Young Bach

Prelude & Fugue in G (BWV 550) J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

Bach was born in 1685 into a very musical family, but found himself orphaned at 9 years old. He made his way to adulthood with a combination of relatives and music scholarships to boarding schools, getting musical instruction here and there as he could. In his early 20’s he was establishing himself as the leading organist of the German speaking world (basically the Holy Roman Empire — what is now Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc.), and was working his way up the corporate — I mean courtly ladder — working for increasingly illustrious and wealthy princes. But in 1820, at age 35, ‘life happened’ and all that changed. (To be continued…)

In this morning’s postlude we hear a piece he wrote at age 25 (1710). It features an extended pedal solo in the prelude (contemporaries said Bach could play things with his feet that others couldn’t play with their hands). And towards the end of the joyous fugue in 4 parts, at the final entrance of the fugue subject Bach can’t contain himself, breaks the ‘fugue rules’ and adds a 5th part. (The Fugue Commission issued him stern warning for this — just kidding!)

By the way, a ‘prelude’ is a piece ‘that comes first’ and also has no particular ‘rules’ about how to write one. A fugue, however, has a long list of rules — one of the most restrictive forms in Western music. It was fairly unique to Bach to write so many ‘preludes and fugues’ — combining the Freedom of the prelude with the Law of the fugue. Great swaths of his music have much more theological symbolism than this!