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David Goode kicks off his latest release with the relatively unusual C minor manifestation of the BWV549 Prelude and Fugue, part of a programme which includes several lesser-known works, the BWV564 Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (with its infamous pedal passage), and the treacherous sixth Trio Sonata.
‘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.
Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV549
BWV549 has a fascinating provenance; scholars note that the C minor work is a actually transposition of the Prelude and Fugue in D minor (BWV549a)—an identical work transposed up possibly to avoid a high ‘d’ in the opening pedal solo (see Williams 2003 p. 125). The C minor version (BWV549) played here also bears striking resemblances to the C major Prelude BWV531. The Prelude of BWV549 opens with an arresting pedal solo, based on a rising sequence of suspirans figures, highlighted by the characteristic ‘intake of breath’. The main material of the Prelude builds on the pedal’s figures, with an almost melancholy gravitas—evident in this recording. Of particular interest are the block chords heard around the half-way mark that contrast with the spun counterpoint, as well as a certain simplicity to the harmony. The simplicity carries over to the Fugue, with its long melodious subject, written as though with a silent text. Texturally, there is an audible similarity with Prelude—compare the manual’s block chords when the pedal finally enters (after a lengthy manualiter exposition). Eventually, semiquaver-driven writing breaks free into free demisemiquavers for the final section.
Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV718
‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’ is one of Luther’s Easter texts and set to a chorale that was used a number of times by Bach. BWV718 is a chorale fantasia: relatively small-scale in length, but ambitious and far-ranging in scope and style. The melody throughout is stylised with ornaments and the accompaniment based on a repeated rhythmic figure. The setting moves from a two-part texture at the start to three- and even four-part textures later, with the pedal enters for a reiteration of the final ‘Hallelujah’.
Fantasia con imitatione in B minor BWV563
The Fantasia is written for manuals only, building a 24-bar piece out of light, airy dactyl (long-long-short) figures, in four-parts. Though the musical figures are standard, common for the time, the work reflects careful craftsmanship. Listen for the pedal coming in near the end, on a low E, as the material becomes freer in the final section, with the harmony expertly handled. In this recording, the Fantasia is given a reduced registration, up to 2’. The Imitatio connects to the Fantasia, reflected on this disc in the common registration. The connection is also seen in the shared manualiter texture, and a certain symmetry in the shape of the opening motifs. The chief difference lies in the metre of the Imitatio – quadruple (4/4) becomes and dancing triple (3/4). On this recording the speed is carefully related to tie the two parts together: the crotchet speed of the Fantasia becomes the dotted minim speed of the Imitatio.
Trio Sonata in G major BWV530
The Vivace of the sixth Trio is an Italianate ritornello, typical of Bach’s other organ trios—and perhaps the most violinistic of the six. The chief motif is a spritely descending figure that develops into a sequence again typical of the genre, punctuated with single pedal notes; like others in the Trios it stands out for beauty of melody and harmony. This movement is notable for a lively pedal part that plays a full role in the counterpoint. It is given a clean registration here—two 8’ Principals with a 16’ and 8’ bass. The binary-form slow movement, the Lento, is in the style of a siciliano, a graceful dance in 6/8 time. The bass is simple, given here an 8’ pitch, below two lines in the manuals that never quite combine and whose elegance is highlighted here by the extensive expressive ornaments. The final Allegro is joyful, the figures perhaps suggesting bells of celebration; its celebratory affect is reflected here by the bigger registration. The momentum is achieved from the first by a rhythmic impetus in the first bar, the harmony pushing off the bass.
Fantasia in C major BWV570
The early Fantasia BWV570 is free-standing, not related to a fugue as such. It is also, like BWV563 on this disc, written for manuals only. There are other similarities with BWV563 which make sense of their being paired here: listen for example to the pedal points, long held notes in the bass (though not necessarily played on the pedals) which underpin the harmony at various moments. In this performance, the thoughtful affect of the work stands out, highlighted by a subdued registration with tremulant. There is also a French quality to the work, which is reminiscent in texture and feel to the standard organ plein jeu. This is brought out in this recording by the addition of ornaments, especially heard in the upper register.
Christ, der du bist der helle Tag BWV766
‘Christ, der du bist der helle Tag’ is a 1556 German translation of a text originally sung in Lent and used as an evening hymn (Williams 2003 p. 500). Bach’s seven-movement set of variations may have been originally intended for harpsichord, the pedals added later to the first and seventh variations.
Partita I, is the chorale set in rich harmony and dense texture, played on a full pleno registration, with occasional ornaments bringing our colour.
