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Exploring the unknown of BWV 565, Part 6

September 27, 2022
Johann Sebastian Bach

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 has 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.

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 15–17; part 5 appeared in the September 2022 issue, pages 19–21.

Before we introduce the most promising candidate for the vacant position of the composer of BWV 565, the author would like to mention two of his recent discoveries.1 We have observed that the ending of the toccata section contains the second phrase of the opening in the pedal.2 It was a surprise to find that the section also contains the first phrase! Pitch notation reveals that, from the second half of measure 27 onward, the nine notes of the top voice are the nucleus, just in a different order and with larger note values (Example 79).

The second discovery concerns the upper voice of measure 98. After a chain of eighth notes with ties, not only is the E-flat repeated, but also its accidental (Example 80). Until now, this has always been interpreted as a missing tie, and editors customarily replaced the two eighth notes by a quarter note. However, it does not seem conclusive that the copyist both forgot the tie and, against custom, repeated the accidental. Changing the first E-flat to E-natural results in a complete chromatic fourth moving parallel with the lower voice (Example 81). In addition, the natural of the preceding note F in the manuscript shows how easily a clumsy natural can be misread as a flat.

Leaving aside these two recent motivic discoveries and returning now to our quest for the “Unknown of BWV 565,” let us consider a statement by Rolf Dietrich Claus:

We owe the only reference to Johann Sebastian Bach as the author of BWV 565 to [the manuscript copy of] Johannes Ringk. The only other evidence for Bach’s authorship is the “authentication by tradition” and the argument: “who else could it have been?” Since the latter two do not contribute to a factual assessment of the question of authenticity, they remain undiscussed here.3

This statement of Rolf Dietrich Claus has been the author’s primary motivation to investigate the case of BWV 565. There are only two possibilities regarding the creator. Either we already know or we do not know the composer. The latter is hardly imaginable although there are composers who sadly died early and left only one major piece to posterity. Looking for a known composer, a candidate takes the stage, whose keyboard works show an inventive approach in general and convincing similarities to BWV 565 in particular.

The candidate

The Unknown now becomes a person. Our suspect surpassed his father in fame beyond his lifetime as a keyboard virtuoso, a renowned teacher, a prolific composer, an avid publisher of his own works, and an esteemed chamber musician to Frederick II. He had a tremendous influence on Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), who was to become the father of the Viennese Classical style. We are talking of course about Johann Sebastian Bach’s second oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788). Hardly any information has survived about the relationship between C. P. E. Bach and Haydn other than this telling story:

In a happy hour, in which his cash register allowed him a small extra expenditure, he visited one of those booksellers whose treasures he had so often only been able to admire in the display windows. We will not deny ourselves the assumption that he remembered his former neighbor Binz and directed his steps to his vault at the Stephan Cemetery. At his request to present him with the best known piano works of the moment, the bookseller took out a booklet of sonatas by C. Ph. Emanuel Bach and praised them so forcefully that Haydn paid without further ado, packed up the booklet, and hurried towards his attic. “I could not get away from my piano until I had played through the sonatas.”4

At the internet website cpebach.org, the Packard Humanities Institute of Los Altos, California, recently published all of the compositions of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in an excellent urtext edition accompanied by a critical report. Since we know the year of completion or publication of all of the more than 150 keyboard sonatas, we are able to observe and follow the compositional development of the composer.

Placed among Johann Sebastian’s keyboard works, the visual impression of BWV 565 alone is jarringly different. The opposite is true with Carl Philipp’s late keyboard works. Among them, BWV 565 gives the impression of ready-made merchandise rather than provocative haute couture. The esteemed reader is invited to browse through the nearly 800 pages of keyboard solo sonatas. It is a truly unique experience. For this article, only the most relevant examples were selected. Apart from textures similar to those in BWV 565, the guideline for the search was to look for opening themes fulfilling these three conditions:

• beginning on the dominant note;

• descent of five scale steps to the tonic note;

• ending on the mordent motive with the leading tone as the lower neighbor note.

