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JS Bach's 'Great' Prelude and Fugues

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Not for the first time, I am hoping to draw on the wider experiences of some of the members of this board in seeking some advice on repertoire.

 

I have played through most of the 8 Short P&Fs, and have also dabbled in BWV 568 (Prelude in G, with no attached Fugue) and have done some work on the 'St Anne' Fugue, but think it is probably about time I set about learning some more JSB organ music; I play some of the Chorale Preludes (Nun komm - the first one, Wachet Auf etc) but would like to tackle some of the 'Great' Prelude and Fugues.

 

My question then - what is a good starting place, in terms of being approachable and particularly worthwhile music to learn? Do any members here have any particular favourites which they would commend to me?

 

I realise there is also a question of which editions you use to play them - previously I have bought Novello but I realise they are not the most scholarly editions which exist. Clearly much can be downloaded from the IMSLP website - is this sufficiently reliable or should I look at buying printed scores?

 

Any advice gratefully received and any associated discussion welcomed with interest.

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In terms of editions, most of the Bach on IMSLP is from the old 19th-century Bachgesellschaft, which, although urtext, is even more outdated than Novello. If you want a state-of-the-art edition, you need either the Baerenreiter NBA or the new Breitkopf edition edited by Breig, Dirksen and Emans (http://www.breitkopf...ntory/werk/8795) - but the latter is work in progress and they haven't yet got around to the big preludes and fugues.I have some volumes (though not the P&Fs) of the older Breitkopf edition by Lohmann and it seems good, but, frankly, I'd stick to NBA.

 

Out of the "great" P&Fs I would say that the most readily approachable is the C minor BWV 546, followed by the B minor BWV 544. The C major BWV 547 is about the same level and a lot more cheerful! The Toccata and Adagio from BWV 564 are not difficult (probably easier than 546, though the opening of the toccata requires nimble fingers and there's a pedal solo to practise), and much of the fugue isn't too bad, though it has spots that will definitely test your co-ordination and balance. The most difficult are the G major BWV 541, the E minor ("Wedge") BWV 548 and the Passacaglia and Fugue.

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Strange - I've never considered the G major to be that hard, but I did the prelude for Grade 8 and the P&F for ARCM nearly forty years ago so I guess I'm used to them by now.

 

I quite often pair the BWV 568 Prelude with the Fugue from Novello book 12 - it's probably spurious but quite fun.

 

The 'Little' E minor P&F is always worth playing, as is the 'Little' C minor. The Prelude is easy and the fugue ('Uncle Joe has lost his trousers') stops fuguing when the pedals come in. The 'Giant' fugue is a mightily impressive piece.

 

Aside from Bach, some of his immediate predecessors deserve more attention than they get. I'm very keen on the Ps&Fs of Bohm, those of Bruhns (particularly the lesser E minor) and, of course, Buxtehude. Vincent Lubeck's E major P&F is fine, too.

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The matter of editions has arisen before, and can be seen here.

 

Approachable Preludes & Fugues: C (531); Cm (549) mentioned by David above; Em (533); Fm Prelude (534i); A ((536); Gm Fugue (578).

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... have also dabbled in BWV 568 (Prelude in G, with no attached Fugue)

 

It's worth noting that this prelude doesn't actually have an ascription - to Bach or anyone else.* I was quite pleased to learn this since it never did sound to me like genuine Bach. Its texture (so much of it chordal, or a florid semiquaver melody with chordal accompaniment, with virtually nothing in the way of argued counterpoint) sounds to me much more reminiscent of some of the more galant pieces by Johann Ludwig Krebs; the chordal ending is absolutely him. That doesn't mean that he wrote it, of course. Whoever wrote it, it's still a very worthwhile piece..

 

* It is found in a manuscript alongside the Little Harmonic Labyrinth and it is the latter which bears Bach's name. It is doubly odd that the prelude became absorbed into the Bach canon considering that the ascription of the Labyrinth is generally regarded as iffy.

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Maybe not one of the 'Greats' but BWV 550 P & F in G Major is quite fun and not that difficult.

 

A

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The Fantasia from the Great G minor isn't that difficult, and the Fantasia in C minor (the one without the fugue in Novello Book 3) is straightforward and worthwhile.

