achieved in my playing the central sense of dance.

North German Organs

Thank goodness for German organ building, or we would never have had Bach! The tradition of organ building in northern German was a strong one, going back at least a century before JSB and mainly based on the Werkprinzip, where the “work principle” might be defined as “the principle of balance between divisions.” Where the divisions where the different sets of pipes.

In seventeenth-century German organs from the north, the nature of this balance had become standardised. Typically, an organ of this time would consist of:

  • A HauptwerkMain Work” that contained the primary principal chorus, flutes, and trumpets. The sound of this section was rich and full.
  • A Rückpositiv, the second main manual with principal chorus, additional flutes, and a short-resonator, cylindrical reed (often a Krummhorn). The pipes of this division were built with narrower scales, resulting in a more penetrating quality.
  • A Brustwerk a small organ‐chest, usually with own manual, encased above keyboards and below the Hauptwerk in ‘breast’ of the organ. It contained the lightest stops, often only flutes and reeds, with a high-pitched mixture meant for solo colour and not ensemble use.
  • A Pedal that had its own independent principal chorus and reeds, and it might also contain stopped flutes at 32′ through 8′ pitches. The Pedal was divided and mounted on the gallery rail, to the sides of the positive, where it served two distinct functions:
    • Providing the bass line in ensemble textures based on a principal chorus.
    • Providing solo colour in melodic textures.

JSB was involved with installing new organs from an early age and the major innovation introduced at the time was the move from modal to well-tempered tuning. This in turn allowed the writing of pieces in every key.

In choosing my organ and registrations I have used the Garritan Pipe Organ that has a similar set of pipes. However, rather than restrict myself to a purely Baroque combination of pipes I have allowed more modern stops to join the throng as I felt the purely Baroque too restrictive and it became a strain on the ears.

Bach'S Organ In Arnstadt

Bach’s Organ in ArnstadtA city fire in 1581 destroyed the church of St. Boniface in Arnstadt and a baroque, single-nave “New Church” was built upon the old foundation in 1683. It was later renamed after JSB on the composer’s 250th birthday. Johann Friedrich Wender from Mühlhausen built the organ for the place of worship between the years 1699 and 1703. The 18-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach was responsible for the final inspection and was the organist until 1707. However, despite many repairs and alterations, this original organ eventually became unplayable and was replaced by a Romantic Steinmeyer organ in 1913. Luckily, in 1990, Gottfried Preller, the church music director recommended a comprehensive reconstruction of what was left of the Bach organ (320 of 1252 original pipes). It is now this reconstructed organ that again fills the church with its baroque splendour.


As previously stated very few of the scores for the Preludes and Fugues exist in JSB’s own hand and most were copied by pupils. It is therefore inevitable that some errors would have crept in. The way I have approached the scores is to take at least two versions where possible and compare them where I think there may be errors. The main test for truth, however, has been the ear which would complain if unhappy notes were played.  This has led to some minor adjustments in the counterpoint in a few places, a short reconstruction of a missing 2nd voice fugue line for a bar and a half and an extra suspended chord at one ending. I will leave the listener to spot them, agree or complain.  To me they sound right.

Other changes include additional ornamentation in the parts where the music implies they should be there, but are omitted from the scores.

BWV 531 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In C Major

Composed c.1707 in Arnstadt.

BWV 532 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In D Major

The Fugue is believed to have been composed around 1708 and Prelude circa 1710.  It was first performed in Weimar, Germany. The Fugue in particular is great piece of musical fun, with Bach showing off both his skills as performer and composer.

BWV 533 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In E Minor (“Cathedral”)

Likely to have been composed during Bach’s teenage years, prior to 1705, the prelude and fugue demonstrate the young Bach’s emerging skills.

BWV 534 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In F Minor

The Prelude and Fugue for organ in F minor, BWV 534 is one of those many Weimar organ works. It has one of the most splendid fugues in all of Bach’s organ. This fugue is unusual in some respects and attribution to J S Bach has been challenged some musicologists. However, a close study of the score in order to create a performance shows many techniques typical of other Bach preludes and fugues. It is incredibly intense and dramatic, the composition of a man at the height of his powers.

BWV 535 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In G Minor

The prelude was probably one of Bach’s earliest works and the fugue dates from sometime later. An early version of 1705 exists (BWV535a). Despite its early vintage, it is an exuberant piece.

BWV 536 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Major

This Prelude and Fugue in A major, BWV 536, was apparently written during Bach’s years at Weimar (1708-1717), although there may have been an earlier version from before 1708. The opening arpeggios of the Prelude lead to a four-voice fugue with a triple rhythm. The subject starts in the tenor and is then answered in the alto, soprano and finally the bass pedals.

BWV 539 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in D Minor 

The BWV 539 “fiddle” fugue is based on the second movement of Bach’s Sonata for violin solo, BWV 1001, from 1720. However little else is known for certain about this pair of Prelude and Fugue.

BWV 541 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In G Major Master

A brilliant, exciting and sun lit pairing of Prelude and Fugue, BWV 541 is definitely music of Bach’s youth and joy. In its original form, the Prelude and Fugue was probably written around 1712 when Bach was in his 20s in Weimar. The performer has taken the liberty of adding a second part in bar 150, near the end of the Fugue, which, to his ear, is missing from the score. Comments on its validity gratefully received.

