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The fourth volume in David Goode's Bach compendium brings us the Leipzig Chorales, once more recorded in the chapel 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.
The Eighteen Chorales from the Leipzig Manuscript
‘With the possible exception of the Well-Tempered Clavier, The Great Eighteen chorales are the most diverse collection of pieces Bach ever wrote’. So says Russell Stinson, author of a useful book on the Eighteen (Stinson 2001 p. 3). This quote brings out something of the dual nature of the Eighteen, a duality that gets to the heart of some of the problems and issues surrounding trying to provide an accurate introduction to the collection. It is, certainly, a collection, and the sources we have for it reflect this: a collection of chorales that are later (Leipzig) revisions of earlier (Weimar) settings. Yet, it is also ‘diverse’, in ways that not only underscore its unity as a collection, but also threaten it. Yes, there is much in the ‘Eighteen’ that is typical of a Bach collection: a diversity of styles and completeness of reference, hinting at the composer’s desire to deal comprehensively with a genre in published form, much as he had done with the more liturgically-organised Clavierübung III. But there is also a debate as to whether the ‘Eighteen’ as such were ever intended by Bach to be published as such, or whether the collection as we have it is merely a ‘miscellany’ chorale arrangements whose ultimate destiny was thwarted by the composer’s death in 1750. This is mostly due to the chief manuscript source, so-called P 271, which contains fifteen of the chorales (BWV651–665) in autograph hand, and, separately, two additional chorales (BWV666 and 667) copied by Bach’s son-in-law Altnickol. The final chorale (‘Von deinen Thron’) follows, only incomplete. Further, a title-page suggests an original design of seventeen chorales, a title later changed to eighteen. Thus, it is not clear that the chorales as we have them reflect versions, or a collection, that was complete or in a final form intended for publication.
However, the Eighteen as we have them do exhibit qualities as a set that suggested a degree of pre-meditated organization. The final chorale apart, chorales one and seventeen (651 and 667) form a theological book-end, with reference to the Holy Spirit. The chorales all have enough common musical features to suggest intent: for the most-part chorale preludes that preserve the structure of the chorale, with long interludes in between the chants, with a common texture (chorale plus 3 parts). But there is also a seemingly deliberate mixing of chorale-prelude forms to highlight variety: (chorale trios, chorale motets, chorale partitas, ornamental chorales). As such, the collection seems to be a statement deliberately summarizing—yet surpassing?—the entire North German school of chorale composition, referencing as it does the chorales of the same name by Buxtehude (659), Böhm (659), Krebs (659, 655), Reinken (653), and Pachelbel (656). Further, there are obvious references to the number 3 throughout: 3 settings of both Allein Gott and Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland; 3 sarabandes; 3 Agnus Dei settings; 3 Communion hymns; 3 preludes marked organo pleno; keys in 3 sharps and 3 flats (see Williams 2003 p. 340). Indeed, the keys of the collection also highlight a unity, seeming to circulate round G major, with three flats (654) balanced by 3 sharps (656), and the three G minor settings both providing a connection for the more distant F minor (658) and providing a foil for the G major-emphasis in line with the greater variety of flat keys through the collection.
Komm Heiliger Geist BWV651
The first prelude of the set is a wonderful opening statement, a fast whirlwind fantasia in organo pleno, with the chorale melody given in the pedals below semiquavers in the manuals that play lengthy episodes between the statements of the chorale. There is an unmistakable link to the theme of Pentecost suggested by music that seems to depict the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit, although no link to Acts 2 is made in the actual chorale text. Rather, the images in the chorale text of ‘brünstig Lieb’ (‘ardent love’) and the ‘Glanz’ (‘brilliance’) of the light of faith found in the gathered people of God provide other possible starting points for the writing.
Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott BWV652
This is a deeply contrasted setting from BWV651, encapsulating a different angle on the text. The prelude contains very regular structures: the episodes follow exactly the eight phrases of the chorale, and each is patterned the same way, with the same order of entries. Then end breaks the pattern and is striking for its freedom: instead of following the phrases of the chorale exactly, Bach amalgamates the final two ‘Hallelujah’ phrases into one phrase. It is tempting to interpret this in the light of the theology of Pentecost, joy and freedom coming only after the influence of the Spirit.
An Wasserflüssen Babylon BWV653
The chorale melody is heard in the tenor, with two accompanying parts that weave a counterpoint based on the first two phrases of the chorale, even combining them near the end, giving the effect of integration. The text is a setting of Psalm 137; though the music doesn’t reflect the angst of the psalm, as much as peaceful calm. There are some striking dissonances heard associated with the lines of text that speak of the suffering of God’s people.