 

Speaking of Novello - I was brought up on it and I have it all bound in hard covers so I'm not likely to change, but I've heard various top organists, including the late David Sanger, say that it's not wildly inaccurate and easier to read than others. I believe someone made a list of possible adjustments - it would be nice if it were to be made available.

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I would urge more people to look at JSB's Fugue in B minor on a theme by Corelli, BWV 579. Not difficult but highly rewarding.

 

There is an excellent recording by Chorzempa on the Silbermann at Arlesheim, with a simple 8 4 2 registration which lets the glory of the counterpoint speak for itself.

 

H

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Lots of good advice here already - I always think the F minor is not to be underestimated in terms of impact - a noble piece and pretty straightforward. Well worth learning. I know you were asking about 'great' preludes and fugues, but, as David intimates, don't forget the Giant Fugue (CP on Wir Glauben) from Novello Book 2, the Allebreve in D, and the Fantasia in G major (Pièce d'Orgue) - Novello Book 9. Have you (Philip) looked at the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) - admittedly, a maligned piece - and the Dorian Toccata and Fugue (Novello Book 10) - only a few slightly tricky moments? David mentions one or two other composers linked to Bach - Krebs is worth exploring and you might really enjoy a lovely little chorale prelude, 'O God hear my sighing' - published (was) by Cramer. You'll find it in IMSLP I think or similar. [sorry - this response would probably irritate me if I were Philip - he's asked about a specific, and now I've listed a whole lot of things that are not really what he was asking about!!]

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[sorry - this response would probably irritate me if I were Philip - he's asked about a specific, and now I've listed a whole lot of things that are not really what he was asking about!!]

 

Not at all - as my final sentence regarding associated discussion was intended to suggest. I realise that threads on internet forums (and certainly this one) can frequently go off at tangents!

 

Already there is much for me to ponder, so thanks to all - further contributions still welcomed, of course. I omitted to mention that I do play the 'Piece d'Orgue' - the first two sections, at any rate - I've never been fussed on the third so haven't bothered!

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I would agree pretty much with Vox Humana on order of difficulty - I never felt I really properly learned the G major, there was always something to stumble over and I wonder if I will ever get it to performance standard.

 

The F minor is very underrated and very straightforward, the B minor is long but not technically especially difficult then there is the C minor fantasia and fugue 537 with the famous orchestral (Elgar?) version. For only slightly shorter works consider the P&F in C major 545. For standalone pieces consider the Fantasia in C minor 562 (and a few bars of a fugue remaining) and the very jolly G major Prelude (no fugue) 568. The E flat is very long so takes a while to learn the notes and has its challenges but is probably on the easier side of the big pieces too.

 

Going beyond Bach you might want to take a look at some of the Krebs preludes and fugues - most are rather annoyingly long but the E major and C major manage to stick to a decent length whilst full of boundless energy:

 

and

 

A fun exercise can be had looking at them and guessing which Bach set inspired which (e.g. the F minor prelude and fugue seems based on the Bach B minor prelude plus the Bach F minor fugue; the Krebs A minor toccata is pretty similar to the Bach F major Toccata, you get the idea).

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Strange - I've never considered the G major to be that hard, but I did the prelude for Grade 8 and the P&F for ARCM nearly forty years ago so I guess I'm used to them by now.

 

I quite often pair the BWV 568 Prelude with the Fugue from Novello book 12 - it's probably spurious but quite fun.

 

The 'Little' E minor P&F is always worth playing, as is the 'Little' C minor. The Prelude is easy and the fugue ('Uncle Joe has lost his trousers') stops fuguing when the pedals come in. The 'Giant' fugue is a mightily impressive piece.

 

Aside from Bach, some of his immediate predecessors deserve more attention than they get. I'm very keen on the Ps&Fs of Bohm, those of Bruhns (particularly the lesser E minor) and, of course, Buxtehude. Vincent Lubeck's E major P&F is fine, too.

 

I would agree regarding the Prelude and Fugue, in G major (BWV 541). The Fantasia and Fugue, in G minor (BWV 542) - at least, as far as the Fugue is concerned - is somewhat more demanding.

