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The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, is a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach probably composed it during his time in Köthen from 1717 to 1723. The piece was already regarded as a unique masterpiece during his lifetime. It is now often played on piano.

Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue
BWV 903
Bach Cembalo.jpg
The Bach Harpsichord in the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum
KeyD minor
Composedc. 1720



An autograph of this work is not known. The musicologist Walther Siegmund-Schultze pinpoints the work to the "fermenting Köthen works" because of its improvisatory and expressive nature, using all keys.[1]

At least 16 different handwritten copies of the score are extant, including five from Bach's lifetime. The oldest copy is only an early, two-bar shorter variant of the fantasia. It was written by Bach's pupil Johann Tobias Krebs and was created after 1717, close to the time of origin.[citation needed] Two other copies emerged around 1730 that include the fugue; they were possibly written by Gottfried Grünewald [de] or Christoph Graupner. A copy of the double work comes from Johann Friedrich Agricola and was written between 1738 and 1740. A manuscript from 1750 is extant,[citation needed] and a complete copy by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1800). From these two manuscripts come the first printed editions of the piece by Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1802) and Friedrich Konrad Griepenkerl [de] (1819). Because of significant differences in details, which can not be traced back to a common basic shape, it is assumed that Bach himself composed the various different versions of the work that are in circulation.[2]


Because of its characteristics the piece became known as Chromatic, a term that did not originate with Bach.


The chromatic fantasia begins as a toccata with fast, up and down surging runs in thirty-second notes (demisemiquavers) and broken chords in sixteenth-note (semiquaver) triplets, which are often diminished seventh chords lined up in semitones. The second part is a series of very clear and remotely modulating soft leading chords that are written in the oldest copies as "Arpeggio", i.e. they require a spread chord. The third part is entitled Recitative and includes a variety of ornamented, enriched, highly expressive melodies. This part contains several enharmonic equivalents.[3] The recitative finishes with passages that are chromatically sinking diminished seventh chords over above the pedal point on D.


The theme of the fugue consists of an ascending half-step line from A to C, here from the third to the fifth of D minor to the relative major key of F major.

Reception and interpretationEdit

The virtuosic and improvisational toccata style of the fantasy, in which both hands alternate rapidly, the expressive, tonally experimental character and the key of D minor put the work alongside the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. Both works are exceptional and therefore particularly popular compositions in Bach's keyboard music. This assessment was shared by Bach's contemporaries. The first biographer of Bach, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, wrote: "I have given much effort to find another piece of this type by Bach. But it was in vain. This fantasy is unique and has never been second to none."[1]

19th-century interpretations of the piece are exemplars of the romantic approach to Bach's works taken during that period. Felix Mendelssohn, the founder of the Bach revival, played this fantasy in February 1840 and 1841 in a series of concerts at the Leipzig Gewandhaus and delighted the audience. He attributed this effect to the free interpretation of the fantasy's arpeggios. He used the sound effects of the era's grand piano through differentiated dynamics, accentuating high notes and doubling pedal bass notes. This interpretation became the model for the adagio of Mendelssohn's second sonata for cello and Piano (Op. 58), written from 1841 to 1843. This work gives the top notes of the piano arpeggios a chorale melody while the cello plays an extended recitative resembling that of the Chromatic Fantasia and quotes its final passage.[4]

This romantic interpretation was formative; many famous pianists and composers, including Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, used the work as a demonstration of virtuosity and expressiveness in their concert repertoire. It was reprinted in many editions with interpretive notes and scale instructions. Max Reger reworked the piece for the organ. Even since the rise of the historically informed performance movement, it remains one of the most popular keyboard works by Bach.[1]

There are romantic interpretations by Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff and Samuil Feinberg, and even Alfred Brendel on the grand piano and Wanda Landowska on the harpsichord. A non-romantic interpretation with surprising accents and lacking pedal was presented by Glenn Gould, which influenced more recent pianists such as Andras Schiff and Alexis Weissenberg. The pianist Agi Jambor combined romantic sonorities and colors with clear voice guidance and emphasized the work's structural relations. In 1940 Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji composed a virtuosic paraphrase of the fantasy as the 99th of his Études transcendantes.[5]


The work has been transcribed for viola solo by Zoltán Kodály in 1950. There is a transcription for classical guitar by Philip Hii,[6] and Busoni made two transcriptions for both solo piano and cello and piano, which are catalogued as BV B 31 and 38, respectively. Jaco Pastorius played the opening parts on electric bass on his 1981 album Word of Mouth, and a transcription for solo cello was made by cellist Johann Sebastian Paetsch in 2015 and published by the Hofmeister Musikverlag in Leipzig.[7]


Urtext edition

  • Rudolf Steglich (ed.): Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatische Fantasie und Fuge d-moll BWV 903: Urtext without fingerings. G. Henle, 2009, ISMN 979-0-2018-1163-5
  • Ulrich Leisinger (ed.): Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatische Fantasie + Fuge (Bwv 903/903a). Klavier, Cembalo. Wiener Urtext Edition, Schott Verlag, ISMN 979-0-50057-191-9
  • Heinrich Schenker: J.S. Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue: Critical Edition With Commentary. Longman Music Series, Schirmer Books 1984, ISBN 0028732405

Musical analysis

  • Martin Geck (ed.): Bach-Interpretationen. Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2nd edition, Göttingen 1982, ISBN 3525332769, p. 57–73 and 213–215
  • Stefan Drees: Vom Sprechen der Instrumente: Zur Geschichte des instrumentalen Rezitativs. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 3631564783, p. 75–78


  1. ^ a b c Cristoph Rueger (ed.): "Johann Sebastian Bach" in Harenberg Klaviermusikführer. Harenberg, Dortmund 1984, ISBN 3-611-00679-3, pp. 85–86
  2. ^ Tamás Zászkaliczky (ed.): Anmerkungen des Herausgebers. In: Fantasien & Toccaten: für Klavier, for piano / Johann Sebastian Bach. Könemann Music, Budapest 2000, p. 86f.
  3. ^ Hermann Keller: Studien zur Harmonik Joh. Seb. Bachs. In: Bach-Jahrbuch. Jg. 41 (1954), p. 50–65 (online Archived 2013-12-13 at the Wayback Machine), (PDF-Datei; 832 kB) S. 61.
  4. ^ Wolfgang Dinglinger: "Die Arpeggien sind ja eben der Haupteffect." Anmerkungen zum Adagio der zweiten Cellosonate op. 58 von Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. In: Cordula Heymann-Wentzel, Johannes Laas: Musik und Biographie: Festschrift für Rainer Cadenbach. Königshausen & Neumann, 2004, ISBN 382602804X, pp. 65–68]
  5. ^ Chromatische Fantasie by Kaukhosru Sorabji on The Sorabji Archive
  6. ^ "Bach: New Transcriptions for Guitar". Audio. 1996. Retrieved 7 June 2015.
  7. ^ Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister Verlag, FH 3021, 3 Pieces from BWV 565, 903, 1004, Leipzig 2015, (Editor/Arranger – Johann Sebastian Paetsch), ISMN 979-0-2034-3021-6

External linksEdit