'Chromatic' fantasia and fugue in D minor

'Chromatic' fantasia and fugue in D minor

BWV 903 performed by Menno van Delft
Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

  • Menu
  • 1. Fantasia
  • 2. Fugue

Behind the music

Extra videos
Extra videos

Master of the keyboard

In an ‘extra large’ improvisation, Bach pushes the tonal boundaries of the Baroque

“When Bach improvised, he had power over all 24 keys; he could do whatever he wanted with them”. Biographer Forkel repeats it time and time again: Bach was a real wizard on the keyboard. More than once, he took it upon himself to perform the ultimate in harmonic acrobatics: writing in every possible key of his day (see, in particular, the two collections of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier). In doing so, he exploited the unique characters of his ‘subjects’, as the tuning used at the time – which was not yet even (equal) like the compromised tuning of the modern piano – made certain keys sound much more strident than others.

The art of the improviser – and Bach was certainly one of the greatest ever – was to blend even the most exotic excursions into a cohesive musical story. And of course that required careful planning in order to avoid harmonic accidents.

The ‘Chromatic’ fantasia and fugue, which was already legendary in its day, almost certainly started out as such an improvisation, probably before Bach went to Leipzig in 1723. The epithet ‘Chromatic’ refers to the three-part fugue, the theme of which moves in such mysterious half steps (chromatically) that the key only becomes firmly established along the way. Yet it seems as if Bach was preoccupied with the fantasia, as no fewer than three sensitive different stages of the piece have survived, all from after 1730. This might suggest that it was only then that the piece was used in lessons or played in public for the first time, maybe as a showpiece at Café Zimmermann.

The fantasia actually has three main sections and a coda. All the leaps, runs and broken chords in the second section, and particularly the third section in the form of a recitative, lead up to a grand finale. The tour de force is difficult to describe in words, but just before the end of the fantasia listen out for the upper parts descending step by step, while the bass sustains the same note like a pedal point. After so much virtuoso playing, the fugue forms a dignified conclusion; majestic with a few razor-sharp chords into the bargain. 

Fantasia and fugue in D minor
harpsichord works
1714-1719, revision ca. 1730

In loving memory of

Mary R. Flora

Extra videos

Menno van Delft on BWV 903

“What the piece is perhaps most famous for are its arpeggio passages with, on the whole, eight-part chords played up and down the keyboard.”

Menno van Delft about the clavichord

“On a piano the strings are made to vibrate by means of hammers, whereas those of a harpsichord are plucked. In a clavichord it's different again.”

Vocal texts




  • Release date
    5 August 2016
  • Recording date
    17 October 2015
  • Location
    Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
  • Clavichordist
    Menno van Delft
  • Klavichord
    Johann Paul Kraemer and sons, Göttingen, 1803
  • Film director and editor
    Dick Kuijs
  • Music production, editing and mix
    Everett Porter
  • Camera
    Martine Rozema, Caroline Nutbey
  • Camera assistant
    Marijn Kooy
  • Gaffer
    Tim Groot
  • Interview
    Gijs Besseling, Kasper Koudenburg
  • Producer concert
    Imke Deters
  • Producer film
    Jessie Verbrugh
  • In loving memory of
    Mary R. Flora, who had a lifelong love of music, promoted education, and believed in the equality of all people.

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