 

As Martin Cooke has already mentioned, the 'Dorian' Toccata and Fugue (BWV 538) is well worth a look. Personally, I find the Fugue to be one of the most satisfying and rewarding pieces ever written by Bach.

 

In addition, the 'other' G major Prelude and Fugue (BWV 550) is good - particularly the Prelude. The Fugue has a slightly unusual subject, which in places, can be a little awkward to bring off comfortably. Then there are the two larger works: the Prelude and Fugue, in D major (BWV 532) - the Fugue does not have to be played presto.... and the Toccata and Fugue, in F major (BWV 540).

 

Not forgetting two occasionally overlooked works: the Prelude and Fugue, in A major (BWV 536) and the Fantasia and Fugue, in C minor (BWV 537). The latter two pieces are probably the easiest to learn in this list, with just a few awkward corners to negotiate, with the G minor (BWV 542) and the D major (BWV 532) perhaps the most difficult.

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The Fantasia from the Great G minor isn't that difficult, and the Fantasia in C minor (the one without the fugue in Novello Book 3) is straightforward and worthwhile.

 

Speaking of Novello - I was brought up on it and I have it all bound in hard covers so I'm not likely to change, but I've heard various top organists, including the late David Sanger, say that it's not wildly inaccurate and easier to read than others. I believe someone made a list of possible adjustments - it would be nice if it were to be made available.

 

I am glad that you have written this, David.

 

I, too, was brought up on this edition. I also understood it to be as accurate as some editions - and more so than one or two. I still play all my Bach repertoire from these editions - although it has to be said that my copy of Book Eight in particular, closely resembles the state of the original manuscript. If I wish to play the G minor Fugue (BWV 542), then I have to play the last page or so largely from memory, since the tattered remnants are barely decipherable.

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I have to say that I find our lack of agreement about the relative difficulty of the various P&Fs absolutely fascinating. How different we all are! I have no idea how Philip is going to assess our posts. Perhaps the best solution is to get the lot and wade through them!

 

I would urge more people to look at JSB's Fugue in B minor on a theme by Corelli, BWV 579. Not difficult but highly rewarding.

 

There is an excellent recording by Chorzempa on the Silbermann at Arlesheim, with a simple 8 4 2 registration which lets the glory of the counterpoint speak for itself.

 

I do agree with this, especially about it sounding best on a simple chorus without mutations or mixtures (as IMO does the little G minor fugue). A really high-quality piece and one that is often overlooked.

 

...then there is the C minor fantasia and fugue 537 with the famous orchestral (Elgar?) version.

 

Although it's not usually citied amongst the "great" P&Fs, I do find this a most powerfully satisfying piece and not difficult, even taking the fugue at a moderately brisk alla breve. It's long been one of my absolute favourites.

 

Going beyond Bach you might want to take a look at some of the Krebs preludes and fugues ...A fun exercise can be had looking at them and guessing which Bach set inspired which (e.g. the F minor prelude and fugue seems based on the Bach B minor prelude plus the Bach F minor fugue

 

I have a lot of time for Krebs's big F minor prelude - which is just as well because you need it. It really is a bit too long for its own good, but I think it gets away with its inordinate length rather better than some other Krebs pieces - the architecture is well planned. I remember choosing to learn it at the RCM, using the old Peters volume, the only one then available. My tutor, Sidney Campbell, was rather diffident and said something like, "Well, alright, but I don't know it, so I don't know that I'll be able to help you much with it." But of course he found plenty to say. I think it was after our third lesson on it that after demonstrating a few points of interpretation to think about, he turned the page and proceeded to sight-read the whole double fugue note perfectly, finishing with, "It's a good piece..." How he managed to track the part-writing through all the copious part crossings and the plethora of romantic phrasing and articulation marks I couldn't fathom. To say I was well impressed would be an understatement. I don't think even at my best I could ever have sight-read something that involved - not note perfectly.

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The Fantasia from the Great G minor isn't that difficult, and the Fantasia in C minor (the one without the fugue in Novello Book 3) is straightforward and worthwhile.

 

Speaking of Novello - I was brought up on it and I have it all bound in hard covers so I'm not likely to change, but I've heard various top organists, including the late David Sanger, say that it's not wildly inaccurate and easier to read than others. I believe someone made a list of possible adjustments - it would be nice if it were to be made available.

