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A grand new series on Signum will present the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach in crystal performances from David Goode on the 1976 Metzler organ of Trinity College Cambridge.
‘The Complete Organ Works of Bach’
Given that strong foundation, it is no surprise that organ music flowed from Bach’s pen throughout his life. Yet how do Bach’s organ works cohere? For the monolithic notion of ‘The Complete Organ Works of Bach’ is misleading. The picture is more fluid, even unclear, both as to the veracity of individual works and of their particular chronology. The impression is of a combination of works that have reached us in their present form through an often uncertain process of revision and collection (such as the Six Sonatas, BWV525–530) and those with a more definite origin and/or date, such as Clavierübung III, which was published in 1739. Even a collection with a clear didactic purpose that is apparently easy to date like the Orgelbüchlein, BWV599–644 (its title page is dated to 1722 or 1723) can remain opaque in the chronology and detail of its contents: the title page was added later than the chorales it contains. Many of the preludes and fugues do not exist in autograph form, a fact that in most cases does not affect the question of authorship as much as that of the date of composition, although the authorship of some organ works previously assumed to have been by Bach have been called into question, like the Eight Short Preludes and Fugues, BWV553–560. Others are easier by virtue of their singularity either to ascribe authorship to, such as the Passacaglia, BWV582, or to date, such as the Concerto Transcriptions, BWV592–596, which are from Bach’s Weimar years. However, the fluidity of the corpus is not as interesting—or as significant—as the stylistic and generic variety it exhibits.
Genres, Styles and Influences
Bach’s organ works are characterised, typically for the composer, by a multiplicity of genres and stylistic influences. Broadly they can be categorised into five areas, though inevitably these overlap: chorale-based works (preludes, partitas, variations, trios); the Six Sonatas; preludes/toccatas/fantasias (including the Passacaglia) and fugues (paired together, and single); transcriptions of works by other composers (concertos, trios, etc.); miscellaneous works (Allabreve, Canzona, Pièce d’orgue, etc.). Williams catalogues the multifarious stylistic influences on Bach’s organ works. Many of these are traceable to other contemporary German organ composers whose compositional style Bach would almost certainly have known. As Williams states, these would have included Pachelbel, Böhm, Buxtehude, Bruhns, Reinken, Kerl and Froberger. Bach’s organ works also frequently betray a French influence, both specifically, such as in the famous example of the Passacaglia, BWV582, the first half of whose main theme originates in a piece by Raison, and more generically, such as in the C minor Fantasia, BWV562 with its stylistic debt to French composers such as de Grigny. In addition, an Italian influence is often felt in the manual writing across-the-board from the quasi-string writing in the Six Sonatas to the tripartite Toccata in C, BWV564 via the Frescobaldian Canzona, BWV588 and Corellian Allabreve, BWV589.
As the above discussion suggests, it is not surprising that many of the exact original purposes for the organ works remain unknown, though in general terms the following categories of use can be discerned: liturgical (many, if not most, of the chorales and chorale preludes; some of the prelude/toccata and fugue pairs); didactic (the Six Sonatas; the Orgelbüchlein); stylistic assimilation (the concerto transcriptions; some toccatas and fantasias; Legrenzi and Corelli Fugues). In addition, collections such as Clavierübung III and perhaps the Schübler Chorales had a purpose that transcended their immediate utility: the desire to offer a musical-theological compendium (Clavierübung III), or leave a musical legacy (Schübler Chorales).
A Note on Current Bach Scholarship
Such is the scope of Bach’s organ works. But how have they been covered in the literature? There is a fascinating dialectic evident in current Bach studies more broadly between a hermeneutic taken up with purely musical concerns for Bach’s works, and a broader analytical approach to his music that seeks to contextualize Bach’s contrapuntal, figurative and harmonic peculiarities and complexities within a much broader framework involving contemporary theology, aesthetics, philosophy, and science. Assessing these different approaches to Bach’s music is difficult, as the results are inevitably mixed. On the one hand, there is a need to maintain a degree of musical integrity by allowing the musical features of Bach’s compositions to come first in any attempt to understand them. Thus, some of the least convincing musical-analytical work done from the contextual side arises from an approach to Bach’s music that is too superficial. On the other hand, there is a sense in some of the ‘music-only’ approaches that any recourse to relevant external and contextual questions ought to be dismissed out of hand when clearly such factors occasionally—perhaps often—played a legitimate role in Bach’s compositional process. The ideal, then, seems to be to take an approach to describing Bach’s organ music that both honours the music itself whilst allowing for wider contextual questions to shape one’s thinking as appropriate, perhaps on a piece-by-piece basis. With that in mind, there seem to be two broad extra-musical contexts of particular relevance to the organ music of Bach in which purely musical observations can be worked out. These are theology, and aesthetics.
