TBC Ep 15 | Prelude, Trio, and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541.2


Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 15: Remarks by George Stauffer and performance by Renée Anne Louprette


In the present Tiny Bach Concert, we will hear Bach’s well-known organ Prelude & Fugue in G Major, BWV 541, in its seldom-heard three-movement form, with the last movement of Trio Sonata No. 4 inserted between the Prelude and Fugue.

Both works—the Prelude & Fugue and the Trio Sonata—have interesting histories.

The Prelude and Fugue dates from Bach’s Weimar years and was written around 1715 or so, when Bach was 30 years old and in his prime.

The famous Bach-biographer Philipp Spitta called the Weimar period “The Golden Years” of Bach’s organ writing, for it was then that he composed the bulk of his organ works, including many of his greatest virtuosic hits.

The Prelude & Fugue in G Major is one of these. It’s an eclectic piece: On the one hand, it pays homage to Bach’s North-German heroes, Johann Adam Reinken and Dieterich Buxtehude:

  • The work contains an obbligato pedal part, calling for fancy foot-work throughout.
  • The Prelude begins with a solo passage for hands alone, like so many of Buxtehude’s big organ Praeludia.
  • And the Fugue subject makes playful use of repeated notes, a favorite gesture of the North Germans.

But on the other hand, Bach has Italianized the entire idiom:

  • The rhythm is now strict and motorized, like that of a Vivaldi concerto.
  • The harmonic scheme has smooth sequences and modulations, in the manner of Italian chamber music.
  • And both the Prelude and the Fugue have nicely balanced forms: In the Prelude, a set theme, called a ritornello, returns at regular intervals. In the Fugue, two large sections for manual and pedal frame a middle segment for hands alone.

And at the conclusion of the work, Bach pulls out all the stops by bringing the Fugue to a complete halt and then presenting the subject in stretto, or over-lapping entries of the theme.

Bach clearly worked out this contrapuntal trick ahead of time, but he withheld the combination until the very end of the piece—much like a shrewd poker player majestically drawing an ace from his hand at the last minute, to take the game.

Bach must have considered the Prelude & Fugue as one of his best organ works, for almost twenty years later, in 1733, when his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, applied for an organist position in Dresden, Bach pulled the piece off the shelf and wrote out a revised clean copy for the audition, in which Friedemann presumably passed it off as his own creation.

Bach had already written the letter of application on Friedemann’s behalf, and it was perhaps these types of pushy, helicopter-Dad actions that contributed later to Friedemann’s troubled life as an adult.

While the Prelude & Fugue in G Major is securely handed down as a prelude-fugue pair, Bach appears to have experimented at one point with turning it into a three- movement work—in the manner of an Italian concerto—by inserting an existing organ trio movement between the Prelude & Fugue.

He chose the last movement, un poc’ allegro, or “a bit fast,” from Trio Sonata No. 4 in E Minor for Organ, BWV 528.

The trio-sonata movement fits nicely with the Prelude and Fugue, since it is in E minor, an appropriate key for the middle movement of a concerto in G major, and its theme has repeated notes that foreshadow the repeated notes in the subject of the Fugue.

Ironically, the Trio Sonata also has a tie with Wilhelm Friedemann, since Bach is said to have written the set of six works specifically for his oldest son, to further burnish his already highly polished organ technique.

The Trio Sonatas are exceedingly demanding, technically, and it is likely that at the time, the only people on the planet who could play them were Bach and a handful of his very best his students.

The three-movement version of the Prelude and Fugue in G Major appears to have been nothing more than a passing fancy for Bach, and he soon returned the work to its original two-movement form.

But what an interesting passing fancy, this flirtation with a three-movement format, as you will hear from the present performance.

I should note by way of conclusion that Renée Anne Louprette will play the three-movement version of the Prelude & Fugue in G Major on the organ recently installed in our home in Somerset, New Jersey: opus 48 of Paul Fritts Organ Builders in Tacoma, Washington.

It is a mechanical-action instrument with 12 stops, including a full principal chorus and Dulcian on the lower manual, flutes and Cornet on the upper manual, and an 8' Bourdon and 16' Subbass on the pedal.

It also has a wind-driven Zimbelstern and a variable tremulant.

The metal pipes of the organ were hand-cast on a bed of sand, in the 17th-century tradition of organ building, which gives them a special, deeply resonant tone, as you will now hear.