Among the most expansive and complex organ works of J.S. Bach is the towering Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548.
The 19th century Bach biographer, Philipp Spitta, went so far as to call it “a two-movement symphony” for organ. According to the polymath musicologist, Albert Schweitzer, these two complimentary movements are “so mighty in design, and have so much harshness blended with their power, that the hearer can only grasp them after several hearings.” Maarten ‘t Hart considers the somber Prelude to be “a forerunner of the lament of the wounded Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal,” and describes the virtuosic Fugue as “bewildering.”
Bach wrote this bold music between 1727 and 1736 during his tenure in Leipzig. Christoph Wolff has suggested that it was composed specifically for the organ of Leipzig’s University Church (Paulinerkirche), an instrument which was regarded as one of the finest in Germany, and which boasted “53 registers, three manuals and pedal.” (Netherlands Bach Society) The occasion for which it was written remains unknown. Significantly, Bach created an autograph manuscript, although the score was finished in the hand of his student, Johann Peter Kellner.
Formally, the somber Prelude resembles a concerto, with a recurring ritornello. The four-part Fugue’s striking subject unfolds with wedge-like chromatic outward motion. Its dramatic contour has earned BWV 548 the nickname, “The Wedge.” The Fugue’s three-part structure includes blazing toccata passages and, in the third section, a full de capo in which the haunting exposition returns.
For Bach, the purpose of all music was “the glorification of God, and the refreshment of the spirit.” The Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548 unleashes a thrilling and ferocious sense of divine energy.
In this performance from the Netherlands Bach Society, recorded in September of 2014 at St Jacob’s Church, Leeuwarden, Reitze Smits plays an organ built by Christian Müller in 1727:
Featured Image: the organ at St Jacob’s Church, Leeuwarden