Many of Bach’s organ works can only be dated approximately, but it is different in the case of this Fantasia and fugue. Bach performed these works in Hamburg, where the post of organist at St Jacob’s Church became vacant in 1720. During a recital lasting over two hours, he demonstrated his skills as an organist and struck his audience dumb. One member of that audience was the former organist Reincken, the eminence grise of the Hamburg music scene, who praised Bach’s improvisational art as follows: ‘I thought this skill had died out, but I see it lives on in you’. Yet Bach was not really planning to take up the vacant position. Only three years beforehand, he had accepted a position as Kapellmeister in Köthen precisely in order to stretch his wings vocally as well, and to rid himself of the too restrictive label of ‘organ virtuoso’. However, Bach probably did have an eye on the post of cantor at St John’s School in Hamburg, which was shortly to become vacant. In the end, Telemann was appointed to that post and not long afterwards Bach was given a similar appointment in Leipzig.
Whatever the case, Bach confirmed his reputation with the ambitious scope and structure of his Fantasia and fugue. The breathtaking fantasia starts off as a completely free improvisation, but then reveals itself as a rhetorical argument. Overwhelming, rather ominous passages are alternated with measured, punctual annotations. All the registers are opened, from chromatic successions to all sorts of surprising harmonic twists and turns, which are finally finished off by the pedal. The virtuoso fugue that follows appears to contain an extra tribute to old Reincken, who was born in Deventer, as its theme is derived from a cheerful Dutch song, ‘Ik ben gegroet van’, from the collection Oude en Nieuwe Hollantse Boeren Lieties. The brisk footwork required by the piece takes it to its festive climax.
J.S. Bach's Fantasia and Fugue for organ in C minor, BWV 537 is not a particularly long piece, but it is a dense and involved one in which a very un-flashy and serious-minded approach to prelude and fugue-type composition can be heard and seen. This is a departure begun by Bach more or less during his Weimar years (1708 - 1717), toward the end of which period the present work was probably composed, as were, with similar electrifyingly virtuosic style, such early works as the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 and the Prelude and Fugue in E major, BWV 566.
The music of the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537, especially that of the fantasia, is still very lush and ornate, but there is not a single cadenza-like passage in the entire work; not once does a virtuoso passage interrupt the high-minded musical essay, as it does innumerable times in BWV 565 (the toccata of which is entirely composed in such a manner). The fantasia is in 6/4 meter and falls into two unequal halves, each of which takes up the same two basic musical ideas, a dotted-rhythm tune, in imitation, and then, a little later (also in imitation, initiated by the pedals), a leaping eighth-note idea. The fugue's steady subject insists, four times in a row, on the pitch G (or C in the tonal answer form) and is thus easily recognized each time it appears during the 130 contrapuntal bars.