After a break of a month or so, it’s time to get back to learning the Passacaglia for organ. This time, we’re looking at variations three and four, very different in style to the two first, very similar, variations.
These variations are again similar (variations 3, 4 and 5 are widely regarded to feature the chorale “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”) and feature flowing melodic lines in an ascending and descending pattern – “transitus”. Passing notes are frequent and the lines imitate each other , gradually coming together at the end of each variation.
In V.3 these lines are mostly legato in nature and open to interpretation – see below. The three lines are split between the hands, making for some rather interesting finger-swapping along the way. Players often comment on Bach’s counterpoint for keyboard instruments and how difficult it is to play comfortably. Recent research on Bach himself suggests that he had rather large hands – apparently he could easily span twelve notes on the keyboard – which would account for some of the more difficult sections of his keyboard compositions… Back to the Passacaglia.
V.4 introduces 16th note movement, increasing the piece’s momentum dramatically. The lines of music also take us further than before – to a high C – before once again releasing tension towards the end of the variation. The use of harmony is closer here too, the 16th note figures move together in 3rds, 6ths or 10ths. The use of 16th and 8th notes is referred to as a “figura corta” and as the melodic lines are based on scale movement, i.e. passing notes, this is known as a “figua corta passus”.
The 5th variation, not part of this video, takes the figura corta further. The basic melodic structure remains the same as the previous variations but now contains octave leaps in the “figura corta”. We now have a “figura corta saltus”, a feature now covered by the the theme itself in the pedal. Although this variation contains the same basic material as V.3 and V.4, a very different effect has been created by introducing these octave leaps and the corresponding change of intervals.
Regarding interpretation – there are a great many interpretations and recordings of this piece available to us. Old recordings, new interpretations, classic renditions, amateur attempts – they can all be found online. Type “how to interpret Bach’s organ music” into Google and you’ll get almost 22 million results. Where do you start? Who is right? Who is wrong? The only true answer is, we don’t know for sure. Academic studies rewrite their findings every so often. 150 years ago it was ok to play very differently to today. Unlike some colleagues who are openly stubborn in their views, I like to remain open on the subject. If I should decide to play Bach’s Passacaglia one day in a concert on a modern French romantic organ, I will interpret the piece accordingly. If I play it on an original Baroque instrument, I might interpret it differently.
One of my favourite performances of the piece is Karl Richter’s recording in Ottobeuren, where he clearly has the help of an assistant or two at the 4-manual Riepp organ. Stops are added or deleted between the variations, manuals are swapped. The same can be said of most modern interpretations, a perfect example of this is Olivier Latry’s recent interpretation from Notre Dame, exploiting the numerous possibilities of the amazing 5-manual organ. Other interpretations leave me cold – Ton Koopman, a brilliant scholar of Bach and a tremendous performer of his works, has a video of a performance on an organ is Asia without any registration changes whatsoever.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!