Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 885: Double Invertible Counterpoint

Reflecting on the work of his father, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote,

If ever a composer has shown polyphony in all its strength, it was surely Bach…. Nobody has shown as much as he, in works which normally seem so dry, as much imagination and originality of thought…. His melodies were indeed unusual, but they were always varied, rich in invention, and they are not at all like those of other composers. His serious temperament drew him privately towards elaborate music which was grave and profound.

The magical polyphony of J.S. Bach is on full display in the Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G minor, BWV 885, from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Listening to the interplay of the voices, we are no longer aware of a composer manipulating counterpoint. Instead, the music feels organic and self-organizing. As one phrase opens into the next, it is easy to envision a procession through a series of doors, each of which leads into a new tantalizing room.

The harpsichordist, Christine Schornsheim, describes the three voice Prelude as “despairing, melancholic, and strict.” Bach emphasized the solemn nature of this music, filled with stately dotted rhythms, with the tempo marking, Largo. It is one of only three instances throughout the 48 Preludes and Fugues of the two-book collection in which Bach specified a tempo.

The four voice fugue which follows initiates a spectacular game of double invertible counterpoint. With this device, the positions of voices, in terms of register, are reversed, with a higher voice emerging in the lower register, and vice versa. Subject and countersubject blend to form an expression of ever-intensifying euphoria.

This performance from September of 2022, recorded by the Netherlands Bach Society as part of their All of Bach initiative, features Christine Schornsheim:

Featured Image: “National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh by Louis Kahn,” photograph by Raymond Meier 

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

2 thoughts on “Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 885: Double Invertible Counterpoint”

  1. The 48 prelude-fugues of Bach’s WT Klavier stands as one of the all-time great monuments of Western culture, endlessly inventive, creative, forever new, a treasure beyond description. Personally I prefer it played on modern piano and, despite this expert performance, find the tinny-plucky harpsichord sound distracting. Try instead this version by the great Bach interpreter Angela Hewitt:


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