The Novello edition (especially the volumes edited by Emery) are fine: nicely laid out and with good page turns - as far as such a thing is possible.

 

However this Fantasia in C minor is an exception - for some reason the Novello editors decided to strip the piece of its ornaments - a vital part of it. It's a graceful French-style piece (I've heard it played with notes inegales). Look up IMSLP if you want to play it.

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So glad to see that BWV 545 has been mentioned - I find it a very fine, sturdy but joyful piece with plenty of impact - it peals forth very pleasingly. I've been wondering about poor old BWV 535 in Novello Book 8 - G minor. I don't think anyone has mentioned this and I don't recall ever hearing it performed either in a recital or as a voluntary. Is it worth a look?

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I've been wondering about poor old BWV 535 in Novello Book 8 - G minor. I don't think anyone has mentioned this and I don't recall ever hearing it performed either in a recital or as a voluntary. Is it worth a look?

 

I find this a curious piece. The prelude has a striking similarity to the final, extended harpsichord solo (I don't like to call it a cadenza) of the first movement of Brandenburg 5 and, because of that, I can't quite stop wondering whether it's just a written out ending to a prelude that was improvised. But of course that's just idle speculation and probably not worth the time of day. The fugue, while not perhaps top drawer, is well written and I think the ending, where Bach continually side-steps the final G major chord until two and a half bars after reaching the final perfect cadence is pure genius - a musical orgasm.

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The Novello edition (especially the volumes edited by Emery) is fine: nicely laid out and with good page turns - as far as such a thing is possible.

 

However this Fantasia in C minor is an exception - for some reason the Novello editors decided to strip the piece of its ornaments - a vital part of it. It's a graceful French-style piece (I've heard it played with notes inegales). Look up IMSLP if you want to play it.

 

One disadvantage with Novello is that the present issues are reduced photographically from the originals and occasionally are a bit cramped. If memory serves me, the Prelude of the A major is tricky to read in parts. The old copies, which were larger, were better in this respect. Generally, though, I like Novello.

 

Interesting point about the C minor - I must try it. I play the Great C minor prelude with notes inegale. Kenneth Mobbs at Bristol University recommended that it should be so (and played it that way at my graduation in 1978). I didn't leanr the piece until years later (possibly after I came to Newfoundland), but Kenny knew his stuff when it came to Baroque interpretation and I remembered his words.

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As Martin Cooke has already mentioned, the 'Dorian' Toccata and Fugue (BWV 538) is well worth a look. Personally, I find the Fugue to be one of the most satisfying and rewarding pieces ever written by Bach.

 

I couldn't agree more about the Fugue; I'd also say the same about the Toccata. In the Fugue, I love the clashing idea that first appears in b. 16 - very cheeky! The dissonances caused by the repeated stretti (entries always a bar apart) are also charmingly piquant. About the Fugue in general, for me it has a sense of inevitability and order without sounding mechanical. The ineluctable logic of the counterpoint turns each entry of the simple, almost banal subject into a little journey. I would say the same of the 'Gratias agimus' from the B-minor Mass.

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I seem to remember that another 'early' piece to learn was the Vivaldi/Bach A minor Concerto (Book 11). Great to see Novello editions getting the thumbs up so comprehensively again! I have felt almost embarrassed to be seen using them in polite company in recent years, but I believe I'm going to get them bound properly (like David's by the sound of it) and use them proudly again!

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I have to say that I find our lack of agreement about the relative difficulty of the various P&Fs absolutely fascinating. How different we all are! I have no idea how Philip is going to assess our posts. Perhaps the best solution is to get the lot and wade through them!

 

Yes - the same thought occurred to me.

 

I have noticed that it can also vary with the same person from one day to another. Both my former colleague and I have sight-read pieces as voluntaries* that were probably a little too difficult to do so under normal circumstances. However, in each case the performances were successful, with very few wrong notes. As it happened, we both returned to the pieces concerned the next time we practised - only to discover that the 'magic' - or perhaps the adrenalin - was not there; for both of us, it sounded as if someone had let a panda loose on the organ....

 

 

 

* I do not do this habitually. My excuse on that occasion, was a very busy couple of weeks, with - quite literally - no time to practise (other than late at night, after a fourteen-hour day, with another following a few hours later).

