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David Goode continues his Bach series on the Metzler organ of Trinity College Chapel, 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 (Williams 2003 p.227). 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 (Williams 2003 p.202). 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.
i) 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.
ii) 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 Edwards' 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 in E major BWV566
The Prelude and Fugue, BWV566, is on a huge scale. Really a multi-sectioned work, in a form reminiscent of the Praeludia of Buxtehude or the Toccatas of Frescobaldi, it consists of four parts: an opening prelude, followed by a fugue, then an improvisatory toccata, followed by another fugue. Bach’s conception, though based on the forms of these other composers, is on a much bigger scale, evident all through the wok, from the ten-note chords in the massive chordal section of the initial prelude, through the long, dense (but sprightly) first fugue, through the grand toccata with its dazzling runs, to the final fugue with its granite-like repeated notes and spectacular semiquaver runs that close off the piece. The repeated notes of the subject- find an echo in the fugue that closes this disc, the G major, BWV541.
Jesu, meine Freude BWV713
Here is a three-voice setting, which starts fugally with an attractive subject, the chorale given as a pedal line underneath counterpoint in the manuals. The two-part figuration is often simple, though a third voice joins later; consistent interest comes from the rhythmic interplay of the manuals. After the first half of the chorale the metre changes from 2/2 to 3/8; the chorale is now integrated into the upper part of the texture, as in BWV734 (below).
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gemein BWV734
This is a ‘manualiter’ (manuals only) setting. The chorale is heard clearly, migrating between the voices—soprano; alto; bass; alto; bass; soprano. As in BWV713 (above), there is a change of metre for the second half of the chorale, with the melody more integrated into the counterpoints. Williams sees the second line of the text reflected in the affect of the prelude: ‘und lasst uns fröhlich springen’ (‘and let us leap for joy’) (Williams 2003 p478).
Trio Sonata in D minor BWV527
The beautiful opening melody sets the tone of the whole sonata, which projects an affect of gentle melancholy. This is especially present in the first movement, an ABA form, with the writing characterised by a certain rhythmic sparring between manuals and pedals, with frequent mixing of duplets and triplets. Once the dominant is reached, there follows an attractive sequence around the cycle of fifths, which highlights the developmental quality of the middle section of the form. The opening material soon returns for a reprise.
The middle movement—in a two-part, binary form—is a gentle F major in a lilting 6/8, melancholic beneath the surface. The two manuals weave around each other above a bassline which is mostly in regular quavers. As with the first movement—and common to all the Six Sonatas—there are beautifully carved sequences throughout, marked by written-out ornamentation.
The final Vivace opens with a jaunty melody in the right hand, and presents the same mixture of duple and triple rhythms as in the first movement. There is an elegance to the writing, suggested by the combination of slow-moving harmony in the pedal with fast-moving counterpoint in the manuals, with expressive suspensions throughout. There is also a dark tinge to the feel of the movement, perhaps given by the modal harmony with the flattened seventh-note of the scale (C natural instead of C sharp). The structure of the movement is the same as the first, an ABA, and the manual writing is reminiscent of Italian string sonatas (Williams 2003 p23).
Fugue on a theme of Legrenzi in C minor BWV574
One possible source for the theme for this fugue has been identified as Legrenzi’s trio sonata Op 2 No 11. There is no autograph for Bach’s work, though it was extensively copied and exists in several versions. It consists of a double fugue, in a three-part tripartite structure. The A section develops the theme in a conventional fugal structure; the B passage introduces a new theme, and is marked by the introduction of running semiquavers; then a third section brings the two themes together. This structure is then rounded off with an improvisatory coda, in the style of North German toccatas, but perhaps also referencing the improvisatory element inherent within the Italian concerto style to which the writing throughout the fugue is indebted. Note the rhythmic progression through the work: the ‘disintegration’ of the quavers into semiquavers, and of the semiquavers into the demisemiquavers of the toccata at the end (Williams 2003 p173), an insight that hints at the unity inherent in this otherwise disparate structure.
