The Kennedy Center

Pasacaglia And Fugue

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Richard Freed

Orchestral version by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Until the authenticists made it unfashionable, the idea of orchestral transcriptions of the works of Bach and his contemporaries was widely accepted in our concert life. The German composer Heinrich Esser (1818-1872) is credited with having begun the practice of orchestrating Bach's organ works; if his settings are forgotten now, it is only because more remarkable ones came along to replace them. Some 60 years ago, in fact, more than a few young listeners had their first contact with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Walt Disney's Fantasia, a movie built entirely on visual interpretations of musical works--which started off started off with what may well be the most celebrated of all such transcriptions: the one made by the unforgettable conductor Leopold Stokowski of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). Both Stokowski (who had been an organist before taking up conducting) and Eugene Ormandy, his successor on the Philadelphia Orchestra podium, were among those who transcribed the Passacaglia and Fugue for orchestra, but when their great senior colleague Arturo Toscanini wanted to perform an orchestral version of this work, in 1930, he asked the composer Ottorino Respighi to create one for him.

Toscanini had sound reasons for choosing Respighi, whose Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals identified him as an unsurpassed master in exploiting the color resources of the modern orchestra--and who had demonstrated in The Birds (based on avian keyboard pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries) and his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances a keen sensitivity to the style and substance of pre-Classical music.

It has so far not been possible to date Bach's composition of this work, which is thought to have been one of the numerous virtuoso pieces he produced in his Weimar years (1708-17), or even earlier, at Mühlhausen. In any event, this is the only piece he called a passacaglia, and for it he chose an elaborate theme--eight bars instead of the more usual four--which he set out symmetrically (opening with an ascending fifth, ending with a descending fifth) and subjected to a series of 20 variations. The first theme he borrowed from a miniature (five-variation) Passacaille en Trio which served as the Christus in the Messe pour orgue dudeuxieme ton composed in 1688 by the otherwise forgotten French organist André Raison.

Bach's scheme of organization is an intricate one, in which his 20 variations fall into four groups of five variations each, and each of these four groups is in turn divided into subsections in which the first two variations are related to each other, the last two similarly related, and the middle one stands between the two pairs as a sort of intermezzo. At the end of this sequence comes the brilliant fugue, somewhat more extrovert in nature than the passacaglia itself.

It is this work, more than any other, to which we can trace two traditions that continue to flourish in our own time: one is the capping of a set of variations with a fugue, a style followed by such composers as Brahms, Reger and Britten; the other is the appearance of the passacaglia itself in instrumental music by no means confined to keyboard instruments, the famous example in the finale of Brahms's Fourth Symphony having been followed by numerous others, and conspicuously in the symphonies and concertos of Shostakovich.