Partita II is a bicinium—a two-part texture, with the chorale melody decorated in the right hand, the left hand accompanying with running semiquavers. The piquancy of the harmony is striking, brought out with subtle chromatic shifts. Note the echo effects, brought out on this recording.
Partita III, as is typical for Bach’s chorale partitas, each individual ‘partita’ tends to explore a single musical figure. This is evident in Partita III, the rhythm of the left hand’s initial five notes running through the whole.
Partita IV is here given a performance that brings out the whirlwind-like quality of the running semiquavers heard throughout, mostly in the right hand but occasionally spilling over into the left hand in breathless imitation.
Partita V, though keeping the running semiquavers, is here given a contrasting treatment, with softer registration and tremulant. Bach turns the chorale’s phrases into elegantly structured sequences.
Partita VI is in a different mould, with the metre turning to a compound 12/8 and the imitation between the hands producing large leaps.
Partita VII, the final Partita, closes the circle of the structure as the pedals enter again for the first time since Partita I. They play the chorale melody in long notes under the manuals, which play in the manner of stile brisé, the broken chord texture common in harpsichord music. This propels the music forward to its climax in the final bars.
Trio in D minor BWV583
BWV583 is an elegant one-movement trio; in this recording the two manuals given a similar registration, with gentle mutations adding colour to the quiet reeds. The ‘Adagio’ marking highlights the thoughtful elegance of the writing, the affect similar to the first movement of the D minor Trio Sonata (BWV527). The spun-out main motif is developed into some beautiful sequences (here given greater expression through ornaments). Williams points out that certain qualities of the work suggest that it is not by Bach—for example, some near parallel fifths in the harmony; an opening pedal line that is not related to the main thematic material; and primary musical material that in other Bachian contexts would assume only secondary importance. Nevertheless, it is an attractive work.
Prelude in A minor BWV569
Like BWV570 heard above, the A minor Prelude BWV569 stands alone, and accepted as an authentic early work of Bach. The opening bears interesting comparison with the more famous A minor organ Prelude (BWV543), for it shares with this work a chromatic intensity. After this opening, BWV569 develops its suspirans figures with a certain predictability, a fact that also connects it to the first work on this disc, BWV549. However, unlike that C minor work, as BWV569 progresses the chromaticism of the opening gradually infuses the harmony, Bach relentlessly pursuing the musical possibilities of the single figure. Listen for the occasional false relation, particularly heard as resulting from the pedal’s wide leaps. This pedal line is given fine profile in this recording by 16’ reed of the Trinity College instrument.
Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich BWV732
The chorale of BWV732 is a Christmas text, published in 1560 by N Herman. In this setting, perhaps intended to accompany a congregation, the chorale is given rich homophonic treatment with improvisatory runs in between phrases. Some have read musical symbolism into these runs, for example a rapid descending scale figure (heard in the middle of the setting in bar 8) perhaps alludes to the reference to Christ’s incarnation in the text (‘und schenkt uns einen Sohn’).
Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV706
Musically, BWV 706 follows beautifully from the previous track, with the final chord of the previous chorale setting leading in to the first chord of the present setting. This is a prelude on ‘Liebster Jesu’, one of many by Bach. This is given a contrasting treatment from the chorale which precedes it, with a softer registration bringing out the gentleness inherent in one of the texts associated with the chorale: ‘Dearest Jesu, we are here/to listen to you and your word; direct our minds and desires to the sweet teachings of heaven,/that our hearts be drawn from earth/wholly towards you’ (translation Williams 2003 p. 298).
Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV564
This work is unique: a three-movement form that has been likened to an Italian concerto, with a fast-slow-fast structure. As such, it represents a typically extensive Bachian revision of the North German praeludium genre. The Toccata begins with an extended opening showcasing both manual and pedal passage work of the highest degree of virtuosity. On this recording, note the echo effects in the in both the manual and pedal registrations that highlight the rhetorical nature of the writing. The extended opening leads to the main body of the Toccata, which is based on a rising figure with each phrase moving swiftly to its close. The second movement, a slow Adagio is Italianate, like a string concerto slow movement with pizzicato basso continuo. The melancholy melody soars out, in this recording the faster tempo bringing out the inherent spirit of dance that underlies the metre. After the melody seems almost to die out, the final bars are notable for rich and chromatic harmony, standing apart from the rest of the work: in this recording given a strong, passionate affect through a full pleno registration. For the third movement, the clouds clear for a lively gigue-like Fugue. The episodic nature of the Toccata is evident in the playful silences that break up the Fugue’s subject, whose countersubject feature running semiquavers, bell-like and resplendent; all the elements combine together to give a joyful affect. The ending is striking for its quirky final chord, extended here in ornamentation.
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