Exploring the unknown of BWV 565, Part 5

August 30, 2022
J. S. Bach's signature

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 Saint 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 basis 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 (1834–1858), the performance of the complete organ works of Franz Schmidt (1874–1939) 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.

Author’s website: gailit.at/english/index_e.htm

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this series appeared in the June 2021 issue of The Diapason, pages 18–19; part 2 appeared in the July 2021 issue, pages 12–14; part 3 appeared in the December 2021 issue, pages 16–18; part 4 appeared in the August 2022 issue, pages 12–14.

The post-Baroque revolution

The thorough analysis of the preceding four parts of this essay showed that BWV 565 was entirely composed on the basis of motivic-thematic work, a compositional technique developed only after the time of Johann Sebastian Bach in the second half of the eighteenth century.1 There is no widely accepted descriptor for this time period between the Baroque and the Viennese Classical eras, approximately the forty years between 1740 and 1780. Compositions of similar content have been grouped and labeled, with such descriptors as empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style), galanter Stil (gallant style), Rococo, Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), Age of Enlightenment, Early Classical, or Pre-Classical. Quite inaccurate the latter, since composers of that time did not exist solely to prepare for others yet to be born.

The truth is that fundamental stylistic changes took place during those forty years. The author recently proposed the term post-Baroque revolution to describe this time period. Although composers developed in different ways, they had something in common: a comprehensive, revolutionary break with the past. No stone was left unturned.

Basso continuo: The bass line as the fundamental of music had had its day; the top voice took precedence. The Baroque figured bass became obsolete, allowing single-voice textures to blossom in keyboard music.

Harmonic tempo: Whereas harmonic tempo had once moved quickly, the post-Baroque revolution went in the opposite direction. Harmonic changes happened at a slower pace and stayed within simple chord progressions, making a bass line less important. As harmonic tempo slowed, allowing more elaborate figuration, actual tempos became faster and faster.

Fortspinnungstypus: Omnipresent since Gregorian chant, Fortspinnungstypus had its day as well. This German term describes music that continuously gives birth to itself. The seemingly endless lines of the Baroque were replaced with their opposite; small melodic cells of a few notes, sometimes as small as a single note, were put together to create as much contrast as possible. Cinematically speaking, the Baroque documentary of rolling out a theme in long scenes was replaced by the post-Baroque action thriller with rapid scene changes. As if small music cells were not enough, rests were introduced to separate the cells even more.

Contrasts did not just happen between themes, sections, or movements, but were packed into short phrases. Rests frequently served as a means to enhance contrasts.

Perception time: Hardly anyone is aware of a phenomenon that the author calls “perception time,” defined as the time interval necessary to perceive a musical idea (Example 64).

Mozart’s phrase gives you a perception time of eight quarter notes. With the same harmonic background, Bach’s theme allows only four quarter notes of perception time. The small melodic cells of post-Baroque music require an unusually short perception time. In Wagenseil’s theme, the character changes on each eighth note, and the perception time is as short as a single eighth note! If the performer or the listener is unprepared for such a short perception time, the true nature of the music will remain hidden.

Motivic-thematic work: Instead of ongoing lines separated occasionally by cadences, small, contrasting melody cells were placed within regular bar structures. In order to achieve cohesion, pieces were based on a Hauptsatz, a main musical idea, from which other essential ideas were derived and developed. The themes did not keep their shape, but morphed and took many forms.

The term thematisch gearbeitet (thematically worked), explained as a musical term, appeared for the first time 1802 in the Musikalisches Lexikon2 by Christoph Koch (1749–1816), where it is described as an alternative compositional style to polyphonic writing.

Thematisch. Man sagt, ein Tonstück sey thematisch gearbeitet, wenn die Ausführung desselben hauptsächlich in den mannigfaltigen Wendungen und Zergliederungen des Hauptsatzes, ohne Beymischung vieler Nebengedanken, besteht.

(Thematic. A piece of music is said to be thematically worked if its execution consists mainly of the manifold changes and dissections of the main idea, without mixing in many secondary ideas.)

Revolutionary etude BWV 565

BWV 565 perfectly fits in the post-Baroque revolution:

• Basso continuo style only in about 50% of the fugue.

• No bass for long sections.

• The harmonic tempo is generally slow, and in the fugue slightly faster in a few sections.

• The Hauptsatz juxtaposes two contrasting elements; the opening phrase of a single note is answered by a downward run.

• Frequent texture changes.

• Frequent rests.

• Significant contrasts.

• A model example of a Hauptsatz, ready for motivic work.

• Motivic-thematic work throughout, with hardly any note unrelated to the Hauptsatz.

• Motivic work even within the Hauptsatz.

At first glance, the post-Baroque, motivic-thematic style of BWV 565 is not immediately obvious; in fact it is well-disguised. It is therefore not surprising that the text was misunderstood and criticized. Elements that contradicted the polyphonic tradition were perceived as deficiencies. Especially puzzling is the missing beat in measure 72, where a careful comparison of the theme entries proves that the theme is missing a beat. Even the scribe noticed it, and marked the omission with an x above beat 1. Instead, it became a tradition to fill beats 3 and 4 with an invention composed by a later scribe.