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern BWV739
BWV739 is given in a 3-part texture, as in the chorales from the Neumeister collection, with the chorale on top of the texture, surrounded by counterpoint derived from it. After the chorale moves to the pedal, there are echo effects, and the last phrase of chorale is repeated for emphasis, allowing the pedal to take the final phrase, a descending scale, its presence in the bass creating automatic harmonic direction to the close. Note the violinistic figures in the upper texture, particularly the arpeggios in the final two bars, an ‘original Bach fingerprint’ (Williams 2003 p486).
Concerto in D minor RV565 BWV596
The original of BWV596 is Vivaldi’s string concerto No 11 from his Op 3 collection, ‘L’estro armonico’ (‘The Harmonious Inspiration’), published in Amsterdam in 1711. Six of these concertos were transcribed by Bach, with the D minor (No 11) and A minor (No 8) the most famous of Bach’s other organ transcriptions. Vivaldi’s structure is maintained by Bach: an Allegro, a connective Grave, a Fugue, a Largo, and a final Allegro. The chief musical differences in Bach’s transcription reflect an adaption of Vivaldi’s string original to the organ’s distinct characteristics and technical challenges—hence the term ‘transcription’ rather than simple copying. After an energetic opening, the two violins’ caprice is given to the manuals over a repeated pedal D; the Grave follows, with interesting harmonies. The following Fugue has a characteristic subject, its harmonic potential contained in the latter half’s sequence of perfect fifths. The Largo is a sicilienne and reflects a typical Vivaldian technique, starting with a homophonic ritornello, going into the solo, accompanied by gentle chords. The final Allegro features a racing opening, in the original two violins chasing each other up the scale; the harmonic structure of the movement is built on the sequence of fifths from the previous Allegro.
Fantasia super Valet will ich dir geben BWV735
BWV735 is a Fantasia based on the chorale ‘Valet will ich geben’. The description is apt, highlighting a stylistic freedom to the setting which is grounded in a certain discipline to its structure: the phrases of the prelude closely follow those of the chorale, but the counterpoint that flows from them runs free. The melody is given as a cantus firmus in the obbligato pedal line, though the counterpoint in the manuals is also derived from it. The writing bears comparison with two other of Bach’s preludes from the Eighteen Leipzig chorales: ‘Komm Heiliger Geist’, (BWV651) and ‘Jesus Christus, unser Heiland’, (BWV665): all are linked by the characteristic use of a rhythmic figure (three semiquavers followed by two quavers), generating a joyful affect that stands somewhat in contrast to the chorale’s text (‘Valet will ich dir geben, du arge, falsche Welt’/’I shall say farewell to you, O wicked, false world’).
Vater unser im Himmelreich BWV737
BWV737 is very different in style to BWV713 and BWV734 (see above). Another manualiter setting, it is written in the old style as an organ-motet, in a four-part homophonic, chordal, texture which lacks the independent counterpoint of the other settings, but communicates a gravitas to the setting. Peter Williams has highlighted its status as an early work (with similarities to those chorales found in the Neumeister collection), and its indebtedness to Scheidt’s organ-motets, as well as to Pachelbel (Williams 2003 p482).
Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV541
The Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV541 is marked by an affect of sheer joy. The work’s autograph score was possible prepared for Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann, perhaps for his audition at the Sophienkirche in Dresden in 1733. The exuberant and sprightly prelude, starting with its semiquaver run, maintains its feel with semiquavers running through the entire piece. The opening flourish leads into a rhythmically more disciplined main section, containing two discernible sections each starting with the main figure—the first in G, the second in D. The Fugue continues the affect of joy, and is marked by a clever and effective dovetailing of the counterpoint with the fugue subject entries. The fugue throughout is striking for its melodious quality: ‘the subject sounds like a theme awaiting words’, and the end of the fugue ‘like a choir singing’ (Williams 2003 pp83, 85). Note the dramatic diminished chord marking off the last section, of final entries of the subject, from the rest of the structure.
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