Exploring the unknown of BWV 565 Part 2

June 27, 2021
Ringk manuscript of Bach BWV 565
Ringk manuscript of Bach BWV 565, first page

Michael Gailit graduated from the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna with both performance and pedagogy diplomas in organ as well as in piano. Teaching piano at this institute since 1980, he has also conducted the organ studio at the Musik und Kunst Universität in Vienna since 1995. As church organist he served at St. Augustine’s Church, 1979–2008; in 2011 he was appointed organist at the Jesuit Church (Old University Church).

Both in his performance and teaching repertoire, Gailit includes all style areas on the base of their individual performance practices. He toured with solo recitals on both instruments in Europe as well as in North America and appeared with leading orchestras and renowned conductors. Recordings, masterclasses, invitations to juries, musicological publications, editing sheet music, compositions, arrangements, supporting the piano-organ duo repertoire, commissioned works, first performances, and finally occasional trips into the theatre and silent movie repertoire should be noted.

Particular attention was received in 1989 for the first performance of the complete piano and organ works of Julius Reubke, the performance of the complete organ works of Franz Schmidt the same year, as well as in September 2005 a series of six recitals with the trio sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, the organ sonatas of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and the organ symphonies of Louis Vierne. Currently Gailit is working on a book The Enigma BWV 565, a study elucidating new answers and new questions.

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this series appeared in the June 2021 issue of The Diapason, pages 18–19.

The analysis of the first twelve measures revealed a compositional technique that can most aptly be described as metamorphosis. The list of the motives that appear in BWV 565, given in detail in the first part of this article, shows how one motive becomes the other (Example 15). In the last consequence, the mordent motive creates all others. This evolutionary style of composition appears on all levels. The mordent creates what we called a nucleus idea, which in turn creates the next two phrases. A part of the nucleus idea creates the ascending triplets, which in turn develop into the descending triplets. The closing section varies measures 1 and 2 and ends with the mordent motive.

From three to four

The second section, measures 12 through 30, continues this concept, only that the focus changes from three-note motives to four-note ones. In order to achieve a smooth transformation, the section starts with an upbeat to a trichord. The following tetrachords are rhythmically shifted in the same way, so that they appear as trichords with upbeats. The passage also prepares the fugue theme that shows a very similar structure of four consecutive tetrachords. Pitch notation of the opening phrase of the first part had assisted to discover the 3 x 3 form of the nucleus idea. Pitch notation of the current phrase now reveals a 4 x 4 structure (Examples 16 and 17). Both lines add another 4 x 4 notes as inserted repetitions of the dominant tone.

Simultaneous notation of the immanent two voices in measures 13 through 15 helps to understand the process. Edition Peters gives the original text of the earliest manuscript. Bärenreiter and Breitkopf & Härtel in their Urtext editions align measures 14 and 15 by substituting measure 14 with the octave transposition of measure 15. As we observe now, this contradicts the overall concept of continuous transformation. Measure 14 quotes the nucleus idea; measure 15 prepares the next section by changing the ending with the surprise of an eighth-note rest on beat one of measure 16 (Example 18).

In 1845–1846, the complete organ works by Johann Sebastian Bach appeared in print for the first time. This release by Edition Peters is considered a milestone, due in part to the editorial policy of Friedrich Conrad Griepenkerl (1782–1849), which abstained from any amendments. The eighth-note rest at the beginning of measure 16, however, obviously came as too great a surprise to the editor. He replaced it with a manual D31 without any reference to a manuscript source. In view of the preceding three-fold thundering D2 on the pedals, the eighth-note rest is only one of the many skillfully calculated effects in BWV 565.

The motivic substance of measures 16 through 20 consists of the tetrachord and the turn motive. Both textures, the figurations as well as the syncopated chords, follow a harmonic progression commonly known as the Phrygian cadence.2 This harmonic pattern is frequently inserted after a slow movement in order to prepare the listener for a finale. The transition from Adagio to Allegro in a voluntary by John Stanley (1712–1786)—with quite similar motives as BWV 565—demonstrates this function (Example 19).

The Phrygian cadence in BWV 565 comprises four chords consisting of four motives, two tetrachords and two turn motives (Example 20). The middle voice can count for two as the doubling of these notes in the thirty-second-note figurations suggests.

The syncopated chords appear four times, with a different pedal phrase each time (Example 21). The evolutionary concept of motive metamorphosis in BWV 565 requires abstention from the editorial practice of unification, in this case to replace phrase 2 by phrase 1. In measure 17, the bass and tenor notes are exchanged. The tenor varies the tetrachord E–D–C–B-flat in a new way by placing the first note at the end and an octave lower.

Whereas the Phrygian cadence aims to the last note in measures 16 through 18, its third and fourth appearances in measures 19 and 20 shifts the accented beat to the second note. This gives room for another chord on the last eighth-note beat in measure 20. On this beat, the new note of a G-sharp surprises; it gives the base for another diminished seventh chord. The G-sharp descends to the dissonance G-natural of the dominant seventh chord that spans over five more measures to be resolved only in measure 27.

Pitch notation shows that the run in measure 18 is a variation of measure 11, with some added notes (Example 22). It consists of a collection of the prime suspects—three tetrachords, a mordent, and a turn motive. Also, the arpeggio appears, this time following the tonic chord.