In view of the sparse sources and the unusual compositional style for an organ work of the time, it can be assumed that BWV 565 was rather a private study, not intended for publication. It might have been conceived as an experiment in applying new compositional techniques to the organ and to the traditional forms of the toccata and fugue.

Bach as author

Can BWV 565 pass as a composition by Johann Sebastian from his youthful years, when he was relatively inexperienced? Surely not! If the presumed year of composition is shifted to his youth, it does not explain why he would compose a motivic-thematic work that invented and anticipated a style of composition decades before its time. Furthermore, had he ingeniously anticipated the post-Baroque revolution, why are there no traces of additional compositions in this style, and why did he return to the polyphonic style of the Baroque?

Ringk as scribe

Bach’s cantata BWV 202 occupies a unique place among musical manuscripts, due to the underlined date entry “Anno 1730” placed on the front page below the name entry “Johannes Ringk.” Dates on manuscripts of this period are rare (Example 65).

Ringk (1717–1778) is said to have copied the cantata manuscript at the age of thirteen:

Geboren am 25. Juni 1717 zu Frankenhain in Thüringen, war [Ringk] nachweislich Schüler von Johann Peter Kellner (1705–1772) in Gräfenroda, wo er—seiner eigenen Datierung zufolge 1730—im Alter von 13 Jahren die einzige heute erhaltene Kopie der Kantate BWV 202 anfertigte.3

(Born on June 25, 1717, at Frankenhain in Thuringia, [Ringk]4 was verifiably a pupil of Johann Peter Kellner (1705–1772) in Gräfenroda, where—according to his own dating of 1730 at the age of 13—he made the only copy of the cantata BWV 202 that has survived until today.)

A closer look at the handwriting, however, reveals something else.

Writing styles

In German-speaking countries, it was customary to use two different fonts for print and handwriting. In print media, the broken Fraktur font was set for regular German text, whereas the round Antiqua font was used for foreign-language terms. For handwriting, the corresponding fonts Kurrent and Latin were used, but also an ornamental broken font, called Kanzlei (a German word for office). Local Schreibmeister (master scribes) took care of the dissemination of literature and general education through their teaching and publications. Sample tables served as templates to practice writing (Examples 66, 67, and 68).

Among the features of calligraphy are the prescribed letter proportions of ascender : x-length : descender, as well as the slant of the letters, i.e., their inclination in degrees, where 90° stands for straight vertical, 0° for horizontal (Example 69).

The title on the front page of BWV 202 shows remarkably inexperienced copy and handwriting skills (Example 70).

Zeiget nur, betrübte Schatten (Show only, sorrowful shadows) is not only meaningless in itself, but does not correspond to the cantata text. It should read Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (Move away, sorrowful shadows).

• The ornamentation of an initial should embrace the letter, not stand in front of it.

• The letters are a mixture of Kurrent, Latin, and Kanzlei.

• The slant of the letters is inconsistent throughout.

• The length proportions of the letters change inconsistently between 1:1:1 and 2:1:2.

• The letter “Z” sits on the base line without a descender.

• The words Zeiget and Betrübt begin with an upper case Kurrent letter and continue in Latin letters.

• The word Schatten shows insecure Kanzlei letters throughout.

• The single character at the end resembling a lower case “g” is superfluous.

We see here an inexperienced handwriting that might be attributed to a thirteen-year-old boy. The flaws are many and in different categories such as the wording of the title, steady handwriting, inconsistency in the choice of fonts, slant, proportion, misplacement, and orthography.

On the other hand, the signature at the foot of the page is securely written in Kurrent throughout, with the required proportion 3:1:3 of ascender : x-height : descender (Example 71).

In fact the signature shows an experienced hand. The initial “R” is a perfect Kanzlei letter. The cantata texts in the score show a similar experienced Kurrent handwriting. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Johannes Ringk may perhaps have scribbled the title, but was not the scribe who made the copy of BWV 202.

And there is another significant piece of evidence to consider: Ringk had a completely different signature. He did not sign with Kurrent letters, but with Kanzlei letters. Among the eighteen manuscripts available online bearing the name Johannes Ringk, eight copies show matching signatures, among them three organ and three harpsichord works by Bach as well as two Telemann cantatas. These sources also contain other matching letters of characteristic forms, such as the uppercase “B” with an underscore, or the lowercase “t” with an arched top.

The overview in Example 72 lists in the left column the full signatures of these eight sources. The headings give the text as it is written on the front page with slashes indicating the line breaks. The two center columns show the letters uppercase “B” and lowercase “t” in the sources. To facilitate comparison, the right columns isolate from each signature the initials “J” and “R” as well as the last letter “k.” As much as all of the letters in the list look alike, they differ from the writing on the front page of the cantata BWV 202. The signature in Kurrent style cannot be assigned to Johannes Ringk, but only to another person. Unfortunately we have no evidence as to who that person was.