Peter Williams highlights a conundrum that needs tackling if one is to think theologically about Bach’s organ music, namely the tension that exists between Bach’s stated theological intention in composition (most famously revealed in the composer’s signature ‘S.D.G.’—‘Soli Deo Gloria’ (To God Alone Be Glory)—that has been found on some of Bach’s manuscripts, penned after the final bars) and the apparent self-interestedness of much of Bach’s music. The key that unlocks this dilemma is the observation made by John Butt, that for Bach, as for other Lutherans, music was intrinsically of eternal value. We can be more specific and outline two ways in which the inherent theological nature of music, as it was understood, appears to have influenced the music Bach actually wrote.
1) Music as Theological Metaphor
A theological idea that was found in the Leipzig circles in which Bach moved in the 1740s was that God’s beauty can be conceived conceptually as a type of harmonia:
God is a harmonic being. All harmony originates from his wise order and organization…Where there is no conformity, there is also no order, no beauty, and no perfection. For beauty and perfection consists in the conformity of diversity.
This fundamental idea of God’s beauty as expressed in His unity-in-diversity immediately invites the metaphorical projection of this concept onto His creation: His beauty is expressed though His creation via the same aesthetic of unity-in-diversity. While criticisms have been levelled at this definition of beauty when held as an absolute value, as an explanation of Bach’s contrapuntal practice it is highly suggestive. This desire for art to imitate nature in its perfection motivated Bach’s musical project throughout his career and is particularly evident in his treatment of counterpoint: ‘[c]haracteristic of Bach’s manner of composing is a way of elaborating the musical ideas so as to penetrate the material deeply and exhaustively.’ Bach’s maximization of thematic coherence, harmonic richness, and contrapuntal complexity can be thus understood as having a theological rationale. This rationale perhaps best fits the music with which there is no accompanying text to direct one’s interpretation of the musical figures, and is particularly relevant in grasping the aesthetic behind specifically contrapuntal projects like The Art of Fugue.
2) Music designed to move the Affections towards God
Ever since the discovery of Bach’s personal Bible commentary, the so-called ‘Calov Bible’, it has often been noted that Bach’s music appears to have been intended as an expression of a specifically, and personally-held, Lutheran faith. The implications of this in seeking an informed speculation of Bach’s theological views of music are significant. For the indications in Luther’s writings are not only that he saw music as inherently theological on a number of different levels, but specifically that he saw music as having a role in moving the believer’s affections towards God, and thus an ability to strengthen the believer’s faith in Christ. Combining this insight with the commonly-observed (though not unchallenged) evidence of the Baroque Affektenlehre (or ‘Doctrine of the Affections’) in Bach’s music, it can be seen how often Bach’s sacred music (chorale-based or liturgically-intended; often both) makes its spiritual utility felt through its projection of a relevant and (sometimes) dominant affekt. This primary affekt is then projected through the musical material, itself often consisting of harmonic and motivic workings-out of a single inventio, or dominant musical figure. In the organ music, this notion is perhaps most useful in approaching the chorale preludes—a genre that covers many of the organ works—where in many cases the background text, where clear, often illuminates both the general affekt of a given prelude, and the specificity of particular harmonies and figurations that have been chosen to illustrate it.
Conclusion – Bach, Beauty and Belief
Although the label of ‘The Complete Organ Works of Bach’ for the corpus is a misnomer, there are still many varied ways in which to view it coherently; theological aesthetics is just one example. Theology and aesthetics combine throughout Bach’s organ music, uniting them as works that project a Christian Lutheran worldview through their specifically musical beauty. In this they serve as exemplars of the theology of another towering eighteenth-century Christian intellect, whose published thought also combined beauty and belief with an emphasis on the affections of the believer: the American pastor Jonathan Edwards, with whom Bach has once been compared. Edwards placed the affections-of-the-heart at the centre of his definition of genuine Christian experience, and thus taught that moving them God-ward was the primary aim of any means of grace in the church, whether preaching or music. As examples of Edward’s affection-driven theology in practice, the organ works of Bach clearly cohere in their common ability to promote both belief and beauty, or perhaps more accurately, belief through beauty.