Selected examples

Carl Philipp’s first keyboard sonata provides an appropriate example to get started. Indebted to the Baroque style with its imitation work in general and to his father’s Invention in F Major, BWV 779, this piece contains quite a few motives also present in BWV 565. The descending tetrachord and its circolo mezzo5 variant is reworked with genuine keyboard figurations. In measures 10 and 11, the sequences twice cite all nine notes of the nucleus of BWV 565, which also provides the substance for the opening of the second movement (Example 82).

On the other hand, in Johann Sebastian’s keyboard music, organ or harpsichord, a theme of five descending scale steps plus a closing mordent motive simply does not exist at all, with the single exception of a theme in the Pastorale in F Major, BWV 590 (Example 83).

The step-wise descending fifth can be encountered in Carl Philipp’s keyboard music numerous times and in many variations, just as we also encounter many unison passages, figurations with arpeggio chords, and sections with alternately played hands. From the very first one, all sonata movements bear tempo designations, and some movements several. The Sonata in B Minor, Wq 49/6,6 third movement, reworks a theme very similar to the BWV 565 theme. An ornamented version of its first movement resembles the beginning of BWV 565 as well, as does the first movement of the Sonata in C Minor, Wq 50/6, of 1759. The Fantasia in D Minor, Wq 114/7, shares four beats with the identical figuration in BWV 565 (Example 84).

The Sonata in A Minor, Wq 57/2, first movement, places the main idea in three different octave positions. The third movement, “Allegro di molto,” varies the motive in three descending phrases (Example 85).

Carl Philipp’s Rondo in C Major, Wq 56/1, fills sections with triad figurations in unison, strongly resembling those in measures 8 through 10 of BWV 565. The given dynamics in the Rondo passage inspires one to vary registrations and manual changes in the toccata (Example 86).

The closing of the Fantasy in F Major, Wq 59/5, resembles the beginning of BWV 565 in more than one section. The main motive appears in three different octave positions,7 followed by ascending broken chords, a unison passage, and a chord phrase in figured-bass style. The dominant-seventh chord on E-flat jumps out of the composer’s surprise box. Serving as a subdominant and pivot, it sits in the exact midpoint of the chord phrase (Example 87).

The arpeggios from the Rondo in A Minor, Wq 56/5, show the practice of repeating each harmony twice (Example 88).

In his late sonata movements Carl Philipp Emanuel also developed a certain predilection for chord tremolos, such as in the left hand of the passage from Sonata in B-flat Major, Wq 59/3, a playing style similar to the trill cadenza in BWV 565 on the diminished-seventh chord in measures 22 through 27 (Example 89).

We have no proof as to how Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was connected with Toccata and Fugue ex d, BWV 565. The examples show, however, that there must have been some connection. At any rate, BWV 565 is still a Bach’s toccata, but the question “Who else could it have been?” strongly suggests the answer is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Certainly, without further evidence, the field remains open for speculation. Do the similarities between BWV 565 and Carl Philipp’s keyboard pieces prove him as the innovative composer of the post-Baroque revolutionary organ piece? Or do they prove him as an avid plagiarizer? Carl Philipp burned his own works, which he did not want distributed, on a large scale in 1786.8 Did one of his students secretly copy the piece before?

BWV 565 requires a bottom C-sharp in measure 2, rarely found in organs of Johann Sebastian Bach’s time. This fact has caused some speculation about instruments possibly connected to BWV 565. Related to this question, two organs remain unnoticed thus far. They were commissioned in 1755 and 1776 by the youngest sister of Frederick II, princess Anna Amalia of Prussia (1723–1787). Both were built with full compasses on all manuals and pedal. The first one still exists and is now located in the Kirche Zur frohen Botschaft (Church of the Good News) in Berlin-Karlshorst. Kristian Wegscheider and his team completed a careful restoration of this sonorous instrument in 2010. It is hard to describe how thrilling BWV 565 sounds on this organ. The missing bottom C-sharp, however, did not stop organists from playing the piece in concert. According to reviews in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, BWV 565 was played on the organ at Saint Mary’s Church in Berlin in 18179 and 1829,10 the very first evidence of public performances—and on an instrument without a bottom C-sharp.

