Monday, October 21, 2013

Who really wrote the 8 short preludes and fugues?

I've been having an interesting stroll down memory lane this month. Something fellow blogger Vidas Pinkevicius wrote about the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Ludwig Krebs this month started a little investigation into the man's work because I'm a curious person who hadn't played any of his music before and I thought: why not play some of his music this month in church? The pastors are talking about stewardship, anyhow, which doesn't, so far as I know, lend itself to a lot of great organ music.

In the process, I wound up revisiting the "8 short preludes and fugues;" pieces that I hadn't played since I was a teenager, and then probably not well, and certainly not all of them, preludes and fugues together. I've gotten a whole lot more disciplined since then, with a better technical arsenal, and more time to spend at the organ as well. So it feels like at last I'm finishing something I started almost three decades ago, long before I learned to play the major Bach works of the past several years.

But this also brings with it a musicological question. Who wrote these pieces? When I first encountered them, at the age of 13, they were attributed (in my book) to J. S. Bach. I didn't know Bach's style very well, so I just went along with it. It was in a book, after all, so they must be right! Since then, I've changed my mind. Which is why, this weekend at church I'll play two of the pieces as part of my three week birthday celebration of Mr. Krebs. It would be a shame if I was celebrated the man's birthday with music he didn't actually write. But I'm pretty confident in my attribution.

Once I heard about the controversy, though, I wanted to find out about it. I'm pretty short on time these days, however, so all I've managed to do so far is go to Wikipedia. The article there was pretty biased in favor of Mr. Bach being the author. Why do I say that? Because all they will tell me is that there "used to be" "some" who thought that Krebs was the composer. Notice they don't name anybody. But now, they say, Bach is again thought to be the composer, and this time they list three scholars who are inclined to that opinion. [update: the article has undergone significant editing since this blog was written]

The only reason the article will give that Bach's authorship was challenged was that an unnamed somebody thought that the pieces didn't work well for the organ. Once another scholar pointed out that maybe they weren't written for the organ that apparently solved the entire problem. I have a hard time buying that. I'm going with Krebs' authorship not simply on instrumental grounds, but on stylistic grounds also.

Before I get to the stylistic grounds, though, I don't want to entirely gloss over the instrument argument. I've recently played several of Krebs' Chorale Preludes and noticed something. These pieces, all based on Lutheran Chorales, and presumably meant for the church, would, one might imagine, have been written for the organ. And yet they had no pedal parts at all. And they include rather un-organistic things like rolled chords and strange octave doublings, all things that apparently were noted when Bach's authorship of the "Eight" was challenged. Now Mr. Krebs, also according to Wikipedia, had trouble getting a church job for a while. Why does this matter? Because it makes it unlikely that he had regular access to an organ. If you don't have regular access to an organ, how effectively are you likely to write for one? And if you aren't connected to a church, it isn't likely that you are going to have an organ at home. Persons like Bach often had pedal harpsichords at home, but then, one's economic situation had to permit it. Even the "Eight" have very simple pedal parts. The a minor fugue contains only one pedal entrance toward the end. In the F major prelude, the pedal doubles the bass line, playing only the first beat of the bar. In the C major, the pedal nearly always moves with the other voices. In the fugue it shows independence, but the fugue is awfully short. This has always made the "Eight" useful for young organists who are still learning to use the pedals, but it makes it hard to mount an argument for Bach's authorship. Bach stuck out from other composers because he makes extensive use of the pedal. It is an integral part of his organ compositions, and it is one reason most of them are so difficult. Not to mention a more thorough working out of the material.

And that's the other thing. Whoever wrote these pieces kept the fugues pretty short. It's almost as if they were glad to get them over with. Bach seemingly loved the fugue. His fugues are generally pretty long and pretty involved. It just doesn't smell right.

Ok, he could, very occasionally, write a short fugue (the C# major in Book II of WTC, for instance). And it is possible that he was writing these pieces for a student, like one of his sons. But even there it seems odd. Even Bach's known student pieces, like the French Suites or the 2-part inventions, are pretty tricky stuff. These preludes and fugues are easier than those (particularly if you don't include pedal coordination issues), and they seem to be much less contrapuntally intricate than what Bach tended to write. Some of them, like the preludes in F major and g minor, mainly outline chords and behave in a much more style galant manner about them (which is basically accusing them of belonging to musical ideas that were in the air in the generation that came after Bach and that Bach resisted). Sure, there are the preludes in C and c minor (WTC I), but they explore harmony much more subtly, and delve into far more sophisticated regions than the I-IV-V/V-V kind of stuff you get in the F major prelude.

It isn't just pieces like the famous C Major prelude that show what kinds of harmonies Bach could come up with--the Piece d'Orgue has a nearly ridiculous ending where, over a very prolonged pedal note, Bach just keeps it up with harmony after harmony, on and on, thinking of one more and then one more and then one more. By contrast, the few chords that adorn pedal points in these works (and then mostly I and V) are quite pedestrian.