The signature on the title page of BWV 565 resembles strongly the one on the title page of BWV 202 (Example 73). Of all the signatures or name entries, only these two have an upper case “R” with two pointed tips on top. The inevitable conclusion is that Johannes Ringk was not the scribe of the BWV 565 copy as well! Both BWV 202 and BWV 565 show Ringk’s name on their front page, but not his signature.

The assertion that the thirteen-year-old Ringk was the copyist of BWV 202 and BWV 565 has been repeated so many times that it is now necessary to prove the opposite step by step. Although he cannot be credited with the title page, he might have copied the music. Evidence is required to match features in the copy of BWV 565 with other manuscripts that can be attributed safely to Ringk.

A copy. In theory BWV 565 could be an autograph. A number of markings in BWV 565, however, suggest that the scribe was dissatisfied and wished to check with an original source. Therefore the manuscript must be a copy.

A copy of a copy. The missing beat in measure 72 supports the conclusion that the scribe copied a copy, and not the original. It is highly unlikely that the composer would have forgotten a full beat of four sixteenth notes in the fugue theme. The scribe in turn noticed the missing beat and marked exactly the spot with an x.

Abbreviated notation. In measures 4 through 10, most of the octave doubling is replaced by indications such as all unison. There are also three repeats abbreviated by repetition markings. Ringk never used such abbreviations in his copies of other pieces; it is fair to mention, however, that their settings did not permit such abbreviations. So perhaps this point does not count.

Time signature. In all six Ringk copies of music by Bach we find an elaborate form of the time signature (Example 74). BWV 565 and other copies show only a simple form (Example 75). This is still another point against Ringk as the scribe of BWV 565.

Clef. In all six of Ringk’s Bach copies the clefs appear in about 60% of all accolades. As Examples 74 and 75 show as well, the soprano clef never has a break in its lines, and the bass clef is more ornamented, as is the curved bracket for the accolade. The clefs in BWV 565, to the contrary, appear only once on top of every page, that is in about only 11% of all accolades. The parallel lines of the soprano clef have a lower position throughout. The bass clefs show a simpler form. Another point against Ringk as the scribe of BWV 565.

Adagio. No matter if it is “Adagio,” “Adag.,” “adag.,” or “Adagissimo,” the scribe of BWV 565 used the two-story “g” with its loop under the base line. This “g” belongs to the Antiqua font, usually reserved for print. No such “g” or any other letter in Antiqua font from Ringk’s hand appears in the other sources. Still another point against Ringk as the scribe of BWV 565.

Quarter-note rests in BWV 565 have the form of a reverse “S” with slant and ornamented ends. Ringk’s quarter-note rests have a distinctly different shape throughout. Another point against Ringk as the scribe of BWV 565 (Example 76 left side BWV 565, center and right side Ringk).

Sixteenth- and thirty-second-note flags. In BWV 565, single notes with more than one flag appear in an old form with both stems up and down. Ringk’s Bach copies (if there are such single notes) show this old form only for stems down/flags up, whereas for stems up/flags down the modern form is used (Example 77, left side BWV 565, right side Ringk). This is another point against Ringk as the scribe of BWV 565.

Custodes. Last, but not least, BWV 565 shows custodes at the end of an accolade whenever some room is left (Example 78). Custodes, resembling in BWV 565 a trill, are special characters that are placed at the end of the page taking the position of the very first note on the next page. We can only speculate if the scribe added the custodes, or if the scribe kept the line breaks and copied the custodes as well. At any rate, no other copy bearing the name or signature of Ringk shows such custodes.

The prime suspect

So far our investigations have focused on the available musical text and on the relations and developments of motives. Our conclusion is that BWV 565 could not be attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, due to the motivic-thematic nature of the work. This style of composition emerged only decades later, after Bach—and after the Baroque style—had been left behind.

Then our investigations extended to the writing style of the related manuscript sources. The different features of the preserved handwritings also revealed sufficient evidence suggesting that Johannes Ringk was not the scribe of the earliest manuscript.

Did we arrive at a dead end, without knowing both the composer and the scribe? Who created such an innovative composition? The next and last episode has evidence for a prime suspect.

To be continued.


1. Pianist-musicologist Dr. John Strauss of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, was of invaluable help in providing dedicated advice and assistance to the author in the completion of this text.

2. “Thematisch,” in Heinrich Christoph Koch, Musikalisches Lexikon, welches die theoretische und praktische Tonkunst, encyclopädisch bearbeitet, alle alten und neuen Kunstwörter erklärt, und die alten und neuen Instrumente beschrieben, enthält [Musical encyclopedia, which contains the theoretical and practical art of sound, encyclopedically edited, all old and new art words explained, and the old and new instruments described] (Frankfurt am Main: August Hermann, 1802). 1533.

3. Rolf Dietrich Claus, Zur Echtheit von Toccata und Fuge d-Moll, BWV 565, 2nd ed. (Köln-Rheinkassel, Dohr, 1998), 51.

4. For clarification, “er” (he) has been replaced by “Ringk.”

5. Johann Friedrich Stäps. Calligraphia in usum Iuventutis accommodata, das ist: Nützliche Schul-Vorschriften. (Leipzig: Bierlig, c.1750) SLUB Dresden, http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id339649291, accessed September 15, 2021.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

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