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David Goode continues his Bach cycle from the console of the Metzler organ of Trinity College Chapel in 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.
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 F minor BWV534
The Prelude of BWV534 is striking for its mixture of darkly minor and passionate affects. It is knitted together with a rhetorical suspirans figure, opening the Prelude in the pedal below a single soaring voice in the upper register. This leads into sections of arpeggios in the manuals above a pedal note, with pedal scales adding interest. Overall, the Prelude is a complex structure—the chief musical argument set in a binary form; then, after a dense dissonance and pause, a freer cadential section closes the movement, with gradually-descending manual writing into a five-part close.
The more volatile affect of the Prelude is balanced by a more predictable and ordered Fugue. The simple three-bar subject in the tenor register is marked by three elements—a straightforward ascending scale; a plunging diminished seventh; and a faster descending scale. As the Fugue progresses, more complexity is added, both rhythmically through gentle syncopations and melodically with quaver movement. In the final bars the rhetorical force of the Prelude returns in an arresting solo in the same upper register that opened the Prelude, leading to a satisfying close.
Canzona in D minor BWV588
The canzona form, such as seen in Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicale (Bach owned a copy), is one that allows for considerable freedom in structure and expression, its sections permitting the presentation of contrasting material. Bach’s BWV588, its theme perhaps derived from Frescobaldi’s ‘Canzon dopo la pistola’ from Fiori musicale, is set in two sections, which are both fugal in character. A long melodic subject opens the first section, built around a repetitive quaver idea that gradually descends. An additional subject can be heard, chromatic in nature. This affects the subject of the second section, which combines the two. The Canzona, probably an early work of Bach, is marked by expansive phrases, interesting melodic leaps, and harmony that is both reminiscent of its Italian models, but that goes beyond them in scope.
Allabreve in D major BWV589
The Allabreve BWV589 is a work that, for all its contrapuntal orderliness, exudes joy. This comes from a certain special melodic quality to its long lines that weave around each other, and from its warm harmony, with gentle suspensions throughout. It is a late work, perhaps dating from the 1740s. Effectively a four-part fugal work in D major, three of the four lines are based on a rising scale, first heard in the soprano, and then added down through the texture in a fugal technique. Balanced with this is its counter melody, descending in shape and gently syncopated against the main line. Also of interest is a series of motifs in crotchets, which direct some interesting harmony in the later sections of the piece. The work builds to a glorious twelve-bar apotheosis over a D (tonic) pedal.
Fugue in C minor BWV575
BWV575, perhaps dating from around 1730, opens with an arresting subject. Three short phrases lead the listener up the scale, and a balancing phrase descends to a cadence. Many note the similarity of this subject to that of the Fugue from the E minor keyboard Toccata, BWV914. Yet unlike that of BWV914, the C minor’s subject has a fragmented feel—sudden silences that punctuate the phrases—and plays with a broken-chordal texture that is taken up into the rest of the Fugue. The texture of the Fugue is also striking for its emphasis on manual-only writing: it is a special moment when the pedal finally arrives to break the structure with a single F sharp. The manuals respond with a freestyle arpeggiated line, reminiscent of Buxtehude. The remainder of the Fugue takes the fragmentary feel of the preceding music and turns it into short repeating sequences. A final pedal solo (marked ‘Adagio’) rounds off the Fugue to an end that uses the opening rhythm of the subject as a final full stop.
Concerto in C major RV208 BWV594
The C major Concerto, BWV594, is a transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major for violin, RV208, ‘Il Grosso Mogul’, which was published in Amsterdam in 1716-17 and made by Bach around 1725. It is set on a grand scale, Bach using the organ’s capacity for contrast to full effect to bring out the rhetorical nature of Vivaldi’s original. The Allegro opens with bare Cs, heard in three separate voices, generating rising scales of C major, the voices combining for a tutti cadence. This contrast of single voices with a full chordal texture, effectively mirroring the contrast of soloists and orchestra in Vivaldi’s original, marks the remainder of the movement. The use of Rückpositiv provides further contrast for the virtuosic solo sections, with running semiquaver passages and fast repetitive fingerwork. The Adagio is a quasi recitative, with an ornamented line above static chords. In the final bars a second voice is added to the argument, with texture filled out for the final cadence. The exciting Allegro finale, with its insistent repeated arpeggios and rapid scales, allows for the same contrast between manuals as the first movement, the original violin and continuo texture fitting naturally under the organist’s two hands. Bach’s own skill as an organist is reflected throughout, his writing calling for considerable dexterity.
Prelude in A minor BWV551
On a much smaller scale than its more famous cousin (BWV543), BWV551 nevertheless punches above its weight. The short Prelude is a twelve-bar miniature, scalic and in two parts. Mostly manualiter, the pedal only enters to underscore the final cadence. The Fugue is not composed separately, but follows on straight after the Prelude, and is a larger affair. A compact subject, that turns on a repeating semitone and includes chromatic moments, leads into a multi-sectional fugue, full of interest. The main fugal argument is broken up by smaller sections of contrasting textures—note the eight bars of slow chordal writing in the middle—that give the whole work a feel that is closer to the origins of a composer like Buxtehude. Thus, the Fugue gives way to Buxtehude-like passage work towards the end. Bach’s authorship is disputed for this work, seemingly written before Bach had fully assimilated Buxtehude’s style.
Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt BWV705
BWV705 is a simple setting of the chorale tune, harmonised in 4 parts, in the stile antico, or ‘old style’. Each phrase of the chorale is treated in turn, with each phrase of the setting beginning with a fugal entry in a single voice. BWV705 is an organ motet, ‘so similar in style and form to choral movements of Bach […] as to look like a transcription’ (Williams, 2003, 444).
Fuga super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr BWV716
BWV716 is also set in a plain counterpoint, perhaps by a young Bach (Williams, 2003, 456). As with BWV716, each phrase of the chorale is set fugally. The joyful affect of the text, Luther’s setting of the ‘Gloria in excelsis deo’ is suggested by the triple-time dance feel. Though written on two staves, in sometimes sparse three-point counterpoint, the pedal nevertheless takes a full role.
Prelude and Fugue in B minor BWV544
The glorious Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV544, represents the pinnacle of Bach’s treatment of this form. It dates from around 1730. The Prelude opens with jaunty, anguished harmony turning above a B pedal, with a fascinating mix of on- and off-beat rhythms, such that the natural accents shift in interesting ways. The initial exposition is long and winding, the music pausing as the section cadences. The episodes in between these larger paragraphs—large structural markers—are contrasting in scale: often manualiter, scalic, yet retaining the melancholy feel of the whole. The Fugue’s lengthy subject spins out a simple step-by-step run in quavers, and is paired with a running countersubject that explores its harmonic potential. This continues in spacious main sections that allow both the serious affect and the ‘singable’ quality of the material to be fully explored. These larger blocks are split by a lengthy episode for manuals that provides contrast, though the whole is unified by its skilful way of creating a complex web of counterpoint from simple materials.
George Parsons © 2020
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 © 2020