J S Bach arr. Runswick

Prelude & Fugue in B minor BWV 544



Daryl Runswick writes:

Aged about 13 (this would be 1960 or so) I was blown away by this B minor Prelude as played on the organ in the Great Hall of Wyggeston School, Leicester, by a virtuosic – nay, positively Byronic – Richard Armstrong. For many years afterward I dreamed of orchestrating it à la Elgar, but this version suits my talents much better. The bombast of the rock drums added to the synths, half apocalyptic, half Donald Duck, only go curiously to increase the grandeur of this giant of a piece, surely one of Bach's most monumental single movements.

The fugue is less wonderful but I've added it for completeness.

This recording is covered by copyright.


In this Prelude Bach does something I'm unaware of him doing anywhere else, ever: he throws the beat. The great beat-thrower in classical music is of course Beethoven, followed closely by Brahms, but here's Bach doing it 70 years earlier. Here's Bach's notation of the opening four bars:

It's all hunky-dory in 6/8 time but that’s not what we hear. We hear three measures of 3 (a 6/8 bar plus a 3/8) then one of four, one of two, and back to 6/8, like this:

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that multiple time-signatures like this were written out (the Promenade from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, 1874, is an early example) but composers were doing beat-shifting well before that – they just barred it all in a single time. Here’s Beethoven doing it in the second movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata:

You’ll notice that the method for throwing the beat is to offset the harmony onto a weak beat of the bar. Beethoven puts a strong change of harmony onto the weak third beat of a 3/4 bar and we hear the pulse of the music move earlier. Conversely Bach, in the third bar of his Prelude, puts the tonic harmony on the weak second beat of the bar and we hear the pulse move later. Of course if you bar the passage without changing the time signature (as Bach and Beethoven do) you have in the end to ‘pay back’ the beat to get back to the regular pulse, something Stravinsky with his multiple time-signatures didn’t have to bother with. Bach pays back immediately, Beethoven (for a joke) delays the payback until we’ve ‘got used to’ the new pulse and then wallops us with the real beat, making us jump. (Bach’s beat-shift is much subtler that Beethoven’s, but then Ludo was never averse to a bit of crudity. Quite avant-garde really.)

Did Bach ever do this elsewhere? – did his contemporaries or forebears? We can imagine him here taking pleasure in composing something rather disreputable: we notice that he chooses to do it in a freely-composed Prelude – not far removed from a Fantasia – not in a strict form such as a fugue or even the conventional dances of a suite. I’d be delighted to be alerted to other examples in his oeuvre: not being an academic – and therefore disinclined to do the necessary research – I must rely on others to set me right.