An Wasserflüssen Babylon BWV653b
The second setting of the chorale features a double pedal—like the prelude ‘Aus tiefer Not’ (BWV686) in Clavierübung III—yet with a different affect: richness and completeness, rather than gravitas. There is tight contrapuntal weaving of the first two phrases of the chorale in the accompanying voices and a striking accented passing note near the end (‘there we had to suffer much’).
Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV654
The counterpoint of the accompaniment shadows the phrases of the chorale in the right hand, and the affect is a hopeful optimism that the believer will ‘lass die dunkle Sündenhöhle’ (‘leave the dark cavern of sin’). The feel is dance-like, in the manner of a sarabande, and there is beauty in the unexpected harmonic twists—the cadences onto the relative minor—as well as in the integrity of the counterpoint, densely woven from the chorale, and the subtle ornamentation of the RH’s chorale melody.
Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV655
Bach sets BWV655 as a chorale trio. The text provides a musical stimulus to the wring: ‘wend’ (‘turn’)—reflected in the turning of the head motif, turning back to a B—in fact the whole prelude is marked by the turning motif, in fast and shorter note values. An unexpected masterstroke is that the chorale melody heard in toto in the pedal on the final two pages, perhaps highlighting the purpose of the trio music to stand separate from the chorale, to comment on it. Note the unexpected final cadence, which turns (again!) to C major, before the final cadence on G.
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig BWV656
Note the emphasis on the number 3 in this prelude—3 sharps, 3 verses, 3 sections, 3 time (split between divided in two and three). There is also a humility about the setting, reflecting perhaps the gentle supplication of the Agnus dei, whose text the chorale sets: the chorale melody is always easy to follow. There is a striking chromaticism before the final refrain (‘Give us peace’), perhaps a striking musical depiction of sin, and the deliverance (‘peace’) from it, both won by and asked of the Lord, and also a depiction of the ‘despair’ of the sinner, in the text. This performance features a growing crescendo through the movement, with verse 3 suggesting a fanfare motif (hence the trumpet in the registration) preceding the final peal of triumph.
Nun danket alle Gott BWV657
This prelude is through-composed, with the accompaniment marked by running semiquavers: the affect of joy is unmistakeable. There is a link to the text, ‘viel zugut’—‘immeasurable good’—the semiquavers spinning through the piece giving an impression of abundance, even a never-ending quality. The inner parts are ‘rich in motifs’ (Williams 2003 p. 359) and the turn to the dominant, with added C sharp, G to D, in the second time bar, is expertly managed and surprising.
Von Gott will ich nicht lassen BWV658
This is the first of the settings in the minor. There is a certain waywardness in the harmony that is clarified, and disciplined by the chorale melody (which is heard in the pedals), rather like the guiding action of God in the text. It is also possible to see the text reflected in the elision of the chorale melody in the final three phrases—it becomes more pervasive in its presence, more constant—as God’s care, at the end of the text, is highlighted as a constancy, ‘Abend und den Morgen, tut er mich wohl versorgen, wo ich auch sei im Land’ (‘evening and morning he takes care of me, wherever I am’).
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV659
BWV659 is one of the jewels of the collection, whether seen in the textures (the walking bass), the harmony (fluid inner parts, effortless sequences, and beautifully crafted suspensions), or the expressively ornamented chorale. Of the three settings, the current performer sees the first as representative specifically of the birth of Christ. The G minor key matches some of the greatest utterances on the organ for Bach—the ‘Sei gegrüsset partita’, the Fantasia and Fugue—and the cantus lines emphasise ascent, even when the chorale phrase doesn’t; perhaps a surprising emphasis given the text, which references the descent of the Saviour in the Incarnation. The inner parts are typically dense in motifs that are traceable both to the chorale and to the ornamented cantus firmus line. There are four phrases, with long episodes in between, giving a meditative focus. Note the beautiful harmonic sequences found throughout this setting, which is a feature of the writing of all three ‘Nun komm’ settings.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV660
In BWV660, the chorale is again given in the right hand, above two lines that intertwine. The effect is reminiscent of the two intertwining oboes in the alto aria ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ in the St John Passion, where they depict the binding of Christ on the cross. Thus, BWV660 seems to look at the redemption of Christ through the lens of Calvary. Similarly, there is something almost grotesque about the ornamentation of the chorale. Throughout, there is striking the canonic writing between pedal and LH that, as in BWV659, melds into sequences.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV661
The third setting BWV661 features the chorale in the pedals, played on a pleno, significant in that it forms a bridge with the first and last chorale of the collection, also instructed to be played organo pleno. There is fugal writing in the manuals and, again, an emphasis on sequential writing throughout. The unmistakable emphasis of the third setting of ‘Nun komm’ is on triumph of the Saviour, so forming the apex of a small theological journey from Christ’s birth to his victory.
