Early German Masters

Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637-1707) – Praeludium, Fuge & Ciacona in C major, Chorale Prelude “Vater unser im Himmelreich”

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – Toccata in e minor, Chorale Prelude “Vater unser im Himmelreich”, Ricercare in C major

Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) – Canzona in F major

Johannes Speth (1664-c.1720) – Toccata in D minor

Welcome to the confusion of the middle-Baroque where musical terms abound, and where efforts to clearly distinguish one from another evaporate into futility! Truly it was a melting-pot in the history of music with composers and performers travelling all over Europe, listening to each other, learning from each other, copying each other’s styles and innovations, incorporating them into their own work, and often improving upon them. Born in Denmark, Buxtehude spent much of his life and career in the north German city of Lübeck. The young Bach made a pilgrimage there to meet and hear him. Pachelbel worked in numerous centres including Vienna, but of great interest is his time in Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace, and in neighbouring Erfurt. Here he developed a close friendship with the Bach family, and taught Bach’s older brother, Johann Christoph. Froberger also spent time in Vienna, and is chiefly remembered as a pioneer in the development of the keyboard suite. Speth is less well known but composed prolifically for the keyboard. His major appointment was as organist at Augsburg Cathedral from 1692 until his death.

Today you will hear at least three examples of musical genres where confusion of terms is most obvious – fugue, ricercare, and canzona, but for good measure, you can add the toccata. You will also hear two settings of the chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich (Our Father in Heaven) which are as divergent in style as one could possibly imagine.

Some literal meanings: fugue = flight; ricercare = search; canzona = something lyrical, something sung. We put fugue aside for a moment, and consider ricercare. To search? Another connotation is to study. But to search for what? To study what? In the 16th and 17th centuries, the term was applied to such a wide variety of musical styles that it is impossible to find a common denominator. Two trends emerge – music which is a “study” in counterpoint (the art of combining melodic lines to form a harmonious whole), and music which is a “study” in some aspect of instrumental technique; the first of these trends became the most important. What emerged was the imitative ricercare in which a number of voices successively take up various motifs in imitation of each other. This kind of instrumental music began as an instrumental version of the choral motet, but without voices, without words. Eventually, the style and structure of an instrumental ricercare tended to overlap that of fugue. The main difference is that while fugal structure and procedure usually revolved around just one subject or theme, a ricercare might have numerous themes. (Of course, there are always exceptions, and by the time of Bach we also find fugues in which numerous subjects are woven together.) So to the canzona, an Italian word, similar to the French chanson. In the 14th and 15th centuries the term referred to serious lyrical poetry, became a designation for 16th century Italian secular vocal music, and migrated to an instrumental form which developed directly from Franco-Flemish vocal music. It tended to have variety of texture mingled with a balance and clarity of form. It was less serious than the ricercare and employed more lively rhythms. In the end, you might not hear much difference between these types of music, or even from fugue. Suffice it to say that, at least in its opening (or exposition), a fugue follows rather strict procedure; after that, the sky is the limit in terms of the contrapuntal tricks that can be used.

The two chorale preludes on Vater unser are, as already noted, completely different. The first, by Buxtehude, treats the chorale melody in a decorated arioso manner. It is akin to other settings by him, especially of the Advent chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland where a notable similarity is the cadenza-like extension of the final note of the chorale melody. The second prelude, by Pachelbel, is an example of that composer’s typical approach in that the piece has two sections. The first treats the chorale melody in a fugal manner, while the second places the phrases of the chorale in the pedal, with the manuals developing rapid figurations above it.

Finally, toccata = touched (i.e. notes on a keyboard), as opposed to something sounded (sonata) by strings, or sung (cantata) by voices. At first, the term did not apply to music of a particularly virtuosic nature – that came later, but the trend is evident in the e minor toccata by Pachelbel. Early toccatas usually exploit quite bold harmonic progressions and the development of little scraps of melody. They consist of a number of brief sections that are often contrasted in mood. Usually one of the sections is fugal, and early preludes and fugues are really more like expanded toccatas. An example is the opening work by Buxtehude, with the added variant of its concluding ciacona (otherwise known as chaconne, or passacaglia – a dance form in which variations develop over a repeated bass pattern).

Such was the melting-pot nature of the period that many of the musical genres share characteristics in no particularly logical manner. A good exercise for the listener to see if you can spot some of the similarities and differences.