Organ Recital: Music of J.S. Bach (1685-1750)

(An organWORX Concert hosted by fellow Organist and friend Jenny Vincent)

Programme

Concerto in C major  BWV 595

The ‘Schübler’ Chorale Preludes  BWV 645-650

  1. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme  (Wake up, a voice is calling)
  1. Wo soll lich fliehen hin   (Whither should I flee)
  1. Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten   (He who allows dear God to rule him)
  1. Meine Seele erhebt den Herren   (My soul magnifies the Lord)
  1. Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ   (Ah stay with us, Lord Jesu Christ)
  1. Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter   (Are you coming now, Jesus, from Heaven?)

Passacaglia in C minor  BWV 582


 

The Concerto in C major was not actually written by Bach, but by Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Bach’s arrangement of the concerto, originally for two solo violins and orchestra, probably dates from 1714. The original work has been lost, as have the remaining two movements of Bach’s organ arrangement. However, his version of the complete concerto for harpsichord (BWV 984) has survived. Bach is a master of instrumental idiom. We know from other organ arrangements he made that he remained faithful to the originals. At the same time, in the present work and in the harpsichord version, we see his skill in adapting music written for one medium to the idiosyncrasies of others. But why make such arrangements? For study? For the use of his pupils? As a gesture of respect to the original composer? Because he liked the music and wanted to be able to play it for himself? Or – all of the above?

The ‘Schübler’ Chorale Preludes are also arrangements, but of Bach’s own music. With the exception of #2, all are movements from extant cantatas. If, as is likely, #2 is also from a cantata, it will be from one of the many that have been lost. The name ‘Schübler’ refers to Johann Georg Schübler who engraved the music for publication around 1746, just four years before Bach’s death. Publication of music was then still comparatively rare. For example, hardly any of Bach’s other music was published in his lifetime. Thus the questions: why these pieces, and why then? While they represent a departure from more traditional ways of writing chorale-based music for the organ, a personal reason may be more appealing. The Bach scholar Peter Williams writes: “Though liturgically bound to the end of the church year and the approach of Advent, the texts (of the original cantata movements) can also be understood more personally as scanning personal grace and salvation, either in general or in the course of a life then in its sixties; ‘Advent’ and ‘Evening’ are then symbolic or analogous.” It looks as if these preludes may indeed be a sort of musical testament to the composer’s sense of a ‘personal Advent’.

Bach’s older brother, Johann Christoph, made the earliest extant copy of the Passacaglia somewhere between 1706 and 1713. The work itself is thought to date from around 1705, when Bach was a mere twenty years old! The Passacaglia is a set of variations that unfold over the theme heard at the outset on the pedals. At times, the theme appears in higher voices too, as well as in fragmented form. In all, there are 21 statements of the theme in the first section of the work. Numerology, or the mystical symbolism of numbers, is omnipresent in Bach. In the number 21, (3 x 7), the ‘3’ symbolizes the Trinity and ‘7’ reminds us of the Sabbath, of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and more generally of spiritual attainment. There are also musical references to a number of chorales whose themes run the liturgical gamut from Advent through Christmas to Easter, making the first section of the piece a monumental musical statement of faith. Then comes the fugue where a new countersubject is paired with the original theme. In this section, there are 12 statements of the theme, which again has theological overtones – the 12 tribes of Jacob (= God’s chosen people), and the 12 Apostles (= the foundation of the ‘apostolic’ faith, the Creeds and the Church). The term ‘fugue’ comes from Latin ‘fuga’ (= ‘flight’) and historically denoted the flight of the soul towards God. It may be that the interaction of theme and countersubject denote the interaction of the human soul with the Christian faith. The triumphant final cadence arrives at a brilliant C major chord where the texture is expanded from four to seven voices – ‘7’ the symbol for spiritual attainment reached at last!