What, exactly, is a “correct” classical performance? And how do music editors correct typos? Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue for organ, BWV 542

No, I won’t go into the manifold questions of interpretation here, and on the whole debate pro/con “historically informed” performance. What do you do when there is even no agreement on what the correct notes are?

The other day I heard somebody play Liszt’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor for organ, BWV 542. The Fantasy happens to be one of my two favorite pieces ever in the entire organ literature (the other being the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582), so I’m very familiar with its twists and turns.

So I was struck by two “mistakes” that stuck out like sore thumbs:

(1) in one of the solo recitativo bits of the Fantasy, the pianist hit a loud F natural where I’d always played a D (and as the last preceding chord was Bm/D, the F made no harmonic sense to me), and

(2) he played the final chord of the fantasy as G major rather than G minor. (Such a “Picardy third” — ending a minor-key piece on a major triad — was still the norm in Bach’s time, as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant. Bach himself, however, would end minor-key preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier on minor triads to indicate the fugue was still to follow.)

Google Scholar is your friend then, and it turns out not only is there an entire academic journal called Bach, but that a long essay in it had been dedicated to the source provenance and variant readings of exactly this piece.

William H. Bates, “J. S. Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542: A Source Study for Organists”, Bach 39(2), 1-88 (2008).

Turns out that no original manuscript has been preserved, but the piece has been transmitted through multiple first- and second-generation manuscript copies by pupils of Bach, their pupils, and by an anonymous copyist at a royal library. [*] What’s more: for the fugue, they appear to derive from at least three different source versions: an original, Bach’s later emendation, and a version transposed to F minor. Dozens of minor discrepancies exist.

For the fantasy, of which appears to have been substantially only one source version, there are “only” three outright variant readings in the notes. Aside from the final chord noted in (2), they are a comparatively trivial change at bar 42 and the one noted in (1):


Thus the mystery is solved. The score I have, a Dover paperback, is a reprint of the BG (Bachgesellschaftedition, or Bach Society Edition, b. above) — which is followed in many classical organ recordings. The Liszt piano arrangement I heard was based on a different source (a. above) — it seems that the source material (c,d) had a oddball “E” (presumed transcription error) which had been editorially corrected in two different ways:

a. consistent with a later occurrence of the phrase in bar 44 (a fourth higher), which is the choice made by the Bärenreiter and Breitkopf & Härtel editions;

b. consistent with the preceding chord (Bm/D), which is the choice made by the Bach Society Edition after 1900 (originally they printed the E).

Also, I learned from this article that the Fantasy and the Fugue appear to have been entirely separate compositions, which (because of their compatible keys) were paired by custom, sometime after Bach’s death. This offers a clue as to the “Picardy third” mystery: as minor thirds were still considered mildly dissonant in Bach’s time, final movements of minor-key works still customarily ended on major triads, though Bach would often end a minor-key prelude on a minor third if there was another movement to follow.

“The lonely lives of classical music scholars”, you say? Maybe that too, but also, for this scientist and amateur musician:

(a) a sobering observation on what exactly constitutes “authenticity” in classical music performance;

(b) an interesting parallel with great literary works from the English Canon hat were only printed after the author had passed away.


[*] Unlike for works like Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, there is ample internal and external evidence that J. S. Bach was the author of BWV 542.

Disturbed, “Savior of nothing”

After a three-year hiatus except for a mind-blowing cover of “The Sound of Silence”, the new Disturbed album is out. It’s got the trademark sound: David Draiman’s powerful yet melodic vocals, crunching guitars blended with bits of electronics, … The iron-strong opener “Are you ready” sets the tone.

But lyrically, the message of one track stands out. It hardly needs explaining what this is about.


Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the savior of nothing now

When you were a young one, they tormented you
They could always find a way to make you feel ashamed
Now that you are older, everything they put you through
Left you with an anger that just cannot be contained

So you spend every day of your life
Always searching for something to set you on fire

Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the savior of nothing now

Everywhere around you, you find reasons to
Turn into a warrior to protect what you believe
But you think their beliefs, make them less than you
And that is a delusion that your sickness has conceived

Now you spend every day of your life
Always hoping that something will spark the desire

Now you’ve become
Everything you claim to fight
Through your need to feel you’re right
You’re the saviour of nothing now

(Repeat chorus)


Saturday the 13th: Tale of another failed Hitler assassination

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the question: “why didn’t anybody try to kill Hitler” (y”sh), I’d have a tidy sum of money. In truth, depending on how you define an attempt, there have been over forty events that may qualify, over a dozen of which became serious. Four of the latter came within a hairbreadth of succeeding. In reverse chronological order, they are:

  • the July 20, 1944 plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie)
  • Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
  • Henning von Tresckow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s attempted bombing of the Führer’s plane on March 13, 1943, about which today’s blog post
  • Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which a future blog post

All would-be assassins had to find ways to circumvent elaborate security measures, that only got more stringent with every known attempt. By the time of the war, there were three concentric protection circles — not counting ad hoc deployment of Gestapo, SS, and SD:

  • outer perimeter security of the Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair and other forward headquarters was assured by a battalion from the elite Grossdeutschland motorized infantry division: this Führerbegleitbatallion (Leader escort battalion) grew into a regiment with tanks, armored carriers, and anti-aircraft guns, and eventually (after Hitler holed up for the last time in his Berlin bunker) was sent to the front as a division.
  • inner security was provided the Reichssicherheitsdienst  (RSD) of up to a few hundred trained police and security personnel (not to be confused with the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, which was the SS’s domestic and foreign intelligence apparatus), which protected not just Hitler but other top Nazi functionaries. Its commander  Hans Rattenhuber was also the overall security chief.
  • finally, 8-12 trusted bodyguards recruited from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (the 1st Waffen SS regiment, later a division) provided the closest-in security, and did double duty as valets and messengers. This Führerbegleitkommando answered to the Führer directly, in practice to his chief adjutant Julius Schaub. A number of those stayed with their master in the bunker to the last.

Gersdorff recalls in his memoirs, Soldat im Untergang/Soldier In The Downfall, that, when a senior officer pulled out his handkerchief as he had a cold, an RSD agent grasped his hand while it was in his pocket and brought it up very slowly, then only let go when he was certain it only contained an innocuous object.

Col. (GS) [**] Henning von Tresckow, the Ia Staff Officer (Operations) of Army Group Center, and his adjutant, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who happened to be Tresckow’s cousin), had been convinced since the autumn of 1941 that Hitler had to be removed, if need be by assassination. While they were unabashed German nationalists and outright anticommunists, the mass murder of Jews and other civilians by SS “task forces” (Einsatzkommandos) had been a bridge too far — especially once Tresckow and his aide discovered that these were not isolated war crimes by rogue units, but part and parcel of a systematic policy handed down from the top itself. Gradually and carefully, Tresckow and Schlabrendorff gathered a group of conspirators around them, with the Ic Staff Officer (Intelligence) Col. (GS) von Gersdorff as an early recruit.

When the Führer was to fly to Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte) headquarters near Smolensk, a plan formed in the conspirators’ minds. If only they could smuggle a bomb with a time fuse on board of the Führer’s personal FW 200 “Condor” before it flew back, that could circumvent many of the problems with a shooting or grenade attack.

Gersdorff, via his contacts in the Abwehr (military intelligence) headquarters (where another group of conspirators went all the way to the top), had managed to get hold of a stock of captured British “Nobel 808” plastic explosives — more powerful and reliable than anything in their own arsenal — and of so-called “time pencil” detonators, which make no sizzling or ticking noise. The available time pencils came in 10 minute, 30 minutes, and 2 hours variants. The image below, from the US National Archives, illustrates their mechanism:


