Composers Datebook®

Ron Nelson's Bach Tribute

Composer's Datebook - March 21, 2022


One of the most serious – and daunting – of musical forms is the passacaglia, in which an unchanging melodic pattern repeats itself while other lines of melody offer elaboration and counterpoint to the unwavering tread of the repeated motive.  The result tends to be deliberate, somber, and imposing. The most famous passacaglia in all of Western classical music is the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday we observe on today’s date.

After Bach’s high-water mark, it takes more than a little courage for modern composers to tackle this form.  One of those brave souls who tried – and succeeded – is the American composer Ron Nelson.

Nelson’s “Passacaglia, “subtitled “Homage on B-A-C-H” utilizes the melodic motive represented in German musical nomenclature by B-flat, A, C, and B natural – in German B natural being represented by the letter H).   Nelson’s wind band Passacaglia was was commissioned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 1992.  It didn’t prove an easy task, recalls Nelson:  “It evolved very slowly … The trick was … to make it seamless and inexorable.  Of all my compositions, this is the tightest. I cannot imagine changing one note.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Ron Nelson (b. 1929) — Passacaglia (Dallas Wind Symphony;Ron Nelson, cond.) Reference Recordings RR-76

On This Day


  • 1685 - German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach, in Eisenach;

  • 1839 - Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, in Karevo, Pskov district (Julian date: March 9);


  • 1934 - German composer Franz Schreker, age 55, in Berlin;

  • 1936 - Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, age 70, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France;


  • 1826 - Beethoven: String Quartet in Bb, Op. 130, in Vienna, by the Schuppanzigh Quartet;

  • 1839 - Schubert: "Great" Symphony in C (old No. 9, now No. "7"), in a posthumous, heavily cut premiere performance by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn;

  • 1860 - Brahms: Ballads Nos. 2-3, from Op. 10, for piano, in Vienna;

  • 1904 - R. Strauss: "Sinfonia domestica," at Carnegie Hall in New York, with Strauss conducting;

  • 1918 - Stravinsky: "Ragtime" for Eleven Instruments, in Morges;

  • 1925 - Ravel: opera "L'enfant et les sortiléges" (The Child and the Spells), in Monte Carlo at the Grand Théatre;

  • 1971 - William Mayer: "Octagon" for piano and orchestra, in New York City, by the American Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting, with William Masselos, piano;

  • 1972 - David Amram: Bassoon Concerto, in Washington, DC, by the National Symphony, Antal Dorati conducting, with Kenneth Pasmanick the soloist.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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