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From the sepulchral opening tones of the great C minor Fantasia through to the towering Passacaglia in the same key, David Goode's latest Bach instalment is a joy.
‘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.
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.
Fantasia in C minor BWV562
The C minor Fantasia, BWV562, is surely one of Bach’s greatest fantasias, grand in scope and very powerful in affect. It engenders a great feel of yearning from the initial descending phrase over a low held pedal C, and from the harmonies and suspensions that are effortlessly created by the five-part counterpoint. The work betrays a strong French influence, which is felt in the extensive ornamentation and melodic span of the lines, and promotes a clear structure, with a main divide occurring as the opening material is heard in the dominant. There is then a gradual return to the tonic with sequential writing that gathers power to a wonderful climax. The ending is noble, the counterpoint spinning out over the same C (tonic) pedal from the opening and wringing itself up to a dissonant diminished seventh chord, leading to a coda that almost feels improvised.
Gottes Sohn ist kommen 'Gott durch dein Güte' BWV724
This very early prelude, probably written before Bach was at Weimar, sees Bach experimenting with canon. The chorale melody is kept at the top of a four-part contrapuntal texture. In between the chorale’s phrases the counterpoint ebbs and flows in episodes that are loosely derived from the motifs of chorale. The effect achieved through canon is best heard in the final two phrases, where the pedal entries echo the chorale melody at the octave.
Wo soll ich fliehen hin BWV694
BWV694 is related to another setting of the same chorale, BWV646 (one of the six Schübler chorales). Like its relative, BWV694 is a trio setting, whose keyboard parts do not cross—so are playable on one manual—and feature extensive imitation between the right and left hands. The slow-moving chorale is given in the pedal, in long dotted minims.
Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt BWV707
This prelude is a striking example of the variety with which Bach treats chorales. BWV707 ends with the chorale in its original form, as a summation to a prelude that clearly structures itself around the phrases of the chorale, given in long notes in the soprano voice. The prelude is manualiter, and fugal, with each consecutive phrase introduced by a new subject that is based upon it.
Prelude and Fugue in D minor 'Fiddle' BWV539
The Prelude is melancholy, simple in its style, and played manualiter. It is built on a gently rising motive which settles into runs of quavers, leading to an elegant cadence with a ornamental turn. The structure is ABA, with the second A truncated. The highly contrasting Fugue that follows (belying the fact that this Fugue was only paired with the Prelude in early nineteenth-century copies) is immediately recognizable as a transcription of the Fugue from Bach’s G minor Violin Sonata (BWV1001). Yet, for all its familiarity, BWV539’s provenance is shrouded in mystery: it is not known for sure who wrote the Prelude, who paired it with the current Fugue, and who made the transcription of Bach’s original violin Fugue into what we have today. Yet, musically there is no reason to doubt Bach’s authorship of the Prelude, and despite its ‘spurious’ origin the Fugue’s idiomatic organ writing allows the harmonic potential of the original to be fully realized.
Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV695
BWV695 is a ‘Fantasia’, highlighting the freer nature of the arrangement. The chorale is given in the alto, in the middle of a three-part texture that has the feel of a dance from a mature keyboard work—compare the gigue of the G major keyboard partita—and contains echoes of the same style. The structure of the piece follows the chorale, with the first half repeated. As expected, the counterpoint that weaves around the chorale is derived from it, neatly following the chorale phrase-by-phrase.
Herr Gott, dich loben wir 'Te Deum' BWV725
BWV725 is a massive five-part setting of Luther’s text of the Te Deum that effectively follows the verses of the chorale, keeping in the main its conventional chorale-like homophonic texture, though amplifying it through the addition of an extra voice. Interest is given by the inner parts, with running quavers and passing notes that seem to reference specific words of the text, such as ‘angels’ and ‘divine power’. The setting, perhaps designed to be played as an accompaniment to liturgical chant, shows Bach’s contrapuntal mastery, displayed within the constraints of a chorale texture to give great power and gravitas.
Trio Sonata in C major BWV529
I. Allegro: A spritely Italianate ritornello fuelled by running semiquavers and bright imitation between the parts. The movement projects a bright breezy affect, with just the hint of darker tones. As in the case of the other trio sonatas, a series of exquisite sequences carry the musical argument forward.
II. Largo: A beautiful, slow dance in compound time. The main yearning musical material is decorated throughout with small motifs, often outlining chromatic intervals that provide emotional depth that is never overstated. This middle movement was likely composed separately from the outer two movements, and has been associated with the Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV545.