Maybe I'm being unfair by comparing these pieces to mature Bach. If I were trying to make a case for Bach's authorship of these pieces, I think I would place them quite early, alongside the Neumeister Chorales which Bach is said to have written as a teenager. These have less involved pedal, or no pedal, and are generally simpler to play. I don't know them very well; perhaps I should make a study of them and get back to you on this point.

In the end, though, it isn't merely the details that make me doubt that Bach wrote these pieces. It is the cumulative effect of these details. For instance, there are at least two pedal solos in the pieces, passages for the pedal alone, one in the G major and one in the Bb major prelude (I've only played 6 of them so far). While that seems to gainsay some of what I've said about the scant use of the pedal, these are still the only times the pedal has a very tricky or involved part--when it is playing completely alone, without commentary from the manuals. And the Bb prelude solo in particular, though it might pose some technical challenge, is pretty stiff. Repetitive, harmonically static, it sounds more like a pedal exercise than part of the musical argument. The Bb one reminds me of a paler version of the pedal solo in the Toccata Adagio and Fugue. Now a student of Bach might be expected to pick up some of the master's traits, namely a significant use of the pedal. But he would likely not be able to fully integrate that idea until much later, if at all.

A great many of these arguments, pro and con, cluster around one basic assumption. Just as I wrote when I discussed the possible Bach authorship of the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, if one holds a high opinion of these pieces, one tends to assume they must have been written by the great Bach. If one is less enthusiastic about the pieces, it is easy to assign them to some lesser light of the Baroque era. I personally find them less appealing than I did as a youth. That was a time when the short, arresting ideas present in the A Minor Prelude were far more important to me than the working out (or lack) of those ideas, when the bounce and zest of the F major, and the ease of playing it, charmed, and the limited harmonic variation did not bother, when the rich sound of the C major prelude and the grave tone of the g minor seemed to capture something of my spirit in tones, and the awkwardness of construction did not give me pause. But as I've grown musically, the undeveloped totality of the pieces has come to my attention; I simply cannot appreciate them as much as I did in the days when the D Minor Toccata was interesting and the C Minor Passacaglia was too dense for me. Now it is the other way around: I understand and appreciate--no, love, many a piece written by a great composer later in life, when their craft was more fully developed. That is more likely to happen when a listener is also more fully developed. I still find these pieces charming, but they are not as they once were. Pity, I suppose, but then, a whole new musical ocean has opened up, much deeper than the shallow pool I left.

In order to give you some idea of what I mean, next week I'll offer several details about places in the "Eight" where I think Bach would have improved the music as it now stands, places that are testament to a composer who had some fine ideas and some charming means of working them out, but also stumbled occasionally. Either because the composer was not Bach, or was, as I've also suggested, a very young version of the eventual master, who would have learned from his own work as well as that of others, constantly improving his art, these items should give us some insight into what may separate a really fine composition from a merely good composition. The aim is not to denigrate the pieces, or to cast aspersions on Krebs, or whomever wrote them. The idea is to see what we can learn along the way in order to sharpen our own apprehension of the musical process. See you back here next week?


  1. It would be interesting yo know the history of the manuscripts sheet music associated with this collection. When those manuscripts come into
    scene? If they were known and recognized after 1829 (Mendelssohn) when Bach´s manuscripts became very valuable, some could have composed those pieces and sell them under Bach´s autorship. And, if so, this hypothesis were not be less likely than those mentioned.

    1. Good point.

      This would certainly be a possibility, though I think that the earliest manuscripts probably predate the Bach "revival." It's been a while since I've had the research in my hands, and can't find any quickly online...I'm sure Peter Williams discusses this in his book on Bach's organ music, if you'd like to find out yourself from when the earliest manuscripts date.

      As a general hypothesis, though, it is never a bad idea to consider persons trying to profit off of the works of other more famous composers when in doubt about authorship.

    2. By the way, I should mention I've just been on wikipedia's page and noticed I was footnoted in the "Bach didn't write these" camp near the top of the article, with rebuttals by Phillip Spitta and Sir George Grove(!)

      This is really interesting--to be in the same sentence with these towering figures of 19th century musicology. However, it should be noted that Spitta got a number of other judgement calls wrong, including several organ pieces that turned out to have been written by Pachelbel. After essentially declaring the composer vastly inferior to Bach, he wrongly attributed several pieces to Bach in view of what he was sure was their "commanding mastery" and later generations of researchers have found this not to be the case. So, hats off to these great men of musicology...but, they weren't always right.

  2. I heard once a time that Prof.-Dr. Felix Friedrich in 1983 demonstrated that their composer is Johann Ludwig Krebs. For me, independently who can be their legitimate author, they are remarkable miniatures of admirable beauty.

