Music based on the Lord’s Prayer
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) — Chorale Preludes on “Vater unser im Himmelreich” BWV 636, 737, 682, 683
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) — Sonata in d, Op. 65, No.6
The organ works of Bach can be broadly divided into two groups. First, there is a large assortment of pieces of all kinds which includes the famous Toccatas, Preludes and Fugues, the six Trio Sonatas, and numerous other pieces in various styles and forms. Second, there is the large corpus of Chorale Preludes. Many of these are miscellaneous compositions while others belong to collections which follow a plan with regard to their content and some of which were published in the composer’s lifetime. The latter is very significant because in the early 18th century a great deal of music still circulated only in manuscript form, either autograph manuscripts (in the composer’s own hand) or copies (frequently made by pupils). Further, publication of music was an involved and expensive process. We know that in his published works Bach worked closely with the publisher and was even involved in matters regarding the layout of the score. Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”) is one of the unpublished collections. It contains Chorale Preludes for the church year and the first of the four settings being played today comes from this collection. It is the shortest of the four pieces and, at first sight, the simplest in terms of musical structure, but this is an example of art which conceals art. As the melody is presented in a fairly straightforward manner in the highest voice the accompanying voices reiterate a four-note motif which appears in rectus and inversus forms. Visually, the motif can be placed on the musical staff in such a manner as to trace the sign of the cross. In “Vater unser” it occurs 49 times. It is always fun to see numerology at work in Bach’s music. Scholarly controversy abounds as to whether or not these things are intentional or coincidental but I tend to the point of view that a mind like that of Bach could hardly be unaware of what was happening in his music. So 49 = 7×7. 7 is a mystical number. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are sevenfold. When asked about how many times one should forgive another his trespasses, Jesus said that it should not be 70 times but 70 x 7. In fact the Greek idiom used in the Gospels implies 70x7x7x7x7….ad infinitum. It is not hard to imagine Bach seeing this as an important symbol in the musical treatment of a prayer one of whose central tenets is that of mutual forgiveness.
The second setting of “Vater unser” in this programme employs a somewhat antique style in which imitative treatment of each phrase of the melody acts as a precursor to its presentation in the highest voice.
Two important published collections of Chorale Preludes are the six Schübler Preludes (named for their Leipzig publisher) and Clavierübung (“Keyboard Practice”). The latter is a four-volume compendium of pieces for all types of keyboard instruments and musical forms. Part III of Clavierübung contains 21 Chorale Preludes based on chorales associated with the Lutheran Mass and Catechism. There are also four Duetti and the whole is prefaced by an organ prelude in E flat major and closed with a triple fugue in the same key. The third and fourth settings of “Vater unser” being played today come from this collection. The first is the most complex and is also one of the longest of Bach’s organ chorales. The structure is that of a trio sonata in which various motifs recur in the manner of the ritornello (i.e. something which “returns”) structure of the Baroque concerto. In practical terms this means that two upper voices played on separate keyboards using contrasting sounds wend their intricate way, imitating and paraphrasing each other, while exploiting and developing melodic material derived from the chorale melody itself. All this takes place over a bass line in the pedals which points the rhythm and underpins the harmony. But this is a Chorale Prelude and the chorale has to appear in full which it does, line by line, in each manual part and in canon. Thus the complete texture of the piece contains five independent voices or lines. Canon is a musical device which is best illustrated by the well known round “Frère Jacques” where one voice begins the melody and another takes it up in perfect imitation after a specific period of time. In canon the imitating voice obeys the leading voice and the device can therefore become symbolic of the notion of obedience – in Christian theology that of the Son to the Father, that of Jesus to the Law, and that of the faithful to God. Now, the idea of the Lord’s Prayer having to do with obedience may seem a little far-fetched at first. However, it is the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as being perfectly obedient to God. Indeed, in the prayer he ascribes primacy to the Father in heaven and in praying the Lord’s Prayer the faithful participate in this obedience. Also, the Lord’s Prayer is not so much a prayer per se as a menu of priorities for leading a holy life. We may construe that Jesus saw a life of prayer as something very active, that the petition “thy kingdom come” had to do with establishing justice here and now, and that for the faithful this requires a radical obedience to a certain set of principles. The second setting, as is the pattern in Clavierübung, is for manuals only in which the chorale melody appears quite straightforwardly in the upper voice while three lower voices exchange descending and ascending scale patterns.
Mendelssohn’s six sonatas for the organ date from 1845 and were commissioned by a London publisher. They are a landmark in the development of the organ repertoire; they continue the tradition of basing organ music on chorales; they display mastery of every contrapuntal technique; and harmonically and texturally they look forward to the work of Rheinberger and Reger. Among their idiosyncrasies is the fact that they do not conform to what, by the mid-19th century, one would have come to expect from a work designated by the term “sonata.” None of the movements is in classical sonata form. None of the “sonatas” adheres to the standardized four movement pattern that was a hallmark of sonatas and symphonies which had come from the pens of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and indeed in other instrumental and orchestral music by Mendelssohn himself. Fugal textures abound and at least two of the sonatas are based on identifiable traditional chorales. (That being played today incorporates the chorale “Vater unser.”) It is at this point that we discover something of the provenance of the pieces and that the commission was actually for a collection of organ “voluntaries,” that is, pieces which could be played in church before and after services. So, in Sonata No. 6 we have a lengthy first movement which consists of the chorale and five variations, each of which is really a chorale prelude and which could easily stand quite alone from the rest of the work. The fourth of these variations is a vigorous toccata which anticipates the kind of music developed by the French composers of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. It is followed by a fugue and the sonata is then brought to a quiet close by a simple but melodiously elegant finale in the major key.