Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Fugue in g minor,

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Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Fugue in G minor, (“Little Fugue”)

Although Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)is today recognized as a master of baroque composition, he was little known outside of his native Thuringia region of Germany during his lifetime. He composed in all contemporary genres except opera, an omission in his oeuvre that was certainly a result of his twenty-seven year appointment as the music director for the major churches in Leipzig, Germany, and the tension between the church and the secular opera establishment. In his home region, however, Bach was well respected as a composer and organist and was often called upon to “test” new organs after their construction.

One of Bach's best-known organ pieces is the Little Fugue in G Minor (composed about 1709), so called to differentiate it from another, longer fugue in G minor. Mastering the very strict compositional form of the fugue, based upon the earlier imitative vocal polyphony of the renaissance, was thought to be one of the highest achievements of a baroque composer. In this form a single melody, the subject, is the basis of all the following music in the composition. Bach’s command of this compositional genre was so great that he was called upon to improvise a fugue given to him in 1744 by Frederick the Great. Bach later based the composition of the Musical Offering , a virtual encyclopedia of polyphonic forms, on the royal theme. The investigation of musical construction dominated Bach’s last decade, during which his membership in the learned Society of Musical Sciences profoundly affected his thinking. As the alchemist sought the sorcerer’s stone, from which gold could be manufactured, Bach and his fellow composers sought the perfect polyphonic musical materials from which endless compositions could be wrought.

Listening Tips:

In a fugue, each melody is called a voice and uses the designations from vocal music from highest to lowest of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Each of the fugue’s four voices presents the subject in turn starting with the top voice and progressing to the lower voices, until it reaches the bass, where it is played by the organist’s feet on the pedal keyboard. When the subject appears the second time, the first voice proceeds to the counter-subject, a melody that accompanies the subject balancing its melodic motion and harmonic content. After each opening section, the subject appears five more times, each time preceded by an episode, a period in which the entire subject is not played. The first episode uses both new material and a melodic idea from the countersubject. Though the fugue is in minor, it ends with a major chord, a frequent practice in the Baroque period--major chords were thought to be more conclusive than minor chords.

Listening Guide:


Subject in soprano voice alone, minor key


Subject in alto, countersubject in running notes in soprano


Subject in tenor, countersubject above it; brief episode follows


Subject in bass (pedals), countersubject in tenor


Brief episode


Subject begins in tenor, continues in soprano


Brief episode, running notes in a downward sequence


Subject in alto, major key; countersubject in soprano


Episode in major, upward leaps and running notes


Subject in bass (pedals), major key, countersubject and long trill above it


Longer episode


Subject in soprano, minor key, countersubject below it.


Extended episode


Subject in bass (pedals), countersubject in soprano. Fugue ends with major chord.



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