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This eighth volume in David Goode's intégrale of Bach's organ works is gloriously framed by the imposing pairings of the 'Dorian' Toccata & Fugue and the 'Wedge' Prelude & Fugue.
‘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 and Fugue in D minor 'Dorian' BWV538
The Toccata BWV538 is an Italianate affair, with material clearly inspired by violin writing, and making use of dialogue effects, such as might be found in a Vivaldi string concerto. The ritornello figure provides the material for the remainder of the Toccata, with episodes given on the contrasting manual, rather like the contrasting groups of strings in an Italian concerto. The principle of manual contrast is taken up by Bach as a feature of the Toccata, with frequent, quick, changes between manuals, for rhetoric effect. According to one source, the Toccata—and perhaps the Fugue too—was ‘played at the examination of the large organ in Kassel by S. Bach’, which would date it to 1732.
The nickname given for the pair—‘Dorian’—highlights their modal quality, and stems from the absence of a key signature in both Toccata and Fugue. Yet the opening of the Fugue, with its prominent B flat, highlights that strictly these works are written not in the Dorian mode but in the Aeolian mode, which has been transposed from A to D. Yet the flattened seventh of the mode projects the chief affect of the Fugue as sombre and serious. This is reflected in the writing of the subject: long, soaring, taking its time over an initial ascent of an octave, before a slow return. Thus the subject strikingly highlights the ‘D’, the tonic note, further highlighting the Fugue’s modal centre. Another feature of the subject is its rhythmic syncopations, the notes skipping off the main beat, producing some beautiful episodes later, with Bach making full use of the possibilities of suspensions. The final pedal entry of the fugal subject, a few bars before the end, is one of Bach’s most glorious.
O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig BWVDeest
This unnumbered setting of the German Agnus Dei is a manualiter setting, with an ornamented chorale at the top of a three-part texture. As is common in Bach’s other settings of this type, the counterpoint is derived from the chorale, tracking its progress, and giving a satisfyingly integrated whole: much is packed into its 55 measures. The structure of the prelude follows that of the chorale, with a repeated first half. At the final phrase the upper part breaks free from the constraint of the melody to develop expansive quaver sequences which seem to suggest a contrary affect to the ‘mercy’ (Erbarm) and ‘peace’ (Frieden) of the texts at this point. Its lack of a BWV number perhaps reflects the doubtful authorship of the setting.
Jesus, meine Zuversicht BWV728
BWV728 is another manualiter setting of an Easter hymn. It is simple in its three-part texture, with the right hand keeping the ornamented chorale to the upper register. Structurally straightforward, mirroring the structure of the chorale, the sophistication of the setting comes from the melodic embellishments. These contrast with the slow-moving, peaceful counterpoint of the left-hand. The combination of expansive trust and contented peace that results reflects the anonymous text of the hymn.
Trio Sonata in E minor BWV528
The fourth Sonata is unique among the organ Trio Sonatas for its first-movement structure, with its slow opening that precedes the main Vivace movement. In fact, this movement is an arrangement of the Sinfonia of Cantata 76. The andante opening features a thoughtful, drooping phrase, sad in affect, with its falling seventh interval. The expressive counterpoint that this figure inspires is full of yearning suspensions. The main Vivace material of the first movement develops a lively four-bar phrase, tuneful and with a series of syncopated descending fifths, perhaps echoing the slow opening.
The Andante is surely one of Bach’s most touching slow movements. The main material is a series of simple rising quaver motifs that descend slowly in sequence, accompanied by single pedal notes. The beauty is not only in the simplicity of the material, but in the harmony that is suggested by it. As the movement progresses this harmony is filled in by the three-parts as they weave around each other, the simple quaver theme played off against a rhythmically-syncopated foil. Interspersed are soaring sequences, with long held-notes producing exquisite suspensions.
The third movement is a minuet, fast and lively, with a joyful affect. The main theme is marked by chromaticism, tracking as it does the descending chromatic fourth, or passus duriusculus, which lurks beneath the surface of the melody. Striking here too are the five bars of manuals-only writing, triplet semiquavers that run in sequence and precede the pedal entry of the main theme. This moment of the pedal playing the theme also marks a parenthesis with a similar moment in the very opening of the Sonata, in the slow Andante, where the pedal also plays the main thematic material: in between these moments and in keeping with Bach’s usual practice in the Sonatas, the pedal only has an accompanying role.
Overall, the three movements of this Sonata bear striking similarities in the features of their musical material that give the sense of a sad, even a suffering, affect: wide intervals, suspensions, and chromaticisms. The key of E minor link with these features to others of Bach’s works that contain a matching key and affect: like the Cantata BWV4, and even movements of the St Matthew Passion.
