Schumann’s B-A-C-H Fugues: the genesis of the “Character-Fugue”

September 29, 2020

Colin MacKnight is a C. V. Starr Doctoral Fellow at The Juilliard School, New York City, where he also received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He is in the studio of Paul Jacobs and is working on his dissertation entitled “Ex Uno Plures: A Proposed Completion of Bach’s Art of Fugue.” He currently serves as associate organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, Long Island.

A frequent competition prizewinner, MacKnight holds the Fellow and Choirmaster certificates from the American Guild of Organists (having won the prize for top score for the latter) and is a member of The Diapason’s “20 Under 30” Class of 2019. Upcoming performance highlights include recitals in Ingelheim, Germany; Kingston, Jamaica; and at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC. Colin MacKnight is represented in North America by Karen McFarlane Artists, Inc. For more information, media, and a calendar of performances, visit

“Miss no opportunity to practice on the organ; there is no instrument that takes such immediate revenge on the impure and the careless, in composition as well as in the playing, as the organ.”1 This description from Schumann was likely referring to the organ’s ability to execute—one might even say affinity for—complex counterpoint. It is only fitting then that his only organ work would be a set of six fugues on Johann Sebastian Bach’s surname, a homage to music’s greatest contrapuntist, one of Schumann’s principal influences, and the composer who dominates the organ repertoire to a degree that no other composer dominates any other repertoire. Schumann stated, “What art owes to Bach is to the musical world hardly less than what a religion owes to its founder.”2 He also acknowledged the influence that Bach exerted on his own music; Schumann’s compositional style was unusually motivic, and he attributed his disdain for what he called “lyric simplicity” to his study of Bach and Beethoven.3

In German musical parlance, B is B-flat and H is B-natural, allowing one to turn Bach’s surname into the motive B-flat, A, C, B-natural. By composing a set of fugues based on the theme
B-A-C-H, Schumann was participating in a long tradition of composing pieces (particularly for the organ) that include the B-A-C-H motive.

This tradition began with Johann Sebastian Bach himself and continues to the present. Two notable examples of Bach encrypting his own name occur in the Toccata in F Major for organ, BWV 540i (in transposition), and Contrapuncti 8, 11, and 14 of Die Kunst der Fuga, BWV 1080. Felix Mendelssohn was the next composer of a substantial body of organ music to encrypt the B-A-C-H motive into one of his pieces. In measure 56 of the first movement of his Sonata IV in B-flat from the Six Organ Sonatas, op. 65, he prominently includes the B-A-C-H motive in the pedal, transposed down a whole-tone (Example 1).

Schumann was close friends with Mendelssohn and even wrote a glowing review of the organ sonatas in his journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, so Mendelssohn’s encryption may not have been unnoticed by him. Perhaps it is not coincidence that Schumann composed his set in 1845—the year in which Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas were published.4 In addition to Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas, Mendelssohn’s Six Preludes and Fugues for Piano, op. 35, and Three Preludes and Fugues for Organ, op. 37, were almost certainly strong influences on Schumann’s B-A-C-H fugues.5

Schumann was, however, the first composer to write a large work based on this theme. This proved to be influential; other composers who would later write substantial organ works based on B-A-C-H include Franz Liszt (Prelude and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H, S. 260, versions of which exist for piano and organ), Sigfrid Karg-Elert (Passacaglia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, op.150), Max Reger (Fantasy and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H, op. 46), Ernst Pepping (Three Fugues on B-A-C-H), etc. Schumann’s set is the longest of these works.

The year 1845 is often called Schumann’s contrapuntal year because of his and Clara Schumann’s intense study of counterpoint, resulting in such compositions as the Six Studies in Canonic Form, op. 56, and Four Sketches, op. 58, both for pedal-piano; Six Fugues on B-A-C-H for organ, op. 60; and Four Fugues for piano, op. 72.6 During this year of “Fugenpassion,”7 to use Schumann’s own term, they studied Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg’s Treatise on the Fugue and Luigi Cherubini’s A Course of Counterpoint and Fugue.8 Schumann also studied counterpoint intensely from 1831 to 1832 under Heinrich Dorn and from 1836 to 1838, a period which yielded more contrapuntally complex and rich works such as Kreisleriana.9

Schumann finished the first fugue on April 7 and the second on April 18.10 Soon after the second fugue was completed, a rented pedal-piano arrived at the Schumann house.11 This would have been a useful tool for composing the Sketches, Canonic Studies, and Fugues, but, surprisingly, this is also around the time Schumann began to eschew the use of the piano as a compositional tool.12 Perhaps, then, the pedal-piano was mainly used to assist in pedal-writing.

