Monday, June 11, 2012

A World of Being in Time: Bach's Passacaglia in C minor

To classify Bach's C minor Passacaglia, BWV.582 as one of his most well-known works is optimistic bordering on incredulous. The Brandenburgs certainly fit the description, as do certain arias, choruses, overtures, and even fugues. Aaron Copland undoubtedly did some to popularize this overlooked masterpiece when in What to Listen for in Music he called it "one of the finest examples [of the Passacaglia] in all musical literature" and even added "few compositions will better repay careful listening." [1] Though Copland writes true things I suspect both the form and its shining example in Bach remain obscure.  Like much of Bach's music it is, even by professed aficionados, honored, praised, and put aside.

This is not so surprising, really. The Passacaglia lacks the sprightly character, though not energy, of Bach's other pieces in dance-meters. Though just as grave it lacks the tortured vivacity of the Dorian Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The passacaglia doesn't share the apparent simplicity of Bach's airs and arias nor is there any text to follow as with the choruses. What do we have, then? A dense, serious, rigorous, passacaglia, that is a developing of material over an ostinato ground bass melody. Let us see if it is not more than that description.

BWV.582 ostinato theme
Bach uses this weighty iambic theme, usually in the bass, as the point of departure for 20 variations which Schumann, in reviewing their treatment at the hands of none other than Mendelssohn who was himself performing them for the purpose of funding a memorial over Bach's grave in Leipzig, said to be, "intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed." [2]

Variations I-X

The first ten variations feature increasing contrapuntal and rhythmic complexity. The ostinato figure remains the same in the bass for the first four variations while in the first theme in the treble shifts the weight off of the first beat, in the second the harmony becomes more dramatic, in the third it is adorned with counterpoint, and in the fourth the pace is accelerated with the movement to sixteenth notes. In the fifth the first note of each pair is disguised in an arpeggio and treated in counterpoint in the upper voices. Variations six through eight see increased rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity with the many rising and falling figures until the most striking change yet occurs in variation nine when the bass theme is for the first time equally treated in all of the voices. Finally in variation ten the theme, which now pauses with a rest after each iamb, is paralleled 1:1 against ascending and descending scalar passages.

Variations XI-XV

In the following variations we feel the strongest sense yet of musical departure in the movement of the bass theme. In variation eleven the theme rises to the soprano, in strong relief against the rising and falling scales below it. In twelve it beings to recede from focus above the contrapuntal complexity and from its high point of A moves not in its usual descent to F, but and as if in tragic recognition, falls first stepwise to F and then down the whole octave to A. At last in thirteen it seems to disappear amongst the other material before returning in the upward-stretching figures of fourteen and fifteen.

Variations XVI-XX

The return of the theme to the bass in sixteen would take on the form of a return to normalcy after the motion of variations XI-XV but for the treble chords which sever each of the bass theme's rising figures. In variation seventeen at last the bass theme returns whole and against vast virtuosic runs of thirty-second notes which, up in the treble, create the sense of a vast space and a grand return. Composer Stefan Wolpe described variation eighteen, with its seemingly static material, this way:
Variation 18 is created to show the unyielding repetitions as unyielding repetitions as possible. Here the content stands very still, and because everything is so obstinate and is repeated so stubbornly (a type of stationary music), the theme suddenly seems (precisely for that reason) so full of movement, so fluid, to flow so peacefully. [3]
The theme takes on even more of a flowing and regal quality through the diminution of its crotchets into quavers.

In the final two variations, nineteen and twenty, we have a five-note figure of four thirty-second notes followed by a quaver. First it is treated in imitation and then it is played against itself in alternating intervals (see last three measures below.)
BWV.582 - Variation Twenty
These processes both broaden the sense of space, throw the bass theme into stronger relief, and heighten the tension as we move to the closing chord.


In Bach's Passacaglia in C minor we find nothing short of total mastery. The one bass theme proves to be the genesis of the whole piece, its full form anchoring the upper voices, its elements creating its counterpoints, and its motion up and down the registers creating both a sense of physical space and a dramatic departure and return. The theme is both structure and content. We see that the, "'varied repetitions' are necessary to establish the substance of the theme in various ways" [3] but that ultimately although the theme explored and revealed it is not changed. It is beginning, end, and cause. Bach has created here within the seemingly tight strictures of the passacaglia, to invert Wolpe's own statement, a living architecture. Bach has made not just a world, but a world of being in time.

[1] Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music. 1939. p. 123-124

[2] Hans Theodore David, Arthur Mendel, Christoph Wolff. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. 1998. p. 501-503.

[3] Zenck, Martin. The influence of Busoni's 'Bach': Stefan Wolpe's analysis of Bach's Passacaglia BWV 582 and its significance for his music of the 1930s and 1940s. in The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Butt, John. (Ed.) 1997. p. 240-250

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