The passage ends in measure 19 with a scale comprising the complete tone material including the B-natural. This run is repeated in measure 21 without the passing notes (Example 23).

Four descending tetrachords run into a halt on the diminished seventh chord, before a prestissimo tremolo breaks loose. The toccata returns here to triplets and the mordent, whose intervals are stretched to thirds, with alternating upper and lower neighbor notes. The pedal surprisingly takes on a melodic role, worthy of the designation Recitativo. With the exception of the final cadence, the pedal lines up ten seconds, the last one repeating the first (Example 24).

Probably just a coincidence: we discover the first six notes of the pedal line in the Advent hymn, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Example 25). More striking is that the pedal line cites the nucleus idea in the form of the second phrase in measure 1 (Example 26). The manual parts, note repetitions, and voice doubling omitted, consist only of seconds, which in turn are condensed tetrachords (Example 27).

The purpose

On the second page of Ringk’s manuscript, the last four staves are left blank. The fugue begins on a new third page. Ringk wrote, “Verte. Fuga.” (in Latin: Turn! Fugue.) below the final cadence on page 2. So before we turn the page and continue with the fugue, let us look at what has happened so far. BWV 565 is a work that undoubtedly attracts attention. So what was the purpose of the composition; why was it created? We need to leave the objective path of note-by-note analysis here. The meaning of a text cannot be grasped comparatively by counting the letters or discussing grammar and spelling.

Measures 16–17 and 19–20 were the first to open a new perspective. As mentioned earlier, we often find the harmonic pattern of the Phrygian cadence by default as a bridge between a slow movement and the following finale, as a musical announcement, and to increase the tension that a finale or something similar is to be expected. In measures 16 and 17, the Phrygian cadence is repeated four times, but it remains without consequence. After an extended run, the cadence is repeated again, a full three times, and it again remains without consequence. Is this a joke? A prank?

The impression is reinforced by the inverted echos of the section. It is in the nature of an echo that the return sounds weaker. However, in the Phrygian cadential measures in BWV 565, the reverse is true. The harmonic pattern is introduced with a thin texture of broken chords, only to be answered with heavy chords above a pedal line, plus hammering syncopations. Is this a provocation?

Flawless part-writing includes avoidance of parallel octaves and fifths. Let us imagine a student, required to submit a clean four-part piece, presenting the strict teacher something hitherto unheard like BWV 565. Seated at the organ console, the teacher begins to play. On the first page parallel octaves as far as one can see. The first note isolated, nailed with a mordent and a fermata, immediately followed by a rest. Short phrases, constantly interrupted with more rests. Laughter in the background, when the teacher has to take note that his organ is missing the bottom C-sharp. Broken chords are based on parallel fifths. In the pedal, there are only three roaring Ds, above them long-held quadruple dissonances. Then one finds a run pointing to a D, but silence instead. The inverted echoes startle. The Phrygian cadence remains without consequence, sounding seven times in vain.

There is no evidence whatsoever that BWV 565 was intended as a joke or prank, just as a joke does not have the caption, “This is a joke.” The nature of a text can be discerned from its content and setting alone. The amazing thing about this theory is, however, that it can answer all hitherto raised questions, among them:

• Only one copy of the autograph survived, some of the notation is only sketched: BWV 565 was intended only for private use and not for publication.

• All compositional features described as problematic: deliberate violations of the rules to show a new style.

• Bach named as author on the title page, the work possibly not by Bach: the most plausible explanation for this contradiction.

• The wrong key signature on the title page “ex . d . # .:” one cannot seriously claim that someone copied a multi-page piece in D minor and the same person mistakenly writes D major on the title page. Furthermore, Ringk notated minor keys adding a flat to the key letter, major keys adding a natural, not a sharp. The sharp could be a hint pointing to the unusual content, which is so-to-speak not natural, but sharp. In German, the word for sharp is Kreuz, which conveys the saying, ein Kreuz haben, having problems with something or someone.

• The simple composition style: simplified overdrawing as a device of parody.

• The low C-sharp in measure 2 being a rare key on organs of the time: deliberately pointing to the deficiency of a missing key.

• The late Peter Williams’s theory of a lost piece for violin: an allusion to J. S. Bach’s skills as a string player.

Following this theory, somewhere at an early stage someone took the piece as serious. The consequences are outrageous and at the same time incredibly humorous. It is singular that BWV 565 beats any other organ work in popularity. Then there are also all the discussions about the deliberately composed “misbehaving” features, if they can be credited to Bach or not. It is a work brilliant on several levels: as a provocation, fun, or a prank with a highly skillful compositional technique not common in Baroque music, but pointing to the future.

This theory may or may not be the case, but the journey into the unknown of BWV 565 is far from over. We now turn the second page of the manuscript and explore not only the fugue, but also lift the anchors on some findings that are considered certain. Stay tuned.

To be continued.


1. Note designations in scientific orthography: C2-C3-C4-C5-C6 (= traditionally C-c°-c′-c′′-c′′′).

2. The Phrygian church mode has the half-tone step between the first and second and the fifth and sixth scale degrees. Church modes, however, are melodic, not harmonic entities.

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