BWV 582

All of Bach: a project by the Netherlands Bach Society

Passacaglia in C minor

BWV 582 performed by Reitze Smits
Lutheran church, The Hague

He was preceded by Buxtehude and many others... What does Bach do with the passacaglia form?

The triumph of a resounding ending

Arguments for Bach’s Passacaglia being an early work from his youth

Around 250 organ works by Bach have been handed down, the most intriguing of which are works thought to have originated early on, but of which there is no surviving autograph. The speculations of Bach researchers all boil down to a single question: how early on can we determine signs of genius in his work?

In the Passacaglia in C minor, in any case, his genius is as clear as day. As a variation work, it surpasses anything Bach could have heard in his younger years. The ostinato, the repetitive bass line that forms the foundation of a passacaglia, is made up of eight bars, rather than the usual four. The work consists of twenty variations, rather than the usual five or six. And on top of its initial function, the bass line is then split up and treated as two separate themes that, accompanied by a third theme, form the material for an ingenious fugue.

The earliest copy of the Passacaglia was made between 1706 and 1713 by Bach’s elder brother Johann Christoph. In 1705, Bach paid an extended visit to Buxtehude, the man who undoubtedly had the greatest influence on his variation work, so it would be logical to conclude that Bach composed the Passacaglia shortly after returning from his journey.

However, certain remarkable copying errors suggest that Bach’s original manuscript was written in organ tablature. This simplified notation was widely used in Northern Germany by the generation of organists that preceded Bach. It was also the notation method he had used for copying music while studying with Johann Christoph, with whom he lived between 1695 and 1700. We know this from a copy of Reincken’s An Wasserflüssen Babylon that was discovered in 2006. This chorale arrangement, dated 1700, was notated by the fifteen-year-old Bach in tablature and is a rare example of his copy work. A complete collection of German organ work - which Bach copied in secret at night as a boy, according to biographer Forkel - was taken away from him and was lost.

As luck would have it, there was actually an earlier passacaglia with an eight-bar ostinato and no fewer than 29 variations in existence. This was published in 1698 by Johann Krieger, a fellow student of Pachelbel, who was also the teacher of Bach’s elder brother. It was thus a small world, in which music was frequently copied.

Could it be possible that Bach had already seen Krieger’s work around 1700, just like the music of his other heroes Buxtehude, Böhm and Reincken? And could it have set him the challenge that often drove him to great achievements in his teenage years? It could, in any case, be an explanation for the resounding ending with which he closes his Passacaglia so triumphantly.


Passacaglia in C minor

organ work



Cast & Crew

release date 29 August 2014
recording date 29 November 2013
LOCATION Lutheran Church, The Hague
ORGAN Johann Heinrich Hartmann Bätz, 1762
ORGANIST Reitze Smits
producer Frank van der Weij
FILM DIRECTOR Jan Van den Bossche
DIRECTORS OF PHOTOGRAPHY Jorrit Garretsen, Sal Kroonenberg
FILM EDITOR Dylan Glyn Jones
colorist Martijn de Haas

Vocal Texts




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