The eight short preludes & fugues attributed to J. S. Bach (BWV 553–560)

The set of ‘eight short preludes and fugues’ discussed here are, for stylistic reasons, no longer judged to be by J.S. Bach himself (Durr, Lohmann, William), although for now they still retain their place in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis (BWV), the official J.S. Bach catalogue, as numbers 553–560. 

The first page of BWV 553. [Source: Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin ‘D-B Bach P 281’]
The earliest surviving source of ‘the eight’ is contained within a single volume made from five separately copied manuscripts that in total comprise 12 keyboard works. It has been suggested that the scribe of ‘the eight’ that appear in this volume was Bach’s great-nephew J.C.G.  Bach  (1747–1814) and that subsequently the volume was in the possession of J.S. Bach’s last pupil J.C. Kittel (1732–1809) (Lohmann, Williams). The manuscript was latterly owned by Georg Poelchau (1773–1836) who was an avid collector of Bach materials. Since 1841 the manuscript has been in the collection of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin as ‘D-B Bach P 281’. Apart from ‘the eight’ the other keyboard works in the Poelchau manuscript are all reliably by J.S. Bach: BWV 913.2; 718; 916; 735.1. 

A now-lost manuscript of ‘the eight’ – scribe unknown –  was once owned by Bach biographer J.N. Forkel (1749–1818) and then by a promoter of Bach’s work  F.C. Griepenkerl (1782–1849). It was used to produce the 1852 C.F. Peters (Leipzig) edition of ‘the eight’ and is likely to have been a copy of Poelchau’s manuscript. (Durr)

BWV 553–560
makes use of various keyboard forms common in Bach’s time, e.g. Italian concerto (no.1); durezze (no.3); neo-galant (no. 4); toccata (no.5); southern fugal styles (nos. 1, 4, & 5). (Williams).

NB The sequence of each piece’s tonic note forms the Mixolydian mode.

The attraction of this collection is not only that individual movements are useful in liturgical settings but also that the set, when played complete, makes a pleasing and varied baroque-period  concert item.

When preparing to perform these eight pieces, particularly as a complete set, it is useful to take account of eighteenth-century theories concerning the different emotional character (affecct) of different musical keys. In this instance it is the ideas of Johann Mattheson (1681–1764) that inform the performances. The affect is heightened by the use of a Baroque tuning system, Werckmeister III.


    • BWV 553: prelude and fugue in C
      Mattheson’s thoughts on C-major: … it has a rather hearty and confident character suited to the expression of joy.
    •  BWVV 554: prelude & fugue in Dm
      Mattheson’s thoughts on D-minor: … somewhat devout and calm, at the same time affecting, agreeable, and expressive of contentment … for the furthering of devotion in the church … ‘skipping’ music must not be written in it, whereas flowing music will be very successful.
    • BWV 555: prelude & fugue in Em
      Mattheson’s thoughts on E-minor: … whatever one may do with it, it will remain pensive, profound, sad, and expressive of grief in such a way that some chance of consolation remains.

::: BWV 556: prelude & fugue in F [sound file soon] :::
Mattheson’s thoughts on F-major: … capable of expressing the most beautiful sentiments … generosity, steadfastness, love, or whatever else may be high on the list of virtues. It is natural and unforced when used to express such affects. It compares to a handsome person who looks good whatever he may do and who has, as the French say, ‘bonne grace’. 

::: BWV 557: prelude & fugue in G [sound file soon] :::
Mattheson’s thoughts on G-major: … insinuating and persuasive … somewhat brilliant and suited to the expression of serious as well as joyful affects. 

::: BWV 558: prelude & fugue in Gm [sound file soon] :::
Mattheson’s thoughtsn on G-minor: … almost the most beautiful key … rather serious combined with spirited loveliness, uncommon grace and affability … it lends itself well and flexibly both to moderate plaintiveness and tempered joy. 

::: BWV 559: prelude & fugue in Am [sound file soon] :::
Mattheson’s thoughts on A-minor: … somewhat plaintive, modest  and relaxed … relaxing but not disagreeably so.

::: BWV 560: prelude & fugue in Bb [sound file soon] :::
Mattheson’s thoughts on Bb-major: … very diverting and showy … it can pass as both magnificent and graceful … it elevates the soul to greater things. 


    • Johann Christoph Georg Bach‘.  The New Grove Bach Family by Christoph Wolff (London: MacMillan, 1983). “Bach Cantatas Website” (2006). Online resource accessed 22 October 2022.
    • D-B Bach P 281. Online resource accessed 25 October 2022.
    • Alfred Duur. ‘Introduction’. “Johann Sebastian Bach: Acht kleine Präludien und Fugen”. Series: Barenreitr Urtext.  (Kassel ; London : Bärenreiter 1990)
    • Eight Short Preludes and Fugues‘. Wikipedia. Online resource accessed 20 October 2022.
    • Johann Nikolaus Forkel. Wikipedia. Online resource accessed 20 October 2022.
    • Friedrich Konrad Griepenkerl. Wikipedia. Online resource accessed 20 October 2022.
    • Heinz Lohmann. ‘Introductory Notes’. “Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750): 8 Little Preludes and Fugues BWV 553-560″. (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1974). [ Publisher’s inspection copy. Online resource, accessed 29 Oct0ber 2022. ] 
    • Johann  Mattheson. Wikipedia. Online resource accessed 20 October 2022.
    • Johann Mattheson. Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre (Hamburg: Benjamin Schillers Witwe, 1713), as discussed in Hans Lenneberg ‘Johann Mattheson on Affect and Rhetoric in Music’. Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Nov., 1958), pp. 193-236. 234-36. (Online resource from Internet Archive, accessed 13 November 2022.)
    • Werckmeister temperament‘. Wikipedia. Online resource accessed 20 October 2022.
    • Peter Williams. The Organ Music of J. S. Bach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
    • Georg Poelchau‘. Wikipedia. Online resource accessed 22 October 2022. [In German]
  • Technical notes.
    – Edition: Johann Sebastian Bach Acht kleine Präludien und Fugen. Series: Barenreitr Urtext.  (Kassel ; London : Bärenreiter 1990)
    – Temperament: Werckmeister III; pitch A=440

    – Organ: Viscount Sonus 60
    – Microphone: Zoom Q2N-4K
    – Recordings: ©Andrew Pink (2022). All rights reserved.

    Creative Commons licence: [Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International]

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