Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537
History of Composition
During his life, Bach had two tenures in the small town of Weimar in present-day Germany. The town had a population of about 5000, but had a strong cultural tradition. He was hired in 1709 by Weimar's ruling duke, Wilhelm Ernst, as an organist and member of the court orchestra; he was particularly encouraged to make use of his unique talents with the organ. Indeed, during this time period he composed many of his greatest organ works, including the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 and the Prelude and Fugue in E major, BWV 566. During his period in Weimar his fame as an organist grew, and he was visited by students of the organ to hear him play and to try to learn from his technique. His Fantasia and Fugue in C minor was composed in the latter part of his tenure in Weimar, but we are not sure as to in which year though; many estimates also put the date of composition in 1723, when Bach was Kappelmeister in Köthen after falling foul of the political tensions that occurred in Weimar in 1717.
The combined length of the fantasia and the fugue is about eight minutes, and it is written in 6/4 time. The fantasia of the piece is quite lush and very ornate, consisting of two unequal halves that both feature the same two basic musical ideas, an imitative dotted-rhythm tune, and a leaping eighth-note form, which is also in imitation, initiated by the pedals. Unlike many of its contemporaries, it features no cadenza-like passage in which a performer could show off their virtuosity. The fugue uses a steady theme four times in a row that can be easily recognised each time that it reappears. The total length of the fugue is 130 contrapuntal bars.
This piece was transcribed by Edward Elgar. He had a cordial friendship with Richard Strauss dating back to the German premiere of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius in Düsseldorf in 1901. They met in 1920, eager to heal the rift caused by the First World War. At the meeting, Elgar proposed that they orchestrate this work by Bach. Strauss would orchestrate the Fantasia and Elgar would work on the Fugue. Elgar completed his section in the spring of 1921, but Strauss never kept his part of the agreement. Elgar proceeded to orchestrate the Fantasia as well, and the final combined orchestration was first performed in the 1922 Three Choirs Festival, being held in Gloucester; the rendition was well received.