The new status

The quest needs to continue. The efforts of libraries and other institutions are most helpful to make sources digitally available worldwide.

• Motivic-thematic work. Far more significant than both questions of authorship and date of composition is the undeniable fact that BWV 565 is a motivic-thematic work. Until now, the development of this technique had been attributed to Joseph Haydn (1732–1809). BWV 565 is lifted now to the unique status of being the very first significant composition in music history using this technique.

• Post-Baroque revolution. The author introduced this term to compensate for a lacking general designation of the time period between the Baroque and the Viennese Classical periods. BWV 565 shows a significant number of essential features of this style.

• Cantata BWV 202. Due to divergent handwriting in comparable sources, the date of 1730, shown on the title page of the cantata, cannot be used conclusively.

• Johannes Ringk. From eighteen manuscript sources marked with the name of Ringk as the scribe, a total of eight manuscripts show conformity with the signature font and other features. This body truly represents the scribe Johannes Ringk. The remaining ten manuscripts, including that of BWV 565, have a number of congruences among themselves as well, but none of them in use by Ringk. It can be said securely that the scribe of the earliest source of BWV 565 was definitely not Johannes Ringk.

• Johann Sebastian Bach. Internal evidence suggests that the question “Who else?” turns naturally to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Adolf Berhard Marx (1795–1866), the leading music theorist of his time, published BWV 565 under Johann Sebastian Bach’s name with Breitkopf & Härtel in 1833. He mentioned his doubts about authenticity, however, in the Berlin music journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung several times. Subsequently, Friedrich Griepenkerl (1782–1849) opened a wordy battle in this journal. His edition of Bach’s organ works with Edition Peters in 1845 claimed to be based on authentic sources. Regardless of this vivid dispute, both Marx and Griepenkerl had the same goal—to save a great piece for posterity that would have otherwise been lost forever. It was Griepenkerl who said:

In addition, I do not a have a bad conscience about including an inauthentic piece. One stroke through it, and the matter is settled. The buyer loses nothing, but gains another good piece.11

Marx had obviously discovered the true nature of BWV 565:

My doubt is not based on documents or their lack, but on the content of the work, which from the first to the last note does not seem to me to be written in the spirit, according to Bach’s artistic principle or system, but rather to bear the marks of the attenuated post-Bach’s period. I would not be at a loss to defend this view at length if the patience of the readers and the space of a newspaper did not impose considerations. Whoever is familiar with the many discussions of Bach in my works . . . will in any case not need any further proof. Or, if it is desired, I will give it occasionally.12

Marx was never asked for proof. Nothing stopped BWV 565 from starting its world career under the name of Johann Sebastian Bach. Unraveling the true nature of the composition indeed required an undue amount of time and space. The author is grateful to The Diapason and its editors for patience and enthusiasm in publishing this survey.


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. Michael Gailit, “Exploring the unknown of BWV 565, Part 2” The Diapason, July 2021, pages 12–14, Example 26.

3. Rolf Dietrich Claus, Zur Echtheit von Toccata und Fuge d-Moll BWV 565, second edition (Köln-Rheinkassel: Dohr, 1998), 11.

4. Carl Ferdinand Pohl, Joseph Haydn (Berlin, A. Sacco Nachfolger 1875), 131.

5. Half circle in Italian; term for a four-note figuration following the form of a half circle in stepwise motion.

6. The code Wq refers to the catalogue of works of C. P. E. Bach by the Belgian music bibliographer Afred Wotquenne (1867–1939), which was largely based on the work of the organist Johann Jacob Heinrich Westphal (1756–1825), a friend and contemporary of Carl Philipp.

7. Notated as seven 32nd notes on a quarter beat, the correct notation would be septuplets of 16th notes.

8. Siegbert Rampe, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach und seine Zeit (Laaber: Laaber 2014), 465.

9. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, vol. 19, September 17, 1817 (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel), 655.

10. Berliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, vol. 6, May 23, 1829, 456.

11. Quoted from Claus, p. 11.

12. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, vol. 50, March 8, 1848, 159–160.

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