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David Goode continues his new series of the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach, played 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.
Fantasia in G minor BWV542
Bach’s Fantasia in G minor, BWV542, is rightly famous as a dazzling yet serious work. Bach takes the North German model and stretches it, creating a large canvas full of harmonically-daring writing. There are two contrasting elements traceable through the Fantasia: virtuosic, stormy, recitatives over a static pedal; and rhythmically-disciplined counterpoint over descending bass lines that project a more melancholy affect. The Fantasia appears to be an exercise in resolving diminished sevenths, resulting in many powerful harmonic twists and unexpected shifts between minor triads. In addition, the idea of extremity is explored, whether of register (the high D in the manuals), of key (E flat minor), or of chromatic sequence. This disc separates the Fantasia from the Fugue, filling the gap with other pieces to create a possible model for an organ recital as may have been conceived by Bach.
Chorale Preludes on ‘Allein Gott in de Höh’ sei Ehr’’ BWV717, 711, 715
BWV717, 711 and 715 set the chorale melody ‘Allein Gott in de Höh’ sei Ehr’’ which is a German setting of the original Latin Gloria. Its frequent employment as the basis of settings by Bach and other composers reflect the fact that it would have been sung in Lutheran churches every Sunday. BWV717 is a playful setting of the chorale, with a gently joyful affect, generated by the 12/8 compound time signature that elicits gentle quavers to accompany the chorale which is played steadily at the top of the texture. Motivic integration is achieved through the influence of the chorale’s melodic shapes on the accompaniment, an imitative two-part texture. This texture produces some particularly beautiful sequences, especially in the second section of the setting.
BWV711 presents the chorale in the form of a ‘bicinium’—a two-part setting with an energetic and repetitive bass line. The characterful left hand in semiquavers, full of leaps and runs, echoes similar basso continuo lines in the Cantatas and Passions. There is nice detail in the second half of the setting that is perhaps inspired by the text which speaks of ‘Gott in der Höh’’ (‘God in the height’), where the left hand rises in sequence up to the pitch level of the right hand’s chorale in the second half (a D).
BWV715 is remarkable for its harmonic daring and spectacular runs: just as with BWV726 on this disc, this setting of ‘Allein Gott’ presents the chorale in homophony, with quasi-improvised passages that connect the phrases. The affect achieved is one of grandeur and glorious complexity.
Toccata and Fugue in F major BWV540
The F major Toccata and Fugue BWV540 is extraordinary, taking the toccata model and enlarging it to striking proportions, on many levels. First, the level of textural variety: the famous canonic semiquaver texture heard at the start in the manual over a static pedal; trio sections; pedal solos; rhetorical cadences. Then on the level of technical requirement and virtuosic showcasing: two long, dazzlingly virtuosic pedal solos. Also of structural length: a massive AAB structure, with the B section containing multiple repeating elements. Yet this complexity in extremis masks a simplicity that is reflected by the spinning repetitions of the opening imitative phrase that profiles a simple rising sequence, and a playfulness highlighted by the Toccata’s containing elements of a Giga.
The Fugue is a complete contrast. As with other giants of the toccata and fugue genres, the coupling is not necessarily authentic. The Toccata’s improvisatory style, marked by a showcase of virtuosity, is replaced by a contrapuntal strictness in the form of a double fugue. The two subjects themselves contrast nicely—the first in a stile antico, thoughtful, conjunct, in regular note values; the second syncopated and disjunct.
Fantasia in C minor BWV1121
Bach’s Fantasia in C minor, BWV1121, is a beautifully crafted miniature. Contrapuntal, it has been dated to Bach’s Weimar period, and models a Fantasia manualiter style that bears a similarity to others in Bach’s corpus, such as the Fantasia in B minor BWV563. BWV1121 shares with BWV563 a sectional structure and a concentrated motivic texture, though it is smaller in scope and, unlike BWV563, can be played entirely by the hands. The structure is characterised by short phrases with frequent introduction of new motives, often at the top of the texture, coloured early on by the seeds of chromaticism; these come full flower in a satisfying final coda section marked by a change of metre after a striking interrupted cadence.
O Gott du frommer Gott BWV767
Bach’s chorale partita on ‘O Gott du frommer Gott’ is typical of his working with the genre, both developing the various harmonic and motivic implications of the chorale, and showcasing the multifarious soundworld of the organ. BWV767 has the chorale followed by eight variations (Partitas). Each variation explores a single dominant motivic idea and accompanying affect.
