playlist | Eight short preludes & fugues attributed to J. S. Bach (BWV 553–560)

The set of ‘eight short preludes and fugues’ discussed here date to the period 1730–50 (Williams) but for stylistic reasons are no longer judged to be the work of J.S. Bach himself (Durr, Lohmann, William). However, 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 in one of five separately copied manuscripts that have been bound together into a single volume containing 12 keyboard works: ‘the eight’ plus copies of BWV 913.2; 718; 916; 735.1.
It has been suggested that the scribe of ‘the eight’ was Bach’s great-nephew J.C.G. Bach (1747–1814) and that subsequently the whole volume was in the possession of J.S. Bach’s last pupil J.C. Kittel (1732–1809) (Lohmann, Williams). The manuscript volume 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’.

The same paper used for ‘the eight’ is also found in three sections of another Bach manuscript, ‘D-B Bach P 803’, one of whose scribes has been identified as J.L. Krebs (1713–80) (Williams), a pupil of Bach.
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 (of Leipzig) edition of ‘the eight’ and is likely to have been a copy of Poelchau’s manuscript. (Durr)

Given that nowadays ‘the eight’ is merely “attributed” to Bach commentators have tried to identify alternative composers but with no clear consensus emerging beyond stylistic traits, e.g. Italian concerto (no.1); durezze (no.3); neo-galant (no. 4); toccata (no.5); southern fugal styles (nos. 1, 4, & 5). (Durr, Lohmann, Williams).

My own hypothesis (2022) is that ‘the eight’ is likely to be by a student of Bach, born out of the partimento method of teaching composition at the keyboard, a teaching method used by Bach. Broadly speaking, this method employs an independent given bass line containing sufficient elements for the student to create a complete composition. (Milka). In ‘the eight’ can be found some (not all) motifs that are strongly familiar with some of those in the c.1734 partimento-collection “L’A.B.C. Musical” by Gottfried Kirchhoff (1685–1746), a composer-organist known personally to Bach (Milka); see two examples below. My hypothesis implies that there will be other (as-yet unidentified) generative sources for ‘the eight’.

In addition it is worth noting that there is evidence of a clear intention behind the organisation of ‘the eight’, i.e. that it is not an ‘ad hoc’ assembly. This is because the sequence of pieces in ‘the eight’ is in keeping with other early eighteenth-century keyboard collections with content ordered by ascending key progression and the pairing of major and minors keys, although in ‘the eight’ only one key is paired. Perhaps ‘the eight’ is an incomplete Bach-student project planned to be a larger collection?

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


The attraction of this collection for me 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.

In preparing these recordings of ‘the eight’ I have taken account of Baroque-period theory concerning the emotional character (affekt) of different musical keys, here pursuing a 1713 affekt-theory of the Hamburg composer and influential theorist Johann Mattheson (1681–1764). The instrument I am using is tuned according to the Baroque Werckmeister III system.

      1. C- major: … it has a rather hearty and confident character suited to the expression of joy.
      2. 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.
      3. 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.
      4. 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’.
      5. G-major: … insinuating and persuasive … somewhat brilliant and suited to the expression of serious as well as joyful affects.
      6. 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.
      7. A-minor: … somewhat plaintive, modest and relaxed … relaxing but not disagreeably so, These are qualities not immediately apparent in the free Stylus phantasticus manner of the prelude nor in the confident duple pulse of the fugue. While this music is neither ‘relaxed’ nor particularly ‘relaxing’ it has a plaintive quality, heightened by the sharp intonation of A minor in the baroque Werckmeister III temperament (tuning) of the instrument used here.
      8. Bb-major: … very diverting and showy … it can pass as both magnificent and graceful … it elevates the soul to greater things.

Playlist: click on any title to start the playlist.


  • 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 (2022–23). All rights reserved.

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

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