I first became familiar with this lovely little gigue when it was set as one of the pieces for the Associated Board Grade 7 examination in (I think) 1971, which I sat, and passed, although unspectacularly. I have played it many times since, and although I was immediately aware of its similarity to Bach, especially the gigue, also in G major, from French Suite no 5, I was unaware of it history.
Fast forward 46 years to the proms 2017. I watched Sir Andras Schiff’s amazing performance, playing all 24 preludes and fugues from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier at a single sitting, and it inspired me to get to know more Bach preludes and fugues. I have been familiar with perhaps half a dozen, especially the B flat major from Book 1, which I played when I sat my LGSM exam at the Barbican in 1981. However, after Schiff’s marathon, I was particularly taken with the B minor prelude & fugue, so set about learning them.
My immediate reaction was relating to the sheer weirdness of the music. As usual, I tackled the prelude first, and was particularly intrigued by the final 6 bars and the obscure harmonies in use. However, it wasn’t long before I found that the fugue was even weirder. The opening couple of bars start with the falling B minor triad, but from that point on tonality seems to be scattered to the four winds.
It suddenly dawned on me where I had seen something similarly weird: in the Mozart Gigue!
J. S. Bach, Fugue in B minor
W. A. Mozart, Gigue in G major, first extract
W. A. Mozart, Gigue in G major, second extract
It is worth playing the two Mozart extracts at the largo tempo of the Bach fugue. The second extract, albeit with an inversion of the opening triad, is remarkably similar to Bach’s work.
A short piece of research revealed that Mozart wrote the gigue on his final day in Leipzig, 16th May 1789, directly into the notebook of no less a person than the Leipzig court organist, who would, of course, have been totally familiar with the works of the great J. S. Bach. Bach had been Capellmeister in Leipzig until his death 39 years previously.
William Kinderman, in his tome “Mozart’s Piano Pieces”, has this to say about the K574 gigue:
"An admiration for J. S. Bach remained with Mozart until his final years and is reflected in one of his last independent piano pieces, the masterly contrapuntal Gigue, K. 574, in three voices, composed at Leipzig on 16 May 1789. The piece was written into the family album of the court organist Carl Immanuel Engel, evidently as a tribute to the Leipzig master, but it remains stylistically quite independent of Bach and, indeed, unlike anything else Mozart ever wrote. Particularly distinctive are the twisting angularity of the melodic lines, whose registral disparities enrich the polyphony, the bold dissonances, and the unusual pedal effects heard against shifting harmonies.”
Except it doesn’t “remain stylistically quite independent of Bach”. It’s a direct lift from Fugue number 24, which also displays “twisting angularity of the melodic lines” etc. and, in quite the jocular manner for which Mozart is noted, he has turned one of the massive heavyweights of the Bach repertoire into a jaunty 38-bar miniature.
I find it quite difficult to believe that I am the first pianist in the 228 years since Mozart penned his farewell to Herr Engel to have noticed the melodic similarity between the two works.
Peter Walker <email@example.com>
5th October 2017.