Briefly: on the inside of a soft metal housing was a glass vial with a strong acid. The pencil was primed by bending or applying strong pressure, which crushed the vial. The acid would burn through a thin metal wire that held back a spring, to which a striker pin was attached. The striker pin would hit a detonator cap, which finally would set off the explosive. The duration of the process will be determined by the concentration of the acid and the thickness (and composition) of the wire. In cold weather, of course, the chemical reaction will be slowed down…

Tresckow and Schlabrendorff did do their homework: in between their extensive staff officer duties, they managed to carry out thorough experiments with the explosives and fuses. They discovered that cold weather could extend the stated time of the time pencils by over 100%, but that they were otherwise quite reliable, and that about a kilogram of explosive should be adequate to blow the Condor’s fuselage to bits.

They prepared an explosive parcel disguised as two bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which contained about 2 kg of Nobel 808.

At any rate—while Hitler (and/or Rattenhuber?) were notorious for changing movement plans at the last minute, two planes carrying Hitler, his entourage, and his close-in protection detail did duly land on Saturday, March 13, 1943. (One was the dictator’s personal Focke-Wulf 200 Condor illustrated below — not the Junkers 52 shown in the opening scenes of the movie “Valkyrie”. [*])

FW 200

Schlabrendorff, in his memoirs Offizieren gegen Hitler (see also here in English), recounts  that during the dinner following the briefing, the dictator would only eat food prepared by his own cook, then taste-tested before his eyes by his personal physician Theodor Morell. “The proceedings reminded one of an oriental despot of bygone ages.” (F. v. S.)

Tresckow approached one of Hitler’s closest aides, Col. Heinz Brandt, if he could do him a favor: he owed his friend Gen. Hellmuth Stieff two bottles of liquor because he had lost a bet with him, and if Col. Brandt would be so kind as to deliver it to him? This being a not uncommon request among staff officers, Brandt agreed. Schlabrendorff, being Tresckow’s aide, was asked to bring the liquor to the plane.

Once Schlabrendorff saw Hitler board the plane, he surreptitiously primed the 30-minute time pencil he had earlier selected, and handed the package over to Brandt — who boarded the same plane as Hitler (otherwise Schlabrendorff would have had to come up with a last-minute excuse that it wasn’t the right parcel, or something).

The plane took off for Rastenburg, East Prussia (presently Ketrzyn, Poland) — the location of the Wolf’s Lair — and the conspirators gave a coded heads-up to their co-conspirators in Berlin. The next code word would follow once a signal had come to the HQ’s communications room that the plane had crashed.

The pair waited anxiously — then a signal came in that the plane had duly arrived at Rastenburg.

Gen. Stieff would later join the conspirators, but was not (yet) in on the plan, so if he started opening the bottles, he would be in for quite a ‘spirited’ surprise. So Schlabrendorff traveled to Rastenburg himself and told Col. Brandt that there had been a mixup: he had been given the wrong bottles (Cointreau), so if he wouldn’t mind giving them back and trading them for the right bottles (Cognac)?

Brandt suspected nothing, and the substitution was made with a smile. Schlabrendorff made his way to the nearby railroad exchange, and there caught a night train to Berlin.

Once in his sleeper compartment, he locked the door and very cautiously, with a razor blade, excised the failed detonator from the explosive charge and started disassembling it.

As it turned out, the glass was broken, the wire had been eaten through despite the cold, and the striker had been released.

Only the percussion cap, for the first time ever in all their experience, had failed to fire.

The English school children’s rhyme of old comes to mind:

For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost,
for want of a horseshoe a horse went lame,
for want of a horse a rider never got through,
for want of a rider a message never arrived,
for want of a message an army was never sent,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle a war was lost,
for want of a war a kingdom fell,
and all for want of a nail.

Or “all for the want of a percussion cap”, the war dragged on for two more years and many millions more were slain.

[*] Update: according to “Guarding Hitler” by Mark Felton, the second plane was also a Condor, but without the armored compartment (12mm steel, 50mm bulletproof glass) and parachute seat for the Führer.