  3. Of course Bach wrote the Eight. We know Bach was no academic, no adherent of any national style of the time, and he was a rule breaker. We know academics and musicologists love to pontificate on who wrote what based on their learned viewpoints about the music's external appearances but none can claim to have witnessed the composing of the Eight. So, while no one knows for sure that Bach didn't write the Eight, many stake that claim as though their careers depend on it.

    Now for what academics and musicologists are missing in the external: Bach's dramaturgy. The internal musical/ dramaturgical modus operandi found in all Bach's works, including the Eight is, aside from his unequaled mastery of formal and motivic rigor, the inimitable character of Bach's melodic gift, or invencio; a peculiarly pregnant dramatic quality in the motive or melody itself. Transcending all stylistic and formal considerations, Bach's dramaturgy resulting from his invencio remains the topmost reason each of his works including the Eight continues to be performed and admired by practitioners of all levels to this day. This quality can only be the work of a true master, not the student Krebs, not Fischer, and not the man in the moon.

    1. I agree. The initial thesis is based on a vague adding-up of arguments that consist of gut-feeling rather than facts, which is just as good as my gut-feeling that there is a clear Bach-DNA.

      Most of the claims regarding the simplicity of the work can be satisfyingly explained by the exercise-piece theory. The 2-voice inventions are indeed superior but they were composed in Köthen, when Bach was significantly more proficient already. The use of solo-pedal isn't really extraordinary, exercising the pedal by itself makes sense, Bach even wrote the pedal-exercitium BWV 598. Stylistically these pieces seem to fit in the pre-Weimar time, I see no problem with that.

      The later Vivaldi-transcriptions from Weimar are strikingly similar to "the Eight".

      In my opinion, the d-minor prelude is simply shouting Bach, especially the rhythm. The g-minor fugue even reminds me a bit of the brilliant fugue in "Was betrübst du dich" from Cantata BWV 21. An early Bach writing slightly less-refined exercise-pieces, is that explanation so far off, that you have to dismiss Bach's authorship?

    2. The Prelude & Fugue in C is remarkably similar in effect to the Johann Ernst concerto, in the same key. The prince was familiar with new musical styles and yet he was a patron and student of JSB and knew Walther. The music is engaging if not perfect, Johann Ludwig Krebs imitated Bach in free organ works, he was long winded and rambled. These are concise. I simply list them as attributed to JSB. I'm not a fan of the phrase "now thought to be by". I always ask "who", and "why". Often it's based on a passing thought or whim.

  4. I am convinced, as well as I can be in the circumstances, that these pieces are more probably by J S Bach than any of the suggested alternatives. There are several issues. Firstly, the earliest surviving handwritten copy dates from the late 18th or early 19th century - P 281 - and the hand suggests an earlier date within this range. They are included in a volume of fascicles with a title and contents page listing other works by Bach. The hand, or a hand, has put a question mark against the item of the VIII Präludien und Fugen. However, the ink used for the question mark looks decidedly paler than that of the list. It is worth asking whether the copyist or a subsequent owner or user of the MS added it. This is, incidentally, I take it, whence the doubt surrounding these pieces originated. Secondly, these preludes and fugues are very well written. The phrasing is perfect, not overdone, the fugue subjects are mature and credible, not trite or repetitive, the implied harmony is not contrary to anything Bach would have written, the spacing and consistency of the voices is tight and measured, very akin to Bach. And there is plenty for the pedals to do. As the comment above says: concise. The description of each prelude and fugue given in the Wikipedia describes similarities with others' work, but some predate and others postdate Bach, and so, if the set is an integral whole, these cannot be taken that seriously. Thirdly, it is worth comparing these to other lesser works of Bach. His range of figuration and style is wide and nothing in these eight seems to me to be incompatible with Bach's oeuvre. Yes, occasionally, one feels there is a bit of style galant emerging, as in the prelude to no. 1, but Bach was quite acquainted with the changing styles and Italian fashion and was not without humour. Alternatively, if we do argue these eight are not Bach's, perhaps we should call into question other works - for example, the fugue in B Minor on a theme of Corelli, which actually does, in my view, just occasionally seem laboured as if Bach does not know quite what to write in the next two bars. Fourthly, they are short, but not as short as the works of Krebs or Fischer. It is perfectly plausible that Bach decided to write something small scale - there are plenty of other pieces of his that are short. After all, he did write the Notebook for Anna Magdalena which contains short, easy pieces. So I see, for the foregoing reasons, no doubt that these pieces could easily be by Bach. We cannot prove it yet, as there is no extant autographed copy, but then that applies to so many.

    1. "he did write the Notebook for Anna Magdalena"
      Except that the second of those notebooks includes a number of pieces he didn't write.


I don't bite...mostly.