One of the great glories of the organ literature, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, is found in several manuscripts known to have been written before 1710. It was probably composed shortly before Bach began his Weimar tenure, possibly in response to the death of Dietrich Buxtehude in 1707. A passacaglia is a form of continuous variations over, under, or around a recurring theme. The first four measures of Bach’s theme are the same as a little passacaglia by André Raison, and also similar to two works, a master of the passacaglia and chaconne forms.
nbsp; Bach doubles the four-bar theme, however, and then builds 20 variations on it, a symmetrical complex of equal appeal to head and heart. The theme also bears a possible relationship to the beginning of the Lutheran “Our Father” chorale, according to the Dutch scholar Piet Kee, who believes that the whole Passacaglia is based on the Lord’s Prayer as elaborated in Andreas Werckmeister’s book Paradoxal-Discourse, which was published in 1707.
When Bach seems to have exhausted all the possibilities of his theme in 20 variations, he then takes those first four measures of it as the main subject in an immediately ensuing fugue, with many new countersubjects. For Bach, fugue is never a purely intellectual conceit, but rather a technique for intensification. Beginning as it does with the vast energies already accumulated by the Passacaglia, this fugue generates explosive climactic power and thrust, relentlessly logical, yet expressively exalting.