Apparently, the first plane was taken up for a 10- or 15-minute test flight before every trip with the Führer. This would also have set off any bomb with a barometric fuse, had one been smuggled aboard.

[**] Note about ranks: Both Tresckow and Gersdorff’s formal ranks were Oberst i. G., in full Oberst im Generalstabsdienst: Colonel in General Staff service. I have rendered this as Col. (GS). Permanent assignment to the general staff was indicated by red vertical trouser stripes (“Lampassen”) in the uniform.

Bavarian Landtag (state parliament) elections 2018: “Wir haben es kaum geschafft” (we barely made it)

Last Sunday, Bavarians went to the polls for their regional/state parliament (the Landtag). These elections were seen by some as a referendum on federal chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy. The CSU (=Christian-social union), the sister party to the national CDU (=Christian-democratic union) felt the stridently anti-immigration AfD breathing down its neck and distanced itself from her. Did this tactic work?

Summarizing reporting at the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Die Welt, Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel online, and the national newscast “Tagesschau”, here are the results:

CSU: 37.2% (down 10.5) [christian social democrats]
SPD: 9.7% (down 10.9) [social democrats, center-left]
FDP: 5.1 (up 1.8%) [classical liberals, pro-market & business]
Greens: 17.5% (up 8.9%)
Freie Wähler: 11.6% (up 2.6%) “Free Voters”, centrist, non-aligned
AfD: 10.2% (from nowhere) right-wing, stridently anti-immigration

The “former” communists of Die Linke (3.2%, up 1.1%, hard left), and further small parties totaling 5.4%, did not clear the 5% electoral threshold, unlike the FDP which returns to parliament after falling short of the threshold last time around.

Landtag seats (out of 205, 103 needed for a majority):
CSU 85, Greens 38, Free Voters 27, AfD 22, SPD 22, FDP 11

Coalition negotiations have already started with the Free Voters, which would create a somewhat comfortable majority of 112. The FDP announced it will remain in the opposition: the Greens are in Germany traditionally split between a pragmatic “Realo” and hardcore “Fundi” wing, while the AfD, especially in Bavaria, is split between a national-liberal wing akin to Belgium’s N-VA, and a far-rightist faction with some unsavory elements.

The Biggest Losers

The CSU actually put in its worst performance in 60 years. Some (e.g. veteran psephologist Heinrich Oberreuter, himself a CSU member, quoted here) claim that this means the strategy of trying to position itself as AfD-lite on immigration backfired, while others claim it prevented an even bigger drubbing. The actual numbers (screenshots from the Tagesschau) seem to tell a mixed tale:

CSU voter movement

So the party actually drew 270,000 voters who did not vote in the previous election (voter participation, at 72.5%, was nearly 9% higher than in 2013), plus 100,000 SPD voters, while losing almost half a million voters split roughly equally between Greens, Free Voters, and AfD. One common complaint (70%) of those who changed their vote was that the CSU overstressed immigration to the exclusion of all other subjects.

But if the CSU saw a historical nadir, the SPD — the other major national party besides the CDU, and the country’s largest under Willi Brandt and Gerhard Schröder — is even deeper in the doldrums, having fallen to single digits! Where did they lose votes to?

SPD voter migration

Aside from the 100,000 who switched to the CDU, they lost big time to the Greens (200,000) and appreciably to the Free Voters (70,000) — but 30,000 even flipped to AfD!

When defectors were queried about their motives, three answers were gotten most frequently:

• 86%: time to “take the opposition cure”, as the priceless Dutch expression goes

• 85%: party lacks a central theme that can get people fired up

• 67%: nobody knows what the party really stands for

The latter is, of course, the most damning indictment of all.

In two weeks, there is another Landtag election coming up in the state of Hessen (the most important city of which is Frankfurt, though Wiesbaden is the state capital).

Angela Merkel’s words, “Wir schaffen das” (we can do this), have come to haunt her. Here in Bavaria, where the CSU went out of its way to show it wasn’t in Merkel’s pocket, the result was “sie haben es kaum geschafft” (they barely made it).