“From Heaven on High”

“Vom Himmel hoch”

Canonic Variations “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” BWV 769 – J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

“La Nativité” (No.2 of “Trois Poèmes Evangéliques” – Jean Langlais (1907-1991)

Prelude on ‘Greensleeves’ (‘What child is this’) – Richard Purvis (1913-1994)

Chorale Prelude “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” – Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)

The opening and closing works in today’s programme are based on the chorale melody “Vom Himmel hoch” which is shown above. The words of the fifteen-verse hymn were written by Martin Luther and published with the melody in 1539. The first verse in English is:

From heaven on high I come,/bringing you good tidings;/of tidings I bring so many/of which I will sing and speak.

The chorale is found in six of Bach’s organ works, three times in the Christmas Oratorio, and as one of the movements of the original version of the Magnificat. In 1738 the Leipzig “Society for the Musical Sciences”, the aims of which were to enable discourse on musical theoretical subjects, had been founded by Lorenz Mizler. Mizler was an amateur musician and also a physician and mathematician. The scholar Christoph Wolff says that he was also a student of Bach’s. Bach became the Society’s fourteenth member in 1747 and presented it with the set of Canons based on “Vom Himmel hoch”. The work was later published. These details were noted by Mizler himself as part of the Obituary of J.S. Bach which was published in 1754. It seems that Bach was familiar with the writings of the philosopher Leibniz and it is believed that he may have been quite well acquainted with the ideas of people like Pythagoras and Newton. We also know that he was a well-read theologian in his own right. Bach was very aware, then, of the mathematical bases of music and the ways in which musical pitches combine in perfect ratios. He was not a speculative theoretician, however, preferring to express such thought in the practical matter of music designed to be performed and listened to.

Each of the variations on “Vom Himmel hoch” is in the form of a canon. The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines this as “A polyphonic [i.e. multi-voiced] composition in which all the parts have the same melody throughout, although starting at different points.” A slightly easier way of understanding this is to recall a song (usually called a “Round”) like “Frère Jacques”. One person starts the song and the next begins just as the first starts the second phrase – and so on and so forth, everyone beginning the tune at the same pitch. It could be hard enough for a novice to write a tune which would work in this manner – without yielding unpleasant collisions of mismatching notes once all the voices are in play – but what Bach achieves in the present work, as well as in numerous others, is of a far higher order. For example, in Variation 1 two upper voices behave just as I have described while in their midst the pedal has the chorale melody in long notes. But – what if you wanted to have the imitating voice enter at a completely different pitch from the first voice, and not even one that relates easily to the first within the key that the piece is in? Well, leave it to Bach for this is exactly what happens in the following four variations:

Variation 2 – the two upper voices are again in canon with the chorale in the pedal but this time the imitating voice comes in five notes lower than the first. This is not so hard to negotiate because the interval of a fifth is integral to the structure of major or minor chords as well as to the major or minor scale. But – it does mean that if the leading voice changes key, say, to G major, the imitating voice will go to D major and it can start to be difficult to get back to where you began – C major.

Variation 3 – a free voice of a highly melodic nature wends its way above two lower voices moving in canon, this time seven notes apart which is very tricky because the interval of a seventh is a scary discord. Above the whole structure then floats the chorale melody.

Variation 4 – three upper voices appear. The outer ones move in canon at the octave which means that they are effectively at the same pitch. The value-added feature is that the lower of the two is in augmentation, that is, in notes which are twice the length of those in the upper voice. Again this is tricky because the voice with the shorter note values arrives at its destination significantly earlier than the imitating voice, and…then what? Meanwhile, there is a freely composed inner voice and the chorale again appears in long notes in the pedal.

Variation 5 – now the fun really begins! It begins with three voices, increases to four, and by the end has six. There is a succession of canons in which the imitating voice enters at 1) six notes away from the original, 2) three notes away from it, 3) two notes away from it, and 3) nine notes away from it. At the same time the imitating voice presents the tune upside down. Towards the very end the canon begins again in diminution, that is, in very short note values and finally in stretto, that is, with the time interval between the entries of the voices drastically reduced. And, of course, as is customary with Bach it is possible to discern theological symbolism in the numbers involved in the composition.

Jean Langlais was Organiste Titulaire for many years at the Basilica of Ste. Clotilde in Paris. “La Nativité” is probably typical of the kind of music which Langlais would have improvised during Mass. It presents four little musical tableaux which are noted in the score as “La Crêche”, “Les Anges”, “Les Bergers”, and “La Sainte Famille”.

Richard Purvis held the position of Organist and Choirmaster at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral for many years. This meditation on a well known Christmas carol tune needs no explanation.

With Pachelbel, one of Bach’s notable forerunners (and the composer of music which is far more interesting than the ubiquitous “Canon in D”) we return to the chorale with which we began and the florid nature of the writing is perfectly suited to the festive nature of the Christmas season