Day 45: Ach, wie flüchtig, ach, wie nichtig, BWV 644

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.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818.

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 …)

Day 44: Alle Menschen müssen sterben, BWV 643

After the Super Bowl in February, around the time I started this blog, one of the players for the Los Angeles Rams made headlines for what he said during a postgame press conference: “At the end of the day, you’re all going to die.” Perhaps this was a slightly bombastic way to process the loss of a football game, but he had a point. As Bach and his contemporaries knew, “Alle Menschen müssen sterben.”

This is one of the hardest areas of Bach’s worldview for a contemporary American performer – or listener – to come to grips with. We don’t see much death in person, and it’s easy for many people not to think at all about their own eventual death. In Bach’s day, as David Yearsley points out, dying was a highly ritualized affair, and most people who died of natural causes did so at home, with friends and relatives close by.

Carstian Luyckx, Vanitas, c. 1650.

Many of Bach’s works imagine death as a blissful release from the sorrows of the world. We’ve seen this attitude already in the Orgelbüchlein, with “Mit Fried’ und Freud,” where the chorale text says that “death to me is become a sleep.” In Cantata N0. 82, the final aria proclaims, “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” (I delight in my death). This cantata was unforgettably performed and recorded by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who herself died young, at only 52. Lieberson also performed “Ich habe genug” in a staged version, which updated the vocabulary of dying for the present day. As Alex Ross described it,

Hunt Lieberson sang the Bach cantatas in a monodrama staged by the iconoclastic director Peter Sellars, with whom she has collaborated on many projects over the years. For “Ich habe genug,” she wore the hospital garb—complete with medical tubes—of a woman who is terminally ill.

Bach’s prelude on “Alle Menschen müssen sterben” is extraordinarily sweet and gentle, with thirds and sixths that rock back and forth almost like a cradle.

If this is death, Bach seems to say, it is nothing more than falling asleep in the arms of a loving God. At the end, there’s an extraordinary moment:

Bach’s biographer Philipp Spitta was profoundly moved by this writing: “What a tender melancholy lurks in the chorale ‘Alle Menschen müssen sterben’ … what an indescribable expression … arises in the last bar from the false relation between C sharp and C, and the almost imperceptible ornamentation of the melody!”

For Thursday’s performance, I’m playing the piece as a lullaby, on a single 4-foot flute. Here it is, using the beautiful Flauto Traverso on the Swell:

Day 43: Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten, BWV 642

Today’s prelude is robust and energetic. “Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten,” BWV 642, is dominated by bursts of thirty-second notes in the hands and a powerful striding figure in the bass:

That pedal motive

seems to have had, for Bach, an association with faith. It’s closely related to the pedal theme from “Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott,” BWV 680, a prelude on the German version of the Nicene Creed:

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, editors were fond of assigning overwrought or bombastic names to these sorts of motives. If you go to Albert Riemenschneider’s edition, you can read all about the “motive of beatific piece,” and other such things that are impossible to verify using historical evidence. But perhaps it’s not too much to say that stepwise motion like this conveyed a sense of confidence or trust to Bach and his listeners. Here’s a performance from St. John the Divine:

Today I did a complete run-through of the program for March 21. Afterwards, I breathed a sigh of relief, because you never quite know where you are with a major project until you perform it from beginning to end. You can always make little tweaks for flow and variety, but the essentials are there.

Playing a large set of pieces, mostly similar to each other, poses challenges. Anyone who performs a collection like Bach’s Art of Fugue or Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s Preludes, or Schubert’s Winterreise has to deal with the question of how to differentiate each piece, song, variation, or movement. When playing the whole Orgelbüchlein in sequence, rather than just a section of it, I want a lot more variety – which leads me to take some risks and create some unconventional interpretations.

The danger of a highly varied approach is that it can sound self-indulgent. Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, for instance, is considered one of the greatest recordings ever made. Part of its fascination, I think, lies in the tension between variety and eccentricity. Gould really does hold the listener’s attention through 30 variations, playing each one in an individual way – but some of his artistic decisions are crazy.

Glenn Gould (1932–1982). As George Szell once said, “That nut is a genius.”

