BWV 903

All of Bach: a project by the Netherlands Bach Society

'Chromatic' fantasia and fugue in D minor

BWV 903 performed by Menno van Delft
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

"What the piece is perhaps most famous for are its arpeggio passages with, on the whole, eight-part chords played up and down the keyboard."

"On a piano the strings are made to vibrate by means of hammers, whereas those of a harpsichord are plucked. In a clavichord it's different again."

Master of the keyboard

In an ‘extra large’ improvisation, Bach pushes the tonal boundaries of the Baroque.

“When Bach improvised, he had power over all 24 keys; he could do whatever he wanted with them”. Biographer Forkel repeats it time and time again: Bach was a real wizard on the keyboard. More than once, he took it upon himself to perform the ultimate in harmonic acrobatics: writing in every possible key of his day (see, in particular, the two collections of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier). In doing so, he exploited the unique characters of his ‘subjects’, as the tuning used at the time – which was not yet even (equal) like the compromised tuning of the modern piano – made certain keys sound much more strident than others.

The art of the improviser – and Bach was certainly one of the greatest ever – was to blend even the most exotic excursions into a cohesive musical story. And of course that required careful planning in order to avoid harmonic accidents.

The ‘Chromatic’ fantasia and fugue, which was already legendary in its day, almost certainly started out as such an improvisation, probably before Bach went to Leipzig in 1723. The epithet ‘Chromatic’ refers to the three-part fugue, the theme of which moves in such mysterious half steps (chromatically) that the key only becomes firmly established along the way. Yet it seems as if Bach was preoccupied with the fantasia, as no fewer than three sensitive different stages of the piece have survived, all from after 1730. This might suggest that it was only then that the piece was used in lessons or played in public for the first time, maybe as a showpiece at Café Zimmermann.

The fantasia actually has three main sections and a coda. All the leaps, runs and broken chords in the second section, and particularly the third section in the form of a recitative, lead up to a grand finale. The tour de force is difficult to describe in words, but just before the end of the fantasia listen out for the upper parts descending step by step, while the bass sustains the same note like a pedal point. After so much virtuoso playing, the fugue forms a dignified conclusion; majestic with a few razor-sharp chords into the bargain. 


Fantasia and fugue in D minor


keyboard work (solo work)

1714-1719, revision ca. 1730


Cast & Crew

release date 5 August 2016
recording date 17 October 2015
location Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
clavichordist Menno van Delft
klavichord Johann Paul Kraemer and sons, Göttingen, 1803
Film director and editor Dick Kuijs
Music production, editing and mix Everett Porter
Camera Martine Rozema, Caroline Nutbey
Camera assistant Marijn Kooy
Gaffer Tim Groot
Producer concert Imke Deters
Producer Jessie Verbrugh
Interview Gijs Besseling, Kasper Koudenburg

Vocal Texts




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