Toccata & Fugue in D minor BWV565
Although the most well-known of Bach’s organ works, as well as the most frequently transcribed for other instrumental forces, the authenticity of BWV565 as we now have it has been persuasively contested. It seems unlikely that the work was written originally for organ, that it was originally by J.S. Bach, or that it was given originally in its traditional key of D minor. Peter Williams demonstrates that a better fit for much of the keyboard writing of the work is string music, suggesting that it is probably an organ transcription of a violin work. Whatever the truth of its genesis, however, the fact remains that in the popular imagination BWV565 is pre-eminently emblematic of Bach’s organ music. The famous octave figures at the opening give way to a short toccata, dominated by arpeggiations. The Fugue, initially more leisurely in feel, is also characterised by harmonically straightforward quasi-string writing, ending with famous dazzling passagework and (uncharacteristically) a plagal minor cadence. There is much thematic linkage between Toccata and Fugue, for example the openings of both feature the descending scale from the dominant to the tonic.
Sonata No 1 in E flat BWV525
The Six Sonatas date from c.1730 and were probably written as practice music for J.S. Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann. They show some Italian influence but do not represent new works: some movements of the Sonatas are revisions of earlier versions. The first Sonata, in E flat, not necessarily intended as the first in the set, probably contains only one movement (the middle) that was composed new. The first movement opens with a motive built from an initial rising triad, repeated throughout. The slow Adagio movement is, like the first, set in a plain binary form. Its attractive opening melody features a falling triad shape that nearly—and neatly—mirrors the opening motive of the first movement. The third movement, an Allegro, is also cast in a binary form. Its solid opening scalic figurations balance the triadic shapes of the first two movements, but soon give way to energetic semiquavers.
Pièce d’orgue (‘Fantasia’) in G major BWV572
The title of the work highlights its French influence, although its exact wording is not commonly found in French music. The Pièce is in three sections, possibly linked by a common pulse; each is unique and each pursuing a single musical feature. The first is dominated by an insistent semiquaver figure, developed into virtuoso scales played solely on manuals and in a dancing compound time; the second by a gravement quality that is marked by a dense counterpoint and a deftly managed harmonic scheme based on rising scales in the pedal; the third a passaggio that traces broken chords heavily laden with dissonant passing notes. Its tripartite division has given rise to a popularly-held view that Christian Trinitarian symbolism is intended; yet though suggestive because of some musical features (the Holy Spirit’s ‘rushing wind’ of the third section seems the most appropriate designation) such an intention is impossible to prove.
Six Schübler Chorales BWV645–650
The six Schübler Chorales date from the end of Bach’s life, from between 1746 and 1750. Five of the six are transcriptions of earlier cantata movements, but their purpose as a collection is unclear: the title-page tells nothing more than that the collection was published by Johann Georg Schübler at Zella. More recent scholarship has highlighted the evidence of thoughtful planning in the key structure of the set, as well as the theological thematic connections present between the implied texts of the chorales. The six Chorales are clearly organised carefully, with the three minor-key settings being framed by the three in major keys. Further, the key relationships among the six Chorales are connective: the two inner pairs projecting four keys, each related by a minor 6th interval—E minor/C minor and D minor/B flat major—with the framing two settings presenting keys related by its inversion, a major 3rd—E flat major and G major. One perplexity of the cycle is why Bach substituted the original cantata text of the final chorale (‘Lobe den Herren’) with a different text for its title (‘Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter’). Albert Clement finds a reason in that the new text more neatly fits with the eschatological theme of the first chorale of the collection, thus giving a theological bookend of the second coming of Christ. It has been suggested that, in fact, this theme is common to all the texts of the set, an insight that finds Clement theorizing that Bach’s intention in assembling the six Chorales was to not only to create a musical legacy, but also to preserve his spiritual legacy: the collection may represent an effort by the composer to prepare for his own impending death.
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV645
‘Wachet auf’ is a transcription of a movement from Cantata 140. The cantata movement sets the text of verse 2 of the chorale, given in the left hand in the organ setting, and an analysis of Bach’s text-setting is revealing, illuminating some of Bach’s musical choices. The famous anapaest (short-short-long) rhythm of the opening of ‘Wachet auf’ derives from an embellishment to the chorale melody heard in the original cantata version on the word ‘springen’ (leap)—and suggests the joy of the watchmen at the coming of Christ, that forms the subject of the verse.
Wo soll ich fliehen hin/Auf meinen lieben Gott BWV646
This is the only Schübler not to derive from an original cantata movement. The two titles are Bach’s and reflect a common pairing in Thuringia, the geographical region from which Bach’s family originated, though it is the first title that, pictorially, is most clearly suggested by the musical figures used. The opening seven-note semiquaver figure surely denotes ‘fliehen’ (fly/flee), as does the fact that in the initial episode the left hand literally ‘flies after’ the right in exact imitation. The chorale here is given in the pedal, with the left hand suggesting a basso continuo role.
Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten BWV647
The third chorale, in C minor, takes a movement from Cantata 93 of the same name which sets verse 4 of the chorale text. The text highlights one word, ‘Freuden’ (Joy), projecting it as the movement’s dominant affect, a fact perhaps reflected in the opening dactyl (long-short-short) figure, heard in the organ version at the outset in the left hand, and which saturates the texture throughout. The chorale melody can be heard in the pedal.
Meine Seele erhebt den Herren BWV648
The fourth Schübler sets a chorale from Cantata 10, which is based on the text of the Magnificat. The chorale—the tonus peregrinus—is given in the right hand, and results in a setting that, with its sometimes awkward spacings in the left hand, requires imaginative dexterity by the player. The opening pedal motive traces a chromatic fourth, hinting at a darker affect than the text might suggest, yet which is rendered less obviously chromatic in its original (cantata) form. Keller suggests that the head motive of BWV648 is symbolic of bowing, and thus of the humility found in the Magnificat’s text.
Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ BWV649
The B flat chorale ‘Ach bleib bei uns’ sets a movement of Cantata 6 with the chorale in the right hand, whose text is a prayer for Christ to stay present with the believer through the ‘helle Licht’ (bright light) of his Word as the darkness of evening approaches, a reference to the Biblical account of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:29). This ‘brightness’ of God’s Word is perhaps the idea that lies behind the characteristic semiquaver passagework, heard in the left hand throughout, that betrays the setting’s origin as string music and that gives it its dominant character.
Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter BWV650
The final chorale, a trio G major setting in 9/8 with the chorale in the pedal, sets a movement of Cantata 137. As mentioned above, in its original version the cantata text is different from that of Bach’s Schübler title, a change that creates a theological symmetry with the opening Schübler chorale, ‘Wachet auf’, which like ‘Kommst du nun’ is also an Advent text. In the original cantata movement, the text highlights the providential directing of God for the believer, His leading on ‘eagle’s wings’, perhaps an image that explains the characteristic semiquaver figures at the start of the piece.
‘Little’ E minor Prelude and Fugue BWV533
The Prelude and Fugue, BWV533 is not to be confused with its longer and more substantial cousin, BWV548. The opening improvisatory section of the Prelude explores the tonality of E minor and is followed by a main section that is full of short gestures, many derived from diminished seventh chords. Its middle is an attractive dialogue between manuals and pedals, reminiscent of Buxtehude and full of suspensions and pedal runs. The highly-wrought harmony of the Prelude is balanced with the cleaner counterpoint of the Fugue, whose subject is characterised by a simple repeating one-note gesture.
Herzlich thut mich verlangen BWV727
This little prelude, based on the famous chorale often used in Bach’s Passion settings in which the believer prays for a peaceful death after the trials of earthly life, is beautifully simple. The text of this chorale often drew from Bach startlingly original harmonies; yet in this case the harmonic surprises are more subtle—for example mixing D major and B minor in the opening phrase to allow the chorale to start with, essentially, an interrupted cadence. The melody is given expressive—even yearning—treatment above straightforward harmony, interspersed with expressive gestures such as the accented passing notes, octave leaps and rising chromatic lines of the pedal.
In dich hab’ ich gehoffet, Herr BWV712
This manualiter chorale is like BWV727 in its expression of faith in God during personal suffering, but is given an opposite character, perhaps animated by the Hoffnung (hope) of the text’s opening line. It is dominated by a lively affect, propelled forward by a 12/8 time signature and initial anacrusis. The exclusively quaver figurations of the first half are balanced by the introduction of semiquaver figures in the second.
Prelude & Fugue in C minor BWV546
The Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV546 is possibly a Leipzig work; yet it is often noted that there is a stylistic discrepancy between the Prelude and the Fugue that hints at two separate origins, with the Prelude representing a later date. The Prelude is in an Italian concerto ritornello form, although as Williams notes, the opening only returns in its full form at the end. It is a substantial piece, with a dominant tragicus affect, suggested by granite-block chords, twisting diminished harmonies above long tonic-pedal notes, and dramatic Neapolitan sixths. The Prelude is characterised by a rhythmic subtlety, the episodes driven forward by triplets that form a countersubject to a strikingly simple scalic motive. The Fugue, with its contrasted character, suggests an earlier date of conception; some of its more wayward episodic writing is uncharacteristic of Bach and has given rise to suggestions that it may be the work of other composers. Yet, for all its balancing contrast, from its subject onwards there are notable similarities that explain its pairing with the Prelude: the scalic emphasis of the subject, and its outline in bar 3 of a diminished seventh. Initial crotchet movement gives way to flowing quavers that soon dominate, with the final bars reaching the heights of intensity and expression found in the Prelude.
George Parsons © 2015