One of the inspirations for this project was a concert I heard just after coming to New York. In September 2009, my teacher, Paul Jacobs, played (from memory) all six of Bach’s Trio Sonatas at Juilliard. It’s still the greatest live recital I’ve ever heard, by anyone, on any instrument. All questions of boredom or fatigue at hearing 18 consecutive trio movements were thrown out the window; each one had its own character and its own registration. One of them ended with a giant ad-libbed chord not in the score. Another was played as a continuous crescendo à la Reger. These choices, which might have seemed strange on their own, made beautiful sense in the context of that program.

So as I’ve grappled with the structure of the Orgelbüchlein, read the texts which inspired it, investigated the culture that produced it, and compared the music to other pieces both old and recent, I’ve found myself wanting to push the envelope. I can promise that some of these preludes will sound unlike anybody else’s version. There should be an element of excitement in that – it’s the sensation of hearing something that feels unfamiliar, and not knowing where it’s going to go. Each performer has to break away somehow from the received wisdom handed down to them; it gets harder and harder to be individual as recorded versions pile up on iTunes, but I think it’s still possible, or I wouldn’t be doing this. Great works of art like the Orgelbüchlein always demand a fresh look, and force us to ask how it could be done differently.

If I’ve made good musical decisions, I hope the result will be that the entire program comes alive Thursday in a three-dimensional way. If I haven’t – well, I’ve got the rest of my life to refine my ideas!

Day 42: Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, BWV 641

Today’s prelude takes us to the very end of Bach’s life. Bach wrote “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein,” BWV 641, when he was in his thirties, but under a different name, this piece is inextricably bound up with the story of his last days.

J. S. Bach at 35 and at 65.

Bach’s prelude is a tender and delicate ornamented chorale. Here’s the first phrase of the original melody:

And here’s that phrase as it practically disappears under Bach’s fanciful ornamentation:

There’s an obvious motivation for writing an ornamented melody line here. The chorale text begins, “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, / Und wissen nicht, wo aus noch ein” (When we are in utmost need, and are completely at a loss). So the profuse ornamentation, and the way it disguises the tune, may represent uncertainty or restlessness.

Bach’s better-known setting of this tune is “Vor’ deinen Thron’,” BWV 668, also nicknamed the “Deathbed Chorale.” The story goes that Bach – who had gone blind, probably from complications of diabetes, and who had endured two unsuccessful operations by the English eye surgeon and charlatan John Taylor – dictated this piece to his son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol. It was then published, strangely, as a supplement to the Art of Fugue, as if to say, “Sorry he didn’t finish that one; but here’s some other stuff.” The first edition of the Art of Fugue in 1751 explained,

The late Author of this work was prevented by his disease of the eyes, and by his death, which followed shortly upon it, from bringing the last Fugue … to conclusion; accordingly it was wished to compensate the friends of his muse by including the four-part church chorale added at the end, which the deceased man in his blindness dictated on the spur of the moment to the pen of a friend.

Caricature of John Taylor (1703–1772). Eighteenth-century medicine is not a pleasant subject.

Bach’s family and friends portrayed BWV 668 as the legendary last creation of a dying composer, but in fact, Bach was revising and improving earlier material, as he did throughout his career. Here’s the beginning of the Orgelbüchlein prelude, BWV 641:

And here’s the same opening phrase from the “Deathbed Chorale,” BWV 668:

They don’t look similar at first glance, because now all the ornamentation is gone from the melody. But if you compare the accompaniments on the lower two staves, they’re identical. The difference is that in the later work, Bach added a lengthy introduction:

This looks totally placid on the page, but it’s a stupendous achievement: in technical terms, a fugal exposition in which the subject is answered by its own inversion. The smoothness and grace of each individual part is awe-inspiring, and the effect when you play all the parts together is one of total serenity – an entirely different from the searching quality of the Orgelbüchlein prelude. Here’s a performance by the Juilliard String Quartet:

Two days ago, we encountered Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel adding an introduction and interludes to “Ich ruf’ zu dir.” Here we can see Bach himself doing the same thing. The difference, though, is that Bach also revised his existing material. If he had merely stuck some interludes onto the torso of the Orgelbüchlein chorale, like C.P.E. did, the piece would have made no sense, because nothing in that calm introduction would have prepared the listener for the arrival of the florid melody. But the interludes in BWV 668 are so masterful, and the simplified version of the melody flows so perfectly out of them, that if you didn’t know there had been an earlier version, you’d never guess.

