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There is an overwhelming amount of repertoire for the organ. How do I decide what to choose when it's time to start a new piece? Well, sometimes the pieces find me. I recently started learning the Prelude and Fugue in D Minor but it happened in such a roundabout way that the story bears telling.
Friend and BACHorgan.com community member Peter Stapleton mentioned in passing the article on Clarence Watters which ran in the last American Organist magazine. I decided to check it out and what a great read it was. Now, toward the end of the article, the writer mentions a dedicatory recital given by Watters on which he performed, among other things, Bach's "Toccata in D (Dorian)." This struck me because that piece is not particularly common on recital programs these days.
When I sat down at the organ a couple of days later and was trying to decide what to play, the Watters article popped into my head. I dug out my Peters Edition, Vol. III, to find the Dorian but I became confused and started reading through the P&F in D Minor which follows directly after it in the book. By the time I'd realized my mistake, I was well into the D Minor fugue and already hooked. The Dorian would have to wait for another day.
So what's the D Minor like? First of all, the Peters Edition classifies the piece as medium-difficult to difficult. Don't let that scare you. I always look up the difficulty level but always take it with a grain of salt. Their classification system seems too arbitrary and I think the difficulty of a piece really depends more on the particular strengths of an individual organist.
The Prelude, performed on its own, would make an excellent prelude or postlude that's not terribly difficult to play (see Ex. 1). At qn=60, it clocks in at almost three minutes. Taking that tempo may make the piece too long for an offertory but you could always speed it up to make it fit.
Ex. 1: D Minor Prelude (BWV 539)
Also, the Prelude, has no pedals. If you want to be creative and add some toward the end, I think it would provide a nice emphasis for the final cadence (see highlighting in Ex. 2).
Ex. 2: Ending of D Minor Prelude (BWV 539)
When learning a new piece, I often peruse my little collection of music books to see if there are any interesting nuggets of information that will tell me more about the piece. My favorite is "Organ Literature" by Corliss Richard Arnold (see below) although this time my edition didn't have any info on the BWV 539.
I had more luck with the introduction to Vol. III of the Kalmus Edition. It had a good-sized quote regarding the 539:
"It is most likely that this Fugue was originally written by Bach for violin. In this form it is found in the first of the well-known six sonatas for violin alone, but in the key of G Minor; it was transposed to D Minor for the sake of facility of execution and for the better effect on the organ. The prelude is entirely different, and in the Fugue all typical violin passages have been adapted to the keyboard; but otherwise the conformity is very great. To facilitate comparison, which should be interesting as well as instructive, we are including [in this edition] the Fugue for violin as a variant."
So that's why you may hear the fugue of 539 referred to as the "Fiddle" fugue.
Ex. 3: D Minor Fugue (BWV 539)
I often try to find a recording of the piece I'm starting; perhaps one or two listens just to get me headed in the right direction. This time however I experimented with NOT listening to a recording first. So far, I feel OK about this. It's not a very well-known piece and I don't feel like I need a security blanket.
Another experiment that I trying is to memorize the fugue as I learn it. This is slow going but I'm excited about how this will work out. It will be a first.
Whatever edition you end up using, check in measure 23 of the fugue to be sure you have a D Natural in the tenor. My first time through the fugue was an eyebrow-raising experience because the Peters Edition has a D# in the tenor against a D Natural in the soprano.
Ex. 4: Make sure you play D Natural in measure 23
Well, those are some ideas and things to watch out for when learning a new piece. But keep a lookout for that next piece. You never know where it might come from!
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