III. Allegro: The air clears for another bright Italianate fugal Allegro, similar in style to Corelli’s Sonata Op 5 No 3. The musical lines in the movement give a greater role to the pedal which plays a role in the fugal argument.
Couperin Aria in F major BWV587
The Aria, BWV587, stands alongside two other similar trio arrangements of movements by Fasch and Telemann (BWV585 and 586). It is a transcription of section 4 of ‘L’Impériale’ by François Couperin, from his ‘Troisième Ordre’ for two violins and continuo, published in Paris in 1726. The original is given a different heading—‘Légérement’. As with other such pieces, the authorship is uncertain, though and earlier generation of scholarship suggested that the movement—in F major—was intended to be played as a filler between the Toccata and Fugue in F (BWV540), though there is no proof of this in the sources.
Concerto movement in C major BWV595
BWV595 is a transcription of just one movement of a concerto attributed to Johann Ernst, the Prince of Sachsen-Weimar, which also exists in a version for harpsichord (BWV984). The organ version makes extensive use of antiphonal effects, similar in style to those found in the ‘Dorian’ Prelude (BWV538). As with Ernst’s other Bach transcription (see the Concerto in G, BWV592) some occasionally common-variety harmony is given new life through imaginative and idiosyncratic rescoring for the organ, although one bar stands out for juxtaposing chords of B major and G minor.
Passacaglia in C minor BWV582
The Passacaglia in C minor is a wonderful work that is rich in both historical resonance and compositional ingenuity. The Passacaglia opens with its famous pedal bassline, really a theme in two halves. The first half—which is also used as the Fugue’s subject—is found elsewhere, in the ‘Christe’ of the second mass of Raison’s Premier Livre d’Orgue (1688). This hints at the possibility that the work began life as a ‘Fugue on a theme by Raison’, and then grew into the larger work. BWV582 also taps into a seam of other baroque Passacaglias and Chaconnes for the instrument, notably by Buxtehude and Pachelbel, with which BWV582 shares similarities.
The power of all examples of the genre, and especially this work, is achieved by the tension created by the opposing forces of limitation (the ostinato bassline) and creativity (the variations upon it): it is a form in which the musical material must be at once both highly similar and highly different. In BWV582 Bach achieves this differentiation in a numerically exact structure: the Passacaglia gives the theme (in the pedals, solo) with twenty variations following (=21); the following Fugue, which takes the first half of the Passacaglia’s theme as its subject, features eleven further entries of the subject (=12). Thus the work is encapsulated by the numbers 21 and 12, which together form a neat palindromic symmetry that seems to embody the very qualities inherent in the genre: exact equivalence combined simultaneously with quantitative difference. Others have noted the potential for theological significance which these numbers imply.
Despite the repetition of the theme, there is a logical through-composed musical argument in the Passacaglia that hinges on gradual accumulation: of density, of musical metre, of rhetorical weight. That said, the variations do have a tripartite feel: the theme and variations 1–10 form a unit in which four-part textures are explored in a context of gradually increasing note-vales; the next five variations (11–15) contrast by breaking in various different ways with a pedal-based four-part texture, exploring fugal, manualiter, and harpsichord brisé (broken chord) patterns; the remaining five variations (16–20) build up power towards the close by increasing further both texture (four-part to five-part) and note values (semiquaver to triplet), together with the drive of repeated rhythms of the last two variations building the climax to the close.
The Fugue dovetails with the end of the Passacaglia. Strikingly, the subject maintains its integrity throughout the Fugue—there are no ‘false’, or ‘ghost’ entries—reflecting the priority of the Passacaglia over Fugue, Bach again working within the constraints of each genre even as he seeks to transcend them. The rhetorical force of the Fugue is generated by the way Bach incorporates the subject in the wider harmonic scheme, and by the sequential episodes that follow individual entries as the Fugue develops which themselves call for some of the work’s most spectacular effects (double trills; scales that seamlessly link pedals and manuals). Eventually the subject’s final entry—in the soprano voice, providing a bookmark that balances the pedal opening of the work—leads into a climactic final episode that runs into a Neapolitan pause chord. The following coda releases some of the pent-up energy in semiquaver passagework that encompasses highest and lowest Cs on the organ compass before a glorious final adagio cadence rounds off the work in seven parts.
George Parsons © 2019
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 © 2019