Here’s a performance of “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” recorded today at St. John the Divine:

Day 41: In dich hab’ ich gehoffet, Herr, BWV 640

Blogging straight through a large set of pieces has its peaks and valleys. Yesterday’s prelude, “Ich ruf’ zu dir,” is one of Bach’s most famous organ pieces; today’s prelude, “In dich hab’ ich gehoffet, Herr,” BWV 640, is one of his most obscure. I’ve never heard this performed live; I’m not even sure I would have learned it if I hadn’t decided to be a completist and perform the whole Orgelbüchlein.

This chorale is a prayer for deliverance against perils and enemies: “daß ich nicht zuschanden werd'” (let me never be confounded). It’s dominated by an insistent rhythm:

Ordinarily, in Bach’s musical language, a motive like this would signify strength, confidence, or faith. But something odd is going on here:

Look at all those tritones – this is anything but a confident-sounding line. And this figure piles in over itself with unusual density:

I get the impression that, while the melody floats on top, serene and untouched, a swarm of annoying little motives, dangerously tricky to play, is seething underneath.

This piece makes me think of a particular anecdote from Bach’s life. For several years, from 1708–1717, Bach worked in Weimar, alongside his cousin, friend, and colleague Johann Gottfried Walther (1684–1748). Johann Nicolaus Forkel tells the story that Bach

once boasted to a friend at Weimar [almost certainly Walther] that he could play at sight and without a mistake anything put before him. But he was mistaken, as his friend convinced him before the week was out. Having invited Bach to breakfast one morning, he placed on the clavier, among other music, a piece which, at a first glance, seemed perfectly easy. On his arrival, Bach, as was his custom, sat down at the clavier to play or look through the music … He had not proceeded far before he came to a passage at which he stopped. After a look at it he began again, only to stop at the same place. “No,” he called to his friend, who was laughing heartily in the next room, “the man does not exist who can play everything at sight. It can’t be done.” With that he got up from the clavier in some annoyance.

Now – acknowledging that Bach was a terrible house guest – we’ll never know what Walther threw up onto the music rack to trick his arrogant cousin. But one possibility could be a piece with detailed rhythmic interplay. Much like “In dich hab’ ich gehoffet,” such a composition would look reasonable on the page – a moderate tempo, mostly sixteenth and eighth notes – but would be precarious to play. A piece consisting mostly or entirely of leaps might be another possibility. Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643) wrote an entire ricercar called “obligo di non uscir di grado” (in which one must never move by step),

which is devilishly difficult, because it breaks all your expectations about how melodies should go. Johann Caspar Kerll (1627–1693), whose music Bach knew, wrote a similar toccata “tutti di salti” (all in leaps); both works remind me a little of the writing in BWV 640. “Let me never be confounded” takes on a new meaning, as Bach does his best to confound the organist who’s playing!

It’s been a bit tricky in the last weeks to get time for recording after hours, when the cathedral is quiet. But now that we’re in the homestretch, I’ll be featuring a few more of my own interpretations during the run-up to Thursday. Here’s a performance I recorded yesterday:

Day 40: Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639

Less than a week to go with Blogging the Orgelbüchlein! On March 21, Bach’s birthday, it will be time to perform all the pieces I’ve been talking about at St. John the Divine. But until then, we’ve still got a few more pieces to cover …

Today’s prelude, “Ich ruf’ zu dir,” BWV 639, is probably the most famous prelude in the collection. It’s also the only one written as a trio. The right hand plays the melody, lightly embellished; the pedal contributes a steady pulsing bass; and the left hand plays an extraordinary middle voice that ties everything together:

This is certainly a less elaborate, less contrapuntal, less “Bach-like” piece than many others in the collection. Its magic lies in its utter simplicity. It’s also one of the easier preludes to play, because the pedal part is very sedate and the texture is so clear – for this reason, it’s often one of the first Bach pieces for student organists to learn.

The Romantics couldn’t get enough of this prelude. The first composer to rave about it was Felix Mendelssohn. In a letter of 1832, he wrote out the piece, adding:

The upper voice is an ornamented chorale and should be played on the organ with somewhat strong registers; on the piano it must be played in octaves; or it would be best, I believe, if M. [Pierre] Baillot would ‘sing’ the upper voice on his violin, in which case the piano would properly proceed beneath.

