Welcome to the last installment of Blogging the Orgelbüchlein! After today’s post, there’ll be nothing more to do but sit down on the organ bench and play the music – which I’m going to do on Thursday, March 21, at 7:30 PM at St. John the Divine.
It’s been an amazing pilgrimage with Bach’s music over the past year. As I mentioned early on in this blog, I played very few of the Orgelbüchlein preludes as a student. Before deciding last spring that I would tackle the complete set, I was familiar with many of them, but I probably only had two or three in my repertoire. Digging into these pieces, and writing about it here, has opened up perspectives far deeper and broader than I ever suspected. This really is music for a lifetime, and I know I’ll continue practicing, performing, and pondering the Orgelbüchlein for a very long time.
Today’s prelude, “Ach, wie flüchtig, ach, wie nichtig,” BWV 644, ends the set in the most 18th-century Lutheran way possible: by saying that everything’s useless. Even better, the whole endeavor is based on a terrible German pun. This hymn has 13 verses, every one of which begins “Ach, wie flüchtig, ach, wie nichtig” (Oh how fleeting, oh how insubstantial). The first verse contains the pun which was probably the inspiration for the entire text: “LEBEN” (life), if you spell it backwards, makes “NEBEL” (fog). So life is like a fog – get it? It floats in at random and then vanishes.
The ninth verse is particularly poignant – you can’t help but picture Bach himself singing these words and imagining what legacy he would leave to posterity. I wonder what he would think if he could see us celebrating his 334th birthday with concerts of his compositions?
|Ach wie flüchtig,|
Ach wie nichtig
Ist der Menschen Dichten!
Der, so Kunst hat lieb gewonnen
Und manch schönes Werck ersonnen,
Wird zu letzt vom Todt erronnen!
|Ah how fleeting,|
ah how insubstantial
are man’s creations!
Someone who has dearly acquired skill
and thought out many a beautiful work
is in the end overtaken by death.
Bach’s prelude on this text is a musical illustration of a fog. He doesn’t do it exactly the way Debussy does, but his version is remarkably effective. Scales meander over the keyboard at random, capriciously changing direction:
If it weren’t for the highly diatonic chorale tune in the top voice, this would be a portrait of chaos. Meanwhile, the octave leaps in the pedal suggest a pizzicato bass. At St. John the Divine, I tried many different registrations, looking for the right effect. I finally found that if I used very wide-scaled flutes at 16′, 8, 4, and 2′, and played the notes quite short, this line rang in the space exactly like the ticking of a clock.
There’s at least one place where Bach uses a similar metaphor explicitly: in the extraordinary aria “Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen,” from Cantata No. 127. Halfway through, at the line, “Ach ruft mich bald, ihr Sterbeglocken” (Oh call me soon, you bells of death), Bach has the strings play sixteenth-note pizzicatos to represent time ticking away – and then suddenly cuts them off like a stopped watch. It’s a completely uncanny bit of orchestration; Richard Strauss with his hundred-piece orchestras never did anything more unsettling.
The ending of “Ach, wie flüchtig” is also strange. As the last scale peters out in the bass, and the pedal falls silent, there’s a four-note chord out of nowhere in the right hand:
I’ve chosen to arpeggiate this chord and make it very short, so that I arrive on the top note just as the bass reaches its low G. Here’s a performance recorded this afternoon:
And with that weirdly arpeggiated chord, our journey through the Orgelbüchlein comes to an end. You have to ask – why didn’t Bach finish his original plan, and set all the 164 chorales on his list? The most likely reason, I think, is that he’d squeezed all the juice out of the orange. He’d already written an extraordinary encyclopedia of musical techniques and contrapuntal motives, spanning an enormous emotional range. I wouldn’t blame him if, having reached this point, he decided that writing more miniatures in this style would mean repeating himself. But I can’t stop myself from thinking about those blank pages in the manuscript, and wondering what might have been …
I’ll always remember something one of my college professors said at the end of his course. After finishing his last lecture, he told us, “It’s a privilege to stand here and think about music for a while.” In a world with all sorts of troubles, that seems to present new and worse outrages every day, it’s a privilege to play music, and it’s a privilege to sit here on the organ bench and think about music for a while. I believe that Bach would have understood this idea very well.
Thanks for reading! I hope to see you at Thursday’s concert, or perhaps for future projects (Blogging Clavierübung Part III? Blogging the Livre du Saint-Sacrement? Who knows …)