Prelude in G major BWV568
This Prelude, though standing alone, starts in a manner that resembles the more famous G major Prelude, BWV541, with is descending G major scale. Despite its contested authorship, BWV568 surely deserves to be better known, with its mixture of brilliant virtuosity, grand chordal writing, inventive pedal-driven harmony, and overall sense of gravitas. The striking impression it leaves is heightened by the wonderful final cadence, with the resolution of its final chord delayed by a quadruple appoggiatura.
Fugue in F BWVAnh42
This lively little fugue is of uncertain origin, having a ‘post-Bach ring to it’ (Williams, 2003 p. 576). If it is by Bach, it is a testament to his imaginative way with the fugue genre. It is in three parts, though loosely, as a fourth part occasionally fills out the cadences, and also fills out the texture for the closing bars, giving a satisfying close. The subject is very rich, and typically balanced: the first half rising tunefully in a settled two-time, the second half descending in syncopated ties. This leads to a fugue that plays with these elements: melodious, but given impetus and variety with suspensions and touches of the minor.
Concerto in A minor RV522 BWV593
Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s A minor Concerto, Op 3 No 8, is a tour de force. Not really a conventional transcription, BWV593 is more of an arrangement, Bach making something new from Vivaldi’s original and effectively creating a concerto for organ solo, along with the technical demands that such a genre implies. Vivaldi’s original was part of his L’estro armonico set of string concertos, published in Amsterdam in 1711.
The first movement is kept close to Vivaldi’s original, with the textural changes of the contrasting ripieno/concerto string groups now produced by the dialogue of the main organ contrasting with solos on the positive division. The slow Adagio, with its beautiful Italianate melody given over a gentle accompaniment of musical figures derived from the first movement, suits the organ wonderfully well. The final Allegro is the most virtuosic, the original violinistic challenges recreated on the organ, with double pedalling, fast manual changes, and dialogue effects.
Ach Gott und Herr BWV714
Another small tour de force, this chorale setting features the chorale melody in canon with itself, at the top of the texture and the middle of the texture. Its solidity is reflected in its dense four-part texture. The text of the chorale highlights the plight of the sinner, unable to find salvation from anyone in this world. The sense of the inevitability of sin, its burden, is perhaps reflected in the choice of a canon to promulgate the text.
Valet will ich dir geben BWV736
A big and virtuosic setting of the chorale, with the melody in the pedal, very similar in feel to the opening setting of the Eighteen Leipzig Chorales which also sets its chorale melody in the pedal (BWV651, Komm Heiliger Geist), and sounding with a similar gravitas. The manual figuration, in 24/16 compound quadruple time, gives a lively gigue-like feel to the setting, perhaps in contrast to the darker text of the chorale which looks forward to heaven and says ‘farewell’ (Valet) to the evil of the world.
Trio in G BWV1027a
BWV1027a is an arrangement of the final movement of the first Sonata in G major for gamba and harpsichord, BWV1027. Its lively affect and tuneful material are evident from the start, and as such it mostly lends itself well to the organ, though its initial material perhaps lacks something of the harmonic possibility of the material typically found in the organ Sonatas (compare the E minor Sonata BWV528 on this disc). That said, the writing is in places also strikingly similar to that found in the organ Sonatas, such as the extended trills (again, compare the E minor Sonata BWV528, second movement).
Prelude and Fugue in E minor 'The wedge' BWV548
BWV548 is a Leipzig work, perhaps dating from 1727-32. It is a sophisticated, multi-sectional structure, as large as a ritornello concerto first-movement, whose affect mirrors the gravitas implied by such a structure. As with other works in E minor, Bach explores the key chromatically, including for example the suggestion of the descending chromatic fourth in the opening four bars. The Prelude falls into three substantial sections, the first containing two statements of the initial material in tonic and dominant; the second introducing contrasting manual-only episodes of dotted sequences, and the third section closing the movement with a look back at the opening material.
The massive structure of the Prelude is matched by the complex structure of the Fugue. It is the turning nature of the subject that gives BWV548 its nickname, the subject again tracing (completely this time) the descent of the chromatic fourth, as was common for E minor fugues. The structures of a regular fugue are interspersed with sections that sound like improvisation producing a form that mixes conventional fugue with the forms of a toccata or praeludium - a model may be a work like Bruhns’ Praeludium in E minor. Williams highlights the variety of these forms, the movement bringing together the genres of fugue, concerto, toccata, and—with the da capo repeat in the final section—aria in a way that highlights both lament (the descending fourth) and virtuosity (the toccata sections).
Given its scope, it is not surprising that BWV548 has inspired words of great praise, being compared to a ‘two-movement symphony’ by Spitta. It seems to have been intended as such by Bach, as its structure testifies: ‘the number of bars in the Fugue (231) relates to the total number of bars in both (368) as 1:1.59, close to the Golden Section (1:1.618)’ (Williams, 2003, p119).
George Parsons © 2018
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 © 2018