The chorale (Partita I) is set in C minor and given a dense texture, in five parts, perhaps suggesting the rock-solid character of God to which the text refers. Partita II features dactylic (long-short-short) figurations, giving way to semiquavers in the left hand. The chorale melody is in the right hand, with the structure reflecting the ABA of chorale. Partita III profiles suspirans figures, the short musical figure that starts with a small rest. In this movement the two hands are given equal weight, though there is a brief introduction of chromatic movement in the left hand. Partita IV has a violinistic right hand over an octave harmonic foundation in the left hand: a perpetuum mobile. Partita V is given in 3-part counterpoint with running scalic figures, and Partita VI features syncopated rhythms in the left hand that jump around, building on the octave figurations of the previous partita. Partita VI evens out the rhythm with running quavers, before the earlier chromatic inflections turn full flower into ascending passus duriusculus—rising chromatic fourths—in Partita VII. The chromaticisms allow for the flat side of the circle of fifths to be explored more fully—E flat minor. The final partita, IX, exploits manual changes, giving a concerto feel, with dynamic and tempo changes marked. Thus, the eight variations profile a catalogue of stylistic, rhythmic, and musical effects that reveal Bach’s creative genius in extracting maximum stylistic variety from a single chorale.
Little Fugue in G minor BWV578
The Fugue in G minor, BWV578, is sometimes called the ‘Little’ G minor Fugue, to differentiate it from its more famous cousin, BWV542. Yet this is misleading; BWV578, though shorter than BWV542, is still grandly conceived. The subject is long, highly melodic, and given rhythmic variety: it moves from slow to fast note values. Even the key—G minor—seems to be driven home with more weight than might usually be found in a short fugue: the home key—G minor—is emphasised by an unusual additional tonic entry of the subject at the end of the Fugue’s first section. Yet the Fugue’s weightiness is balanced by a playful quality to the style, compelled by harmonic strength that underpins lyrical counterpoint, a reason that has guaranteed its success in an orchestration by Leopold Stowkowski.
Prelude and Fugue in C major BWV545
The spacious opening of the Prelude, BWV545, with its slowly unfolding suspensions and expressive dissonances, is an example of durezza. The opening section, with slow downward scales embellished with the right hand’s suspensions, against imitative descending figures in the left hand and pedals, leads to a ritornello figure. This is repeated later in the Dominant; the opening suspensions are repeated at the close.
In the Fugue, the entries and episodes seem to run into one another; a mark of the compact nature of the subject, and its pervasive influence on the countersubject. Bach spins a typically expressive and, at the close, majestic affect from a subject marked by melodic simplicity—an ascent of a perfect fourth mirrored by a syncopated descent. The two final entries, in pedals and manuals, of the Fugue sound stately, with the pedal entry on the low C introduced by downward semiquaver flourishes in the right hand.
Chorale Preludes on ‘Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend’ BWV709, 726
These two preludes on the chorale ‘Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend’, BWV709 and 726, represent two different approaches Bach took in varying and embellishing the chorale, both represented elsewhere. BWV709 turns the chorale into a fullblown prelude. Similar in working to many of the Orgelbüchlein preludes, it is marked by the influence of a dominant rhythmic motif: an anapaest (short-short-long) with a little turn in which it is tempting to see the influence of the chorale’s text (‘Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend’—‘Lord Jesus Christ, turn toward us’).
BWV726 sets the chorale in its original homophony, with glittering passagework linking the phrases. Reminiscent of other similar settings (most famously perhaps, ‘In dulci Jubilo’, BWV729), it is fascinating to speculate its original intended function—were such pieces aimed at showcasing Bach’s improvisatory gifts, perhaps in the chorale’s playover? Or were they used as aids to congregational worship?
Fugue in G minor BWV542
The Fugue BWV542, though now invariably paired with the Fantasia BWV542, was probably not intended as its companion. Nevertheless, as with many such pairings, there is plenty of musical complementarity between them to justify them being played together. There is some evidence that the Fugue originated as an audition piece for Bach’s 1720 application to the post of organist at Hamburg’s Jakobikirche, and scholars cite the Fugue’s catchy subject as a originally a Dutch folk tune. Bach’s lengthy working out of the subject’s potential is masterful, resulting in a surprising variety of textures akin to an Italian concerto movement—dense four-part invertible counterpoint; soloistic two-part violinistic writing; witty three-part semiquaver homophony; imitative false entries over a dominant pedal; all preceding a dramatically spun-out and splendid final cadence.
George Parsons © 2016
Signum Classics © 2016