Mendelssohn’s copy of “Ich ruf’ zu dir,” 1832.

Even though Mendelssohn was an organist, and could play the piece as written, he immediately thought of transcribing it. It’s easy to see why: that rippling left-hand voice looks a lot like a piano part, and the piece is highly stratified – melody and accompaniment are distinct and clearly separated. On the surface, it looks a lot like this, which was written in 1831, the year before Mendelssohn wrote his letter:

Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835), “Casta diva,” arranged for violin and piano.

Robert Schumann published it in 1839, and Johannes Brahms wrote a chorale prelude (on a different tune, “Herzluch tut mich verlangen”) whose opening is a clear homage to “Ich ruf’ zu dir,” from the pulsing, descending bass to the shape of the figuration:

Around the same time that Brahms was writing this, Ferruccio Busoni transcribed “Ich ruf’ zu dir” for solo piano. Here’s the opening, with a typically prolific number of expression markings:

Busoni also adds four bars at the end which aren’t remotely present in Bach’s original. I have to say that this confused the living daylights out of me when I was about 12. I remember jumping up and complaining, “What the heck is that?” Here’s Kun-Woo Paik playing Busoni’s version:

Leopold Stokowski transcribed it for orchestra, treating Bach’s original even more unscrupulously than Busoni did. You could just picture this as part of Disney’s Fantasia:

But the least faithful transcription of all is one made by J. S. Bach’s own son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel (1714–1788). He adds a fourth voice (!) by doubling the accompaniment, and he also inserts an introduction, as well as interludes between each phrase of the right-hand melody:

It must be admitted that C. P. E.’s additions are not very satisfying.

Since we’ve been discussing the Romantics up to this point, we should hear a performance on the organ by another Romantic. We’ve encountered Albert Schweitzer’s (1875–1965) views on Bach before. Although his ideas were highly influential on later organists who sought to recover historical styles of performance, Schweitzer’s own temperament was about as Romantic as Busoni’s. He disguised it well, though, with playing of utmost dignity and restraint. Here he is at the organ, playing “Ich ruf’ zu dir”:

Day 39: Est ist das Heil uns kommen her, BWV 638

A few of the Orgelbüchlein preludes come in pairs. We’ve already encountered a couple of them so far: “Das alte Jahr” and “In dir ist Freude,” and perhaps “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” and “Christe, du Lamm Gottes.” Today’s piece, “Est ist das Heil uns kommen her,” BWV 638, makes another such pair with yesterday’s chorale, “Durch Adams Fall.”

Yesterday we saw the twisted and sour falling intervals that told us the human race was completely corrupted. “Est ist das Heil” is full of falling figures, too, but they represent something entirely different – God’s grace flowing down from heaven. This is another of Martin Luther’s catechism chorales, and it deals with the concept of salvation. One of Luther’s most important teachings was that human beings are saved freely and totally by God’s grace (sola gratia); no good works of ours could ever be enough for us to deserve our own salvation. We must simply have faith in God.

So where “Durch Adams Fall” is written in a minor key, falls in large leaps, and uses extreme chromaticism and dissonance, “Est ist das Heil” is in a major key, falls almost entirely by step, and is beautifully diatonic. Both preludes deal with the idea of salvation, but one is the “before” picture and the other is the “after.”

Next thing you know, they’ll translate the Bible into LOLcat.

Here’s the opening:

This has to be the sunniest prelude in the entire collection: there are two B major chords toward the end, implying a dominant of E minor, but there’s no firm cadence in that key, and elsewhere there’s not even an attempt to modulate to the minor. God’s grace has totally purged away those nasty minor keys. The other notable feature of “Est ist das Heil” is the stream of sixteenth notes, always based on the opening suspirans figure (a sixteenth rest followed by three sixteenth notes):

And most of the phrases end with a great big windup to a perfect cadence; in addition to being cheerful, this is music of great certainty. The confidence of the harmonic structure certainly matches Luther’s ideal of rock-solid faith.