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV662
The three chorales on ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her’ reflect a diversity of stylistic approaches to the chorale. BWV662 is in a sunny A major with the chorale in the soprano register. Bach reworks the chorale melody into an expressive coloratura, richly ornamented. The expressivity influences the three-part accompaniment, whose motives track those of the chorale. The general affect lent to the prelude is one of yearning, intensified by dissonant harmonies. The ending is especially beautiful as the cadence is extended after the final note of the chorale: the melody moves from representing the chorale melody to commenting upon it as the ‘gross Fried’ (‘great peace’) of the text is given musical expression, through the silencing of the accompaniment, and a free cadenza with sudden rests in the middle, the music coming to a peaceful end on the final A before the accompaniment joins for the final cadence.
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV663
In BWV663 the gentle affect is continued in a triple-time setting that contains elements of a courante. The chorale is given in the tenor, with fewer ornaments in an accompaniment that contains the chief motivic interest of the setting. A more static pedal line creates simple harmony that is based around parallel and contrary motion, with stricter counterpoint and imitative sequences that are based around a smaller array of motivic material derived from the chorale. As with BWV662, there is a similarly extemporary feel to the chorale left hand at the end of the lines, perhaps projecting the idea of ‘Fried’ (‘peace’) and the ‘end of war’ mentioned in the first stanza of the chorale text.
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV664
In BWV664 the affect projected is again one of joy, expressed in a lively trio setting that bears a similarity in style to the first movement of the G major Sonata. The opening phrase of the chorale is embellished into the main motivic idea. There is also tight motivic derivation in the pedal bass line. The final act of the pedal is to intone the first phrase of the chorale—a summing up.
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV665
BWV665 is in four clear sections, each relating to one phrase of the chorale, with a coda. This is a strange setting, with the melody alternating at the bottom and the top of the texture (pedal and RH). The ending is particularly striking, the biggest of the collection thus far, gathering the disparate elements of the setting (Williams 2003 p. 378), and increasing on the final page from three to eight voices (Stinson 2001, p. 102).
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV666
The second setting of this chorale has the same four-section structure. Each section begins with three-part counterpoint based on the phrase of the chorale; then the chorale is heard in the upper voice. Semiquavers are introduced at phrase 3, intensified for line four and the coda, perhaps projecting an affect of joy.
Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist BWV667
This setting, a rewrite of the same chorale from the Orgelbüchlein (BWV631), features the chorale melody set twice, first in the upper voice and second in the pedals. There is a coda of running semiquavers in between. Perhaps we are back to the ‘rushing wind’ of the first chorale, but with different metre—12/8. The first section features a-striking off-beat pedal note. Stinson suggests that the setting expresses two Pentecost themes: first, the offbeat pedal note that comes on the third beat symbolizes the third member of the Trinity; and second, the rushing semiquavers in the second half of the prelude picture the rushing wind of the Spirit (Stinson 2001 p. 103).
Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein BWV668a (Diktatfassung)
BWV668a perhaps represents a complete version of BWV668—‘Vor deinen Thron’—which is incomplete, at only twenty-five and half bars long. Scholars suggest that the incomplete version (668) reflects Bach’s final improvements, but 668a is usually played, despite its difference to 668 in a few details, given its completeness. The text of 668, ‘Von deinen Thron’ has created interest in relation to the story by Bach biographer Forkel, that the prelude was ‘dictated a few days before his death to Altnickol’. There is a gentle meditative quality to the prelude, suggested by the rhythmic simplicity, and the time taken for each chorale phrase to unfold. The inner parts stay faithfully to the motifs of each successive phrase of the chorale, lending an integrated feel, and the final interrupted cadence unlocking the final few bars is touching. The effect of the movement is as a meditation on all that has preceded.
George Parsons © 2017
1* Principal 16
2* Octave 8
3 Hohlflöte 8
4* Octave 4
5 Spitzflöte 4
6* Quinte 2 ⅔
7* Superoctave 2
8 Sesquialter III
9 Cornett IV
10 Mixtur IV-V
11 Trompete 8
12 Vox Humana 8
13* Principal 8
14 Gedackt 8
15 Octave 4
16 Rohrflöte 4
17 Octave 2
18 Gemshorn 2
19 Larigot 1 ⅓
20 Sesquialter II
21 Scharf III
22 Dulcian 8
23 Viola 8
24 Suavial 8
25 Rohrflöte 8
26 Principal 4
27 Gedacktflöte 4
28 Nasard 2 ⅔
29 Doublette 2
30 Terz 1 ⅗
31 Mixtur IV
32 Fagott 16
33 Trompete 8
34* Principal 16
35 Subbass 16
36 Octavbass 8
37 Bourdon 8
38 Octave 4
39 Mixtur V
40 Posaune 16
41 Trompete 8
42 Trompete 4
(* Father Smith ranks)
Signum Classics © 2017