BWV 543 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In A Minor (The Great) 

Known as “The Great” BWV dates from the Bach’s Weimar (1708–1713) BWV 543 has two versions of which 543a is earlier and has a 10 bar shorter version of the prelude than the later version recorded here. Musicologist Russell Stinson called it a quintessential example of the form.

BWV 544 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In B Minor 

Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544 was written between 1727 and 1731. This was during JSB’s tenure in Leipzig. Unlike most other organ preludes and fugues of Bach, the autograph fair copy of the score survives.

The prelude uses a tightly woven 32nd note scales, suspensions, dramatic octave pedal effects with tension-building through repetition. Appoggiatura harmonies characterize this movement. The opening theme is followed by contrasting fugal episodes. The complex ritornello structure of this prelude makes the work structurally similar to that of other mature organ works, such as the BWV 548 and BWV 546 preludes.

The fugue is in 4/4 time and more restrained than the 6/8 prelude, with a relatively straightforward subject that moves in single note steps up and down the B minor scale.

BWV 545 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In C Major Master

BWV 545 is an early work by Bach which has undergone a lot of revisions. It is believed that Bach wrote the piece as a young organist, maybe as early at Arnstadt or Mühlhausen days (1703-1706).

The piece starts off with great self-assurance. With hops, steps and jumps, the pedal goes to a throbbing low C three times, while the right hand builds up a full chord straight away. And what follows is also decisive. The equally self-assured fugue is constructed firmly on the key of C major, which is never really called into question.

BWV 546 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In C Minor

An emotional roller-coaster, the prelude is believed to date from JSB’s time in Leipzig (1723–1750), the fugue perhaps dates from much earlier, from his time in Weimar (1708–1717). However, the pair are perfectly matched.


BWV 547 J S Bach Prelude And Fugue In C Major Master 24E

Whilst no manuscript exists, the sources and obvious maturity of musical detail and close a relationship between this Prelude and Fugue in C Major is easily demonstrated and points to a Leipzig origin (1723–1750). The dramatic chords towards the close of both are complementary – dominant sevenths in the Prelude, diminished sevenths in the Fugue – and both movements are built from short, ‘neutral’ subjects looking at first hardly likely to lead to expansive, original treatment.

In the Prelude’s melody and the Fugue’s counterpoint the movements are unlike any others, and both have a carefully planned finality. The Prelude is spun out from its simple motif and the Fugue also has an elemental subject open to wide development. The grand pedal point of the Fugue ‘answers’ the succinct close of the Prelude, and the final stages of both are derived from their respective themes.

BWV 548 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (Wedge) Master 24E

BWV 548 was written by Johann Sebastian Bach sometime between 1727 and 1736, during his time in Leipzig. The work is sometimes called “The Wedge” due to the chromatic outward motion of the fugue theme. An autograph fair copy of the score survives, though the handwriting changes twenty-two bars into the fugue to the hand of Bach’s pupil Johann Peter Kellner, who played an important role in the copying of his manuscripts. Because of the work’s immense scope, it has been referred to as “a two-movement symphony” for the organ.

BWV 549 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Minor 2022 Master 24E

An early work, probably dating from Bach’s teen years 1700-1703. Great fun to play and to listen to. Some really inventive rhythms.

BWV 550 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in G Major Master 24E

This early exuberant pairing of Prelude and Fugue requires great dexterity with the use of pedals and, indeed a full two octave range, which was, and is even now, rare. Not a piece for an average village organist, nor an average village organ.  If I were to add a sobriquet to BWV 550, it would probably be “Spring” as the it a pairing for fine young sunny weather written with the joy of youth.  Unusually, there is no gap between the two parts, as the Fugue goes gambolling off into the fields.

BWV 551 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Minor Master 24E

There is a lot of debate as to whether this is a very early Prelude and Fugue by Bach, or by someone else who was learning the pieces of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) who Bach went on pilgrimage to see as a young artist.  From an artistic point of view, it is one of the more difficult to bring out its virtues when playing.  I am considering this as the 1st track on the CD.

BWV 552 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in E Flat Major “St Anne” Master 2496E

In 1739, J.S. Bach published the Clavier-Übung III, a monumental collection of liturgical organ works which is sometimes called the German Organ Mass. The Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552. The fugue has been nicknamed the “St. Anne” Fugue because its subject is strikingly similar to William Croft’s English hymn tune of the same name.


BWV 566 J S Bach Prelude and Fugue in E Major

The Prelude and Fugue in E major, BWV 566 is sometimes referred to as a Toccata and Fugue. It was likely written by JSB during his stay at Lübeck, or shortly thereafter in the winter of 1705–1706. Unlike the other Preludes and Fugues, it comprises five sections and in its compositional form resembles that of Praeludia by Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude who JSB had set out to visit in Lübeck.

The first section alternates manual or pedal cadenzas with dense suspended chords. The second is a charming fugue with much repetition following the circle of fifths. The third section is a brief flourish for manuals, ending with an even briefer pedal cadenza punctuated with 9-voice chords. The fourth section, in 3/4 time, is a second fugue with a rhythmic subject resembling the theme of the first fugue immediately followed by the fifth and final section that opens with a virtuous pedal-solo.

Bach also wrote a transposed version of the piece in C major (BWV 566a), to play on organs tuned in meantone where E major would sound discordant due to the tuning of the organ (with a very sharp D♯).


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