J.S. BACH (1685-1750)

The “Schübler” Chorale Preludes BWV 645-650

Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme (Wake! The watchman calls)

Wo soll ich fliehen hin (Whither should I flee?)

Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (If thou but suffer God to guide thee)

Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (My soul doth magnify the Lord)

Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (Bide with us, Lord Jesus Christ)

Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter (Jesus, art thou coming now from heaven?)

Prelude & Fugue in c BWV 546

The six chorale preludes in today’s programme were published in Leipzig, either in 1748 or 1749, by Johann Georg Schübler and therefore very close to the time of the composer’s death. Although the publication of music was becoming more frequent it was still an expensive and time-consuming undertaking and we must remember that comparatively little of Bach’s large output exists in any but MS copies, often those made by contemporaries or pupils. The fact that these pieces were published as a set is therefore significant and inevitably leads to the question – why? Why these pieces? It is generally supposed that Bach was intimately involved with the publishing process and there are numerous examples of number symbolism, which was enjoyed by Bach, in the final product, as Peter Williams points out:

The arrangement of trio-trio-quartet-quartet-trio-trio is…matched by the number of written-out bars in the engraving: the first and last chorales have fifty-four bars each, BWV 645 being laid out on three pages of three systems, each of which has three staves…there are 14 pages, 14 lines on the title page, a total of 256 bars (27) and a total of 41 lines of musical score…”

A numerological rendering of B+A+C+H yields 14 and its mirror image is, of course, 41. We shall return briefly to the mirror image topic later. There are also sixty-five words on the title page and Bach’s sixty-fifth birthday was on March 21st, 1750. The other plays on numbers employ multiples of the spiritually significant “7” as well as multiples of “3” which make a connection with the Trinitarian aspect of Christian faith. If such factors bear witness to Bach’s interest in this group of pieces, further interest lies in the fact that all but one (BWV 646) are known to be arrangements for the organ, by Bach, of movements from Cantatas written during his time in Leipzig. BWV 646 may share a similar provenance but, if so, its original has been lost. Of itself, the publication of a set of arrangements for the organ of music primarily designed for voices and other instruments is interesting and somewhat innovative. It entertains stylistic possibilities not hitherto used in organ composition and thereby paves the way for the musical future. But still, the question remains – why these pieces and why then? I believe that the answer to the first of these questions lies in the nature of the chorale texts themselves for they all connect in some way to the theme of Advent. Within the Christian calendar the season of Advent consists of the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It is generally, and rather simplistically, seen as a time to prepare for Christmas, which it is. But it goes far beyond mere preparation for a jolly time ahead, and the solemnity which it ought to have (devoid of premature Christmas decorations and carols) is not the mere pietistic caprice of a sort of misery-laden Puritanism. Advent bids us look in three directions at once:

  1. to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem long ago and to how we may rightly celebrate that event;
  2. to the way in which the Christ may be born within us now; and,
  3. to the ultimate encounter with him “at the end of time” or following our earthly life.

It is tempting to think that “why then?” can be explained by the fact that the date of publication was close to the composer’s death. But there is no evidence that Bach had anything but robust health save for deteriorating eyesight, and the operations on his eyes which may have precipitated his death did not take place until 1750 itself. However, the mirror image delineated by the pattern of trios and quartets mentioned earlier may be significant. As an extension of this the fourth of the preludes, that based on the Magnificat tone, is itself designed as a palindrome, or mirror image structure – A-B-C-D-C-B-A – in terms of its textures and the presence or absence of the chorale melody. It is recognised that a palindrome is suggestive of death and resurrection; the movement towards the centre denoting this earthly life and the subsequent movement away from the centre denoting the afterlife. Further, the B-A-C-H motif is present in the central section of the piece. Perhaps the end of life was indeed on Bach’s mind, perhaps not. Nevertheless, the spiritual significance of the pieces fits in perfectly with Bach’s well-known religious faith. While none of this speculation affects the technical manner of performance, it does, however, shed light on some of the thoughts in the composer’s mind as the pieces were prepared for publication.

The Prelude and Fugue in c comes from two distinct times in Bach’s life: the Prelude from his days in Weimar during the second decade of the 18th century, and the Fugue from his time in Leipzig, probably the mid-1740s. The massively dramatic chords with which the Prelude begins are probably precisely the kind of texture which terrified organ builders when he tested new instruments, saying, “Let us see if it has good lungs!” – they would be worried that the texture might take too much wind and cause the pitch to waver. Such youthful grandeur is matched by the masterful five-voice counterpoint with which the Fugue begins and ends and which, towards the close, is expanded to a final eight-voice cadence.