Here’s a performance by Patrick Hawkins on the Flentrop Organ at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, SC:

Day 38: Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt, BWV 637

“Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt,” BWV 637, is one of the most famous preludes in the Orgelbüchlein. Partially, that’s because the piece is dramatic and shocking, and it’s easy to appreciate what’s going on from the title alone. This is also one of the few Orgelbüchlein chorales for which we can point to a direct compositional model for Bach.

William Blake, God Judging Adam, 1795.

The idea of the “Fall” is easy to illustrate. Dietrich Buxtehude did it in his chorale prelude on the same tune – look at the pedal line:

and later on, Buxtehude used some conventional chromaticism, to express the idea of a lament:

Bach famously walked 250 miles, from Arnstadt to Lübeck, to learn from Buxtehude and “comprehend one thing and another about his art.” While there, he likely copied and acquired all of the organ music he could get his hands on, to the extent that Bach and his later students, far away in Central Germany, were responsible for preserving many of Buxtehude’s compositions that would otherwise have been lost. Here’s the opening of Bach’s prelude. He uses falling pedal motion and chromatic writing at the same time, combining two of Buxtehude’s ideas:

In Buxtehude’s prelude, the pedal line falls in diatonic fifths; you can point it out and savor how literally he interprets the text. But in Bach’s setting, the pedal intervals are chromatic, and they’re wild – as you go through the piece, you find include sevenths of all descriptions: major, minor, and diminished. This isn’t a mere tumble; this is the sort of fall that causes you to break an ankle.

Bach takes his cue from the first two lines of the chorale text: “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt / Menschlich Natur und Wesen” (Through Adam’s fall human nature and character is completely corrupted). It’s even been suggested that the chromatic inner voices represent the wriggling of the snake. The sound of the piece is highly disturbing; Bach doesn’t spare his listener. If the text suggests the image of something “completely corrupted,” Bach has no problem writing music that sounds completely corrupt and rotten.

Here’s a performance by Marcel Dupré (1886–1971), one of the most formidable organists of the 20th century. Dupré’s way of playing Bach, with seamless legato and deliberate tempos, sounds dated now, and some of his playing can sound ice-cold and emotionless. But he had the technique and control of a Horowitz, and even his oddities can make fascinating listening. He’s playing the large Cavaillé-Coll organ of St.-Sulpice in Paris:

Day 37: Vater unser im Himmelreich, BWV 636

Today’s prelude, “Vater unser im Himmelreich,” BWV 636, is the second of our mini-section of catechism chorales. Martin Luther’s text paraphrases and amplifies the Lord’s Prayer, probably the single best-known passage from the Bible.

This was probably the very first Orgelbüchlein chorale I mastered. I remember working on it when I was in grade school, probably in 7th grade. I learned it well enough to play it as a prelude to Mass once, on the large organ at St. Paul Church in Harvard Square. The organ console, which controlled divisions both in the front and back of the church, was massive, and the instrument could really roar when called for – but for this prelude I used only a pair of quiet 8′ and 4′ flute stops, with a light pedal registration to balance. I’ve always thought of the piece with that sound in mind.

Above all, BWV 636 needs transparency. It’s a classic case study in how the Orgelbüchlein preludes were constructed out of basic four-part harmony. Here’s the melody Bach started with:

We can reverse-engineer a little bit of Bach’s compositional process. Like any decent organist of the 18th century, Bach could immediately produce an accompaniment, note against note, in four voices:

Not actually a harmonization by Bach.

To go a bit beyond the run of the mill, one could then dress things up with passing-tones, suspensions, and other goodies:

Not actually a Bach harmonization either.

But the Orgelbüchlein accompaniments are even more elaborate. Bach typically used sixteenth notes in the accompaniment against quarter notes in the melody – a ratio of 4-against-1. With his ability to juggle musical motives, he could weave a consistent motive through the harmony from the previous two examples. And Bach was able to do this all in his head while improvising!

Actually by Bach!

Harmonizing four-part chorales was fundamental to Bach’s teaching, and ever since his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel published Bach’s chorale harmonizations between 1784–1787, they have been the basis of music theory instruction. When I was studying for the British A-level exam, my teacher would plunk a melody down in front of us and give us half an hour to harmonize it. Then he’d hand out Bach’s version, which was inevitably rich, inventive, and entirely