“De Profundis”

“De Profundis” — Music based on Psalm 130

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) — Chorale Preludes on “Aus tiefer Noth schrei’ ich zu dir” BWV 686, 687

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) — Psalm Prelude, Set II, No.1Ü

Gustav Merkel (1827-1885) — Sonata in e, Op.137

Psalm 130 is one of the so-called “Seven Penitential Psalms” associated with penitential seasons such as Lent. It was also used in the Roman Burial Service and Office for the Dead. The opening of the Psalm is as follows: “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice.” The phrase “De profundis” is the Latin rendering of the English “Out of the deep.” In Hebrew the word for “deep” in this context is “Sheol” and it is equivalent to our notion of Hell or Hades – a place of darkness, of hopelessness and abandonment, a place of grief and despair. You do not have to be a religious person in order to contemplate such a state. Any situation of extreme grief, bereavement, or other psychological anguish can cause a person to cry out, if not from the depths of Sheol at least from the depths of their own being. As is often the case with the Psalms, this example moves from despair to optimism and the final affirmation: “(The Lord) shall redeem Israel: from all his sins.”

One of the mainstays of Lutheran worship has always been the congregational singing of chorales. Much of the organ literature of the Baroque era and beyond, linked so closely to worship, is based on chorale melodies. It was the task of organists to improvise preludes to congregational singing which would reflect the mood and theological content of the chorale or hymn about to be sung. While Bach undoubtedly learned from those who went before him, his own chorale settings for the organ marked a zenith which has never been surpassed in terms of musical invention and expressiveness. Often, however, the musical structures used have a certain severity and austerity which can render them difficult to approach.

The German metrical text of Psalm 130, “Aus tiefer Noth schrei’ ich zu dir” (“From deep distress have I cried to you”), is Luther’s translation published in 1524. The chorale melody was published in the same year. The two settings being played today come from Bach’s Clavierübung, Part III which is a collection of twenty-one chorales preceded by a massive Prelude in E flat and followed by a triple Fugue in the same key. The chorales themselves are those associated with the Lutheran liturgy and catechism, thereby offering a musical statement of faith. The first of the settings of “Aus tiefer Noth” is a massive study in counterpoint for six voices, four to be played on the manuals and two on the pedals. Because the musical structure and interplay of voices owes so much to earlier styles of choral music it is often referred to as an example of an organ motet. It is also one of several chorale settings by Bach which feature what the title refers to as “Pedale doppio” or “double pedal.” While five of the voices weave their way in and out with material derived from the chorale, the upper of the two pedal parts presents the chorale itself in relatively long notes line by line. The second setting is for manuals only and features complex fugal treatments of each chorale phrase over which the chorale itself appears in longer note values.

While we rightly regard Bach as the absolute master of all things to do with chorales, counterpoint, and the way in which they may apply to the organ, the traditions he developed did not in fact die with him in 1750 as the Sonata, Op.137, by Gustav Merkel shows. Merkel’s writing owes much to Mendelssohn, likely also to his friend Schumann, and it paved the way for later composers of organ music including Rheinberger and Reger. The Sonata is in three movements, the first and third of which deal with the chorale “Aus tiefer Noth.” Both movements also introduce a further chorale, “Wie schön leuchtet die Morgenstern” (“How brightly shines the Morningstar”) which is generally associated with the Christmas season. The “Morningstar” is Christ and the theological statement in the piece is that the Psalmist’s prayer is ultimately answered by the coming of Christ. The opening of “Aus tiefer Noth” is heard at the beginning of the Sonata and, at the conclusion of the first movement, Merkel presents the entire chorale using harmonies which are easily equal to what Bach himself might have written. The Sonata begins in the relative gloom of E minor, traverses C major in the slow movement, and makes a great transition from E minor to E major in the finale.

Merkel spent much of his life in Dresden where the influence of Bach was keenly felt. Bach had visited the city and played there on numerous occasions especially when his son, Wilhelm Friedemann, had been organist at the Sophienkirche. Wilhelm Friedemann was a noted player and said to be the equal of his father as an improviser. Clearly a “Bach” tradition and style was established at Dresden which produced another noted player, Johann Gotlob Schneider, who was Merkel’s mentor. So far I have not been able to discover any details about Schneider’s own musical upbringing.

Herbert Howells was one of the most important and original voices in English church music during the 20th century. He had been an articled pupil of Sir Herbert Brewer at Gloucester and was clearly being groomed for a cathedral career. Sadly this was inhibited by a serious illness from which he barely survived. A tragedy, no doubt, it was compounded by the loss of his son, Michael, to polio at the age of nine. Musically his great choral work “Hymnus Paradisi” is a response to his grief and much of Howells’ music seems to be of that mood. Another famous work is “Take him, earth, for cherishing,” an American commission in 1964 to mark the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Howells wrote six Psalm Preludes each of which is a tone poem based on a Psalm text. In the piece being played today a quiet opening contains melodic phrases which arise, literally, “out of the depths” of the organ’s spectrum of sound. The plaint becomes more insistent, rises to a climax with a full organ statement of the opening material, and then gradually dies away to a serene ending.