Support! Shop our affiliates!
Sheet Music PlusFeatured Sale

Return to List of Workshops

WORKSHOP #10: "What to Learn Next? (Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 539)"

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 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!
Click here to post or read messages about this workshop.

Sheet Music
Complete Organ Works, Volume III By Johann Sebastian Bach. Kalmus Edition. Edited by Marty Winkler. Organ collection. Level: volume 3. 112 pages. Published by Warner Brothers. (K03072)
See more info...
Volume 2: Preludes and Fugues - First Master Period Organ Solo. By Johann Sebastian Bach. Organ Collection. Size 9x12 inches. 144 pages. Published by Schirmer. (50326070) These 'critico-practical' editions by Charles-Marie Widor and Dr. Albert Schweitzer have been a mainstay of organ literature since their publication in 1912. The eight volumes are indexed by the type of composition and offer extensive observations, based on historical evidence and traditional performance, on topics such as registration, ornamentation, and phrasing. A fundamental component of the organist's library.
See more info...
Johann Sebastian Bach: Complete Works For Organ Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). For organ. Printable and viewable for PC and Macintosh. Format: CD Sheet Music. Baroque. The complete works for organ by Bach. 900 printable pages. 5.5x5 inches. Published by Theodore Presser Co. (PR.813300010)
See more info...

CDs of Interest
Bach: The Organ Works (Box Set)
Performer: Helmut Walcha
Bach: The Organ Works
Performer: Peter Hurford
Bach: Organ Music
Performer: Donald Joyce
Bach: Complete Works for Organ
Performer: Marie-Claire Alain
The Complete Organ Music of
Johann Sebastian Bach (Box Set)

Performer: Christopher Herrick
Click here for
CDs that contain Bach's
Prelude and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 539)


Books of Interest
cover Organ Literature by Corliss Richard Arnold
Book Description
Volume I of this new edition is a basic textbook on the development of pipe organ composition in geographically diverse schools. Its nineteen chapters include charts of organ composers and a historical background of contemporary events and figures for each organ composition school. Chapter bibliographies are completely updated with corollary readings that have appeared since 1973. A listing of Bach organ compositions with pagination of various editions is also included. Volume II has been substantially revised and enlarged and gives biographical sketches of organ composers and an alphabetical list of each composer's works (including pagination in the major organ music anthologies), publisher, catalog number, and copyright date. A directory of organ music publishers is also provided. The combined set is an indispensable resource for organists, organ teachers, and music scholars everywhere.
cover Organ Technique: Modern and Early by George H. Ritchie, George B. Stauffer
Book Description
The authors' new approach to learning two playing techniques offers a systematic method for mastering the modern, legato technique needed for organ music composed after 1750, as well as an articulated technique for earlier works. The authors also present useful information on accompanying anthems and solos and on adapting piano and orchestral accompaniments to the organ.
This book has 14 sample pages. Click here to see all pages.
cover The Cambridge Companion to the Organ by Nicholas Thistlethwaite (Editor), Geoffrey Webber (Editor)
Book Description
This Companion is an essential guide to all aspects of the organ and its music. The early chapters examine the instrument's history and construction, and consider the scientific basis of its sounds, pitch and tuning. Central chapters investigate the practical art of learning and playing, and introduce the complex area of performance practice, while the final section explores the vast repertoire of organ music, by country, focusing on a selection of the most important traditions. The contributors are all experts in their field, making this the most authoritative reference book currently available.
This book has 21 sample pages. Click here to see all pages.

Return to List of Workshops