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Thanks again for all the suggestions, which have given me much food for thought. Having already bought Novello Book 2 some while ago, my first conquest has been the BWV 549 Prelude which I will use tonight at St Marys, Nottingham. The Fugue still needs a bit of work - I find the ending a little strange but otherwise enjoy it.

 

I was looking at the lists in the Novello books and the pieces suggested above seem to be spread across a number of books, suggesting that maybe the Barenreiter edition (which puts all the P&Fs together) might be better for me. That way I can have a play through many of the suggestions above and work out what I will find easiest to tackle. Of course, I should probably but the 'Orgelbuchlein' as well...

 

The point about what people find easier is a very interesting one, but one that I fully appreciate, and these things vary from one player to the next. For example, the Dubois Toccata is widely thought to be among the easiest of the French Toccatas but I have never quite been able to get to grips with it, I think because one little mistake throws everything out completely (at least, it does for me!).

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I was looking at the lists in the Novello books and the pieces suggested above seem to be spread across a number of books, suggesting that maybe the Barenreiter edition (which puts all the P&Fs together) might be better for me. That way I can have a play through many of the suggestions above and work out what I will find easiest to tackle.

 

Yes. Volume 5 contains nearly everything you will want. The only significant "big" items missing are the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, the early E (or C) major P&F and the infamous BWV 565, which are in vol.6.

 

Regarding the Novello edition, I would simply reiterate that it is a little uneven. If that's the one you have there's no call to ditch it, but if you're starting from scratch there are now better options. The volumes edited by Emery are fine, as are the volumes based on Bach's own primary texts where the notes are uncontentious (e.g. Orgelbüchlein, Clavierübung, Schübler) - if you don't mind all the anachronistic editorial overlay (phrasing, etc). As it happens, it is in the P&Fs that most of the variant readings occur (and Philip will find one or two significant ones in the Bärenreiter version of BWV 549).

 

Comparing the readings of the various editions does make you wonder how settled modern scholarship is. Most of us will be familiar with the different endings of the pedal solos in the F major Toccata, where the perfect cadences in Novello have the dominant lasting a full dotted-crotchet but Bärenreiter inserts a short sub-semitone. I was interested to see that the new Breitkopf edition follows Novello here. Such things make you wonder whether it's worth bothering with the new editions, but, as someone once said, if you're a donkey between two bundles of hay and someone removes one of the bundles, you won't cease to be a donkey. Like them or not, we have to trust the expertise of modern musicologists. That's what they're for. Dislike what they tell you by all means, but if you're going to disagree with them you'd better make sure you have an equal grasp of the issues.

 

For all this, Novello does remain the edition that sets out the music most practically for the player (AFAIK; I've never seen Dupré's). For those not very adept at reallocating the notes on the two upper staves between the hands it might well be the preferable option.

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Regarding the Novello scores, which I also learned from and still use, the current 'brown' editions are a photo reduction of the originals as someone else has already mentioned, the problems with these are that the print appears blurred in places and some pages are so cramped that they are virtually impossible to read (the middle section of the St Anne Fugue for example).

 

I've recently acquired original copies of books 7 and 8 (book 7 is 'as new') one of which dates from the 1930s and am finding them much easier to play from, it's worth trawling the various websites which offer second-hand music as there are plently of these scores around, albeit in a range of conditions!

 

This gentleman in Liverpool is offering quite a few http://www.usedorganmusic.co.uk/orderform.htm

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Slightly off topic but - I've just dug out BWV 562, the 5 Part Fantasia in C Minor. There are a number of different and quite polarised interpretations from Simon Preston (middle of the road - not too slow and not full organ) to Ton Koopman (highly ornamented and quite fast with full choruses) via Marie Claire Alain (on a small reed chorus with notes 'inegale' rather in the manner of a French Overture - in her 1980s complete JSB - 'not sure about the others). Some also play the piece horrendously (in my opinion anyway) slowly. I quite like Simon Preston's pace with M-C A's inegales - maybe in the manner of a Grands Jeux movement from Couperin/De Grigny etc.. What does anyone else here do - keeping in mind possible French inluences via JSB's De Grigny interest?

 

A

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