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Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552, also serves as the first and final pieces for his Clavierübung III, a collection of 27 (or 3 x 3 x 3) works for large or small organ, although only these first and final pieces also carry the title “pro Organo pleno,” which indicates a full organ with pedals. The German word “-übung” normally means some sort of exercise, but here the word refers to exercises for listening and enriching the soul, not perfecting finger technique. In fact, Albert Schweitzer nicknamed the collection “mass for organ.”
The Prelude derives from three thematic and stylistic sections, and, again, Schweitzer is often attributed as the originator of the now popular symbolism that this represents the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The “Father” theme employs the dotted-eighth note to sixteenth-note rhythm of the French Overture of Bach’s day, while the “Son” theme is more playful and simple. The “Holy Ghost” theme consists of a sinuous 16th-note melody that divides into two different alternating lines. These sections then intermingle, but maintain their distinct characters.
The five-voice triple Fugue is also in three sections, continuing the prelude’s Holy Trinity symbolism. Those of us in the English-speaking world have dubbed it “St. Anne” after a popular English hymn of Bach’s day (usually set with the text “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past”). “St. Anne” is the name of a church in the Soho section of London, where the hymn was written. It’s not known if Bach had actually heard this tune, or if the similarity to his opening fugue subject is purely coincidental.