This one is beyond great. The subject is JS Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C min BWV 582. The autograph manuscript for the piece is lost. The date of its composition is also unknown. Bach was likely in his early to mid 20s when he wrote colossal masterpiece. No one previously had written a variations piece anything like this one. Bach’s mastery of both form and thematic content is already formed in the young composer at the outset of his career.

The ostinato – the repetitive bass line- is eight bars long rather that the customary four. There are 20 variations instead of the customary five or six. For the fugue, the bass line is split and treated as two separate themes that, accompanied by a third theme, form the material for the double fugue that follows the passacaglia without a pause.

But the listener doesn’t need to know any of the musical substructures which make up this greatest of works for organ to be be swept away by its monumental power. So great was Bach’s skill and invention that this 300 year old work sounds as if it was written yesterday. Below is the music performed as Bach wrote it.

Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C min

The piece is so grand and multilayered that the urge to orchestrate it has been so powerful that many composers and conductors have made versions of it for full symphonic orchestra. I’ve chosen Ottorino Respighi’s go at it.

Bach-Respighi Passacaglia and Fugue

Just below this paragraph is a YouTube video with a brief comment on the work by the Dutch organist Reitze Smits. It’s only about six minutes long, but Reitze conveys the genius inherent in the work.