After the second fugue, progress on the set slowed for a variety of reasons including illness, work on the latter movements of the Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 54, and organization of an orchestral concert series in Dresden.13 By the end of September, Schumann had drafted the third, fourth, and fifth fugues14 and in late November, Schumann completed the set.15 The influence of the B-A-C-H project can also be seen on his next opus, Symphony No. 2 in C Major; the second trio of the scherzo uses a theme beginning with the B-A-C-H motive, and the adagio contains a fugato (Example 2).16

Schumann’s set of six fugues is in many ways similar to and likely inspired by Bach’s The Art of the Fugue since both are thorough explorations of the contrapuntal potential of one musical idea. Schumann was, however, somewhat disdainful of The Art of the Fugue for being excessively cerebral.17 Part of this is probably due to what Schumann may have perceived as a lack of variety in The Art of the Fugue. Since The Art of the Fugue is based on a single subject and the Schumann B-A-C-H fugues are only based on a motive, Schumann has considerably more flexibility in his thematic material. (Interestingly, this is not unlike Bach’s use of the B-A-C-H motive in The Art of the Fugue. In Contrapunctus 8, the motive is masked with repeated notes and inversion; in Contrapunctus 11, he un-inverts it but retains the repeated notes. It is not until Contrapunctus 14 that Bach plainly reveals the motive, a technique of which Schumann surely would have been proud.)

Schumann, like Bach, derives several distinct fugue subjects from the B-A-C-H motive. The first, third, and sixth fugues, for example, all plainly feature the motive as the main substance of the subject. The fifth fugue, however, treats it just as the starting point for further elaboration. The fourth fugue also uses the motive overtly but changes its contour by leaping down a sixth from A to C, instead of up a third. By modifying and developing the theme, Schumann reveals and incorporates one of his favorite compositional genres: the character piece. John Daverio describes this important difference between fugues and character pieces by saying, “If the essence of a fugue is a fixed subject, then that of the character piece is the transformation of an eloquent motive.”18 By combining elements of these two genres, Schumann is not just taking a neo-baroque diversion but is “updating” the fugal form to include the most modern musical trends.

Each of Schumann’s fugues also has specific tempo and dynamic indications to contrast the movements. The work is framed by two large accelerando, crescendo fugues; the second fugue is a virtuosic allegro; the third, serene and lyrical; the fourth, a more austere study; and the fifth, a charming scherzo. In this way, the work is not just a compilation of fugues but also a suite of complementary movements. Schumann also provides tonal variety by including G minor and F major movements into an overarching B-flat major—something The Art of the Fugue does not do despite its much greater length. Additionally, there is greater variety of texture in Schumann’s set than The Art of the Fugue. Schumann is not averse to devolving to homophony as he does in all but the third fugue. He also frequently composed in what looks like a “lazy” five-voice texture by writing five-voice expositions but not maintaining a strict five-voice texture (until the last fugue). This is, however, more likely another attempt at textural variety than contrapuntal ineptitude on Schumann’s part; by moving the bass line between the pedal and left hand, he is varying the sound and texture even while maintaining the same number of voices.

As previously stated, the first fugue is an accelerando, crescendo fugue. The quintessential example of this, and likely inspiration for Schumann, is the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 3 in A Major from his Six Organ Sonatas, op. 65. Schumann’s subject comprises two bars, the first of which is the B-A-C-H motive plainly stated, and the second of which includes the B-A-C-H motive in retrograde in its first, second, fifth, and sixth pitches (Example 3). At the point at which Schumann indicates to begin crescendoing and accelerating, he combines the B-A-C-H motive (or a variant thereof) in the pedal with a two-voice stretto of the diminished form of the subject in the manuals (Example 4).

The piece builds to a very exciting homophonic climax, particularly when the performer has accelerated enough (Simon Preston starts at 92 beats per minute and comes close to doubling the tempo, reaching 168 beats per minute at the fastest), with double-pedal before a five-bar coda that returns to a polyphonic texture, although without the B-A-C-H subject. Because of the lower register and reduction in texture, it is not uncommon to decrescendo through the coda, even though this is not indicated in the score.

The second fugue is the allegro movement and the most unabashedly virtuosic. It is also the only fugue in a triple meter, a trait of which Schumann takes full advantage through the use of hemiola. Its subject begins with a quick dotted B-A-C-H before beginning a sequence that is almost certainly taken from the fugue from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ, BWV 565. Schumann would have known this work from Mendelssohn’s famous Bach recital at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, which he enthusiastically reviewed in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (Examples 5 and 6).19

In measure 48, Schumann combines the subject with its augmentation in the pedal. Then in measure 74, there is a rest for performer and listener alike when Schumann quietly strettos the augmented B-A-C-H motive with occasional interruptions from the BWV 565 motive. (These fragments of the BWV 565 motive make the connection to Bach’s fugue even more obvious.) This motive gradually takes over the texture while crescendoing until the piece devolves into a virtuosic toccata, complete with double-pedal, arpeggios, octave doublings, and no hint of B-A-C-H. He then briefly alludes to the quiet B-A-C-H stretto passage again—this time with neighbor-tones on the B-flat—before a passage of triumphant homophony. There is one more fugal interruption before the chorale-style writing returns and a hemiola passage with sforzando chords every two beats. The movement ends with a coda over a B-flat pedal that continues to use the BWV 565 motive while eschewing the B-A-C-H motive, a final confirmation of this fugue’s inspiration.

The third fugue is the only one that is entirely quiet; there is a piano indication at the beginning with the description “Mit sanften Stimmen”—with gentle stops—and no further performance instructions. This is the only fugue that begins in two voices with the counter-subject present from the beginning. It is also the simplest and technically easiest fugue. The B-A-C-H theme only occurs in one form, and the emphasis is on lyricism rather than intellect or virtuosity. It is also the only fugue in a minor key, G minor, but ending in a tranquil G major.

The fourth fugue is the most austere and perhaps the least accessible of the set. This is clear from the outset when Schumann uses a jagged version of the B-A-C-H motive; instead of an ascending minor third between A and C, he writes a descending major sixth, meaning the subject outlines a pungent diminished octave. This is one of Schumann’s cleverest techniques: to utilize the B-A-C-H motive as a collection of pitch classes with no specific contour rather than a traditional theme with a set shape.   

Schumann further adds to the complexity and austerity of this movement by introducing the retrograde of B-A-C-H for the first time and immediately combining it with the subject’s normal form. The retrograde form of the subject almost always has staccato markings on the first and third notes to draw attention to itself, retrograde being among the more obscure contrapuntal techniques (Example 7).

This movement continues to use retrograde pervasively and eventually transitions into loud chordal writing with flashy pedal scales. Like the second fugue, it alternates between passages of strict counterpoint and homophony. The passagework and homophony bring what was an ascetic contrapuntal exercise—perhaps worthy of Schumann’s own questionable criticism of The Art of the Fugue—to a dramatic and exciting close. The climax in measures 96 to 99 is particularly thrilling and one of the highlights of the whole work, as if to apologize for the trials through which he has just put the listener.

As an additional conciliatory gesture, Schumann placed his charming scherzo-fugue next. The presence of a scherzo—an unusual template for a fugue—in this set is further proof that Schumann conceived this set as a suite of complementary pieces and not just miscellaneous movements based on the same theme. The fifth fugue is the only movement in F major and the shortest of the set. This movement’s subject begins with a fleeting B-A-C-H that sounds almost like a perfunctory after-thought—or pre-thought. It is a refreshing relief after the previous four movements which all employ the B-A-C-H motive so plainly.

Nevertheless, the scherzo is still a contrapuntal tour de force. It includes augmentation, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde augmentation, and combines the augmented form of the subject with the original form and the augmented retrograde form with the plain retrograde, an astonishing amount of artifice for a movement of less than three minutes. The technique, however, never hinders the charm. This fugue demonstrates well Schumann’s outlook on fugal composition: “Anyway, this will always be the best fugue the public for instance regards as a waltz by Strauss—in other words, where the artificial rootage is covered like the roots of a flower so that we can see just the flower.” For Schumann, artifice and contrapuntal ingenuity were always subservient to beauty and emotion.20

The sixth and final fugue, the longest of the set, is another accelerando, crescendo fugue. It is also the only double fugue in the set, giving it more in common with the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 3 in A Major, op. 65, which, as previously mentioned, is also a crescendo, accelerando, double fugue. The three-bar subject begins with the B-A-C-H motive and ends with a short descending scale that is the source of the second subject. The first section also prominently features a five-note motive as a counter-subject, beginning in measure 16. This motive, intentionally or not, sounds like a quotation of the main motive in Bach’s chorale prelude on Valet will ich dir geben, BWV 736. The descending scale that closes the first subject becomes the second subject in measure 58 and begins a new section that is marked Lebhafter and più forte. This section does not use the B-A-C-H motive but instead develops the second subject, including stretto and inversion, and uses the same five-note countersubject.

In measure 95, Schumann finally combines the subjects and countersubject signaling the third and final part of this fugue, the only instance of strict five-part counterpoint in the entire set (Example 8).

The strict counterpoint continues until measure 116 when Schumann switches to grand, fortissimo, chorale writing with a few quasi-contrapuntal interruptions. The homophonic texture allows him to compose abrupt and distant modulations that are unusual in strict fugal textures: most notably, the modulation to G major in measure 139 and back to B-flat in measure 142. As in the second fugue, Schumann eventually eschews the B-A-C-H motive (after measure 144 in the sixth fugue), choosing instead to close the entire work not with either of the subjects but with the counter-subject.

As previously mentioned, Schumann “updates” the fugal form by incorporating elements of the character piece, which he does by developing and transforming the B-A-C-H motive. By examining the different transformations of B-A-C-H, as well as other motives, one can see certain relationships between movements beyond the obvious thematic unity of a monothematic work. Specifically, the movements can be organized into three related pairs: movements one and four, two and three, and five and six.

The first fugue is related to the fourth by merit of the fact that it utilizes a countersubject, itself derived from the B-A-C-H motive, which prominently features leaps of sixths, the same interval that is so characteristic of the fourth fugue’s subject (Example 9). 

While this relationship by itself may seem somewhat tenuous, Schumann retroactively confirms it with what is probably the most shocking harmony of this fugue: the false ending at measure 60, in which an F dominant-seventh chord resolves to a secondary-dominant ninth of the subdominant. What sounds like a dramatic change in register is actually the jagged contour of the fourth fugue’s subject in the soprano! The soprano and tenor lines also continue to prominently feature leaps of sixths through the coda of this movement (Example 10).

The second and third fugues are also connected by an allusion in the second fugue to the third fugue’s subject. In measure 48 of fugue two, the B-A-C-H motive appears in the pedal in augmentation with three extra notes that together with B-A-C-H will form the third fugue’s subject (Examples 11 and 12).

Just like in the first fugue, the relationship between fugues two and three may seem weak, but Schumann once again confirms it by developing the tail of the third fugue subject in the tenor and bass voices later in the second fugue (measure 135) (Example 13).

The connection between the fifth and sixth fugues is perhaps the most obvious. The fugue subject of fugue five has a five-note figure that occurs in the second (C, B-flat, A, B-flat, C) and third (G, F, E, F, G) measures of the subject (Example 14).

Schumann later inverts this theme, so it also occurs in an up-down shape. The inverted form of this motive (the aforementioned quotation of Valet will ich dir geben, BWV 736) then becomes the countersubject to the final fugue and is combined with both of the last fugue’s subjects. It is introduced in the first exposition in measure 16 and is combined with both subjects in measure 95 (see Example 8).

On the surface, nothing could have been more conservative in nineteenth-century music than a set of six fugues for organ. Further examination reveals, however, how progressive Schumann’s B-A-C-H fugues were. They were likely the first set of pieces to be based entirely on Bach’s name, they constitute a complementary “suite” of fugues—not just a collection of movements—and there are connections and developments between the movements that foreshadow Brahms’s developing variation. Schumann himself wrote, “I worked on this set for the whole of last year in order to make it somewhat worthy of the exalted name it bears; [it is] a work that will, I believe, long outlive my other works.”21 His prediction that his reputation would be based largely on these fugues did not prove to be accurate, but it was surely right of him to hold them in such high regard.


1. Helga Scholz-Michelitsch, “Robert Schumann and the Organ,” trans. Susanne Weber, The Franz Schmidt Organ Competition,

2. Eric Frederick Jensen, Schumann (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 145.

3. Ibid., 145–146. 

4. Scholz-Michelitsch, “Robert Schumann and the Organ.”

5. John Daverio, Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 308.

6. Daverio, Robert Schumann, 306.

7. Ibid., 307. 

8. Scholz-Michelitsch, “Robert Schumann and the Organ.”

9. Daverio, Robert Schumann, 306.

10. Ibid., 307.

11. Ibid.

12. Jensen, Schumann. 284.

13. Daverio, Robert Schumann, 307.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., 308.

16. Jensen, Schumann, 289.

17. Ibid. 144.

18. Daverio, Robert Schumann, 309.

19. Scholz-Michelitsch, “Robert Schumann and the Organ.”

20. Ibid.

21. Daverio, Robert Schumann, 308.


Daverio, John. Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jensen, Eric Frederick. Schumann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Scholz-Michelitsch, Helga. “Robert Schumann and the Organ.” Translated by Susanne Weber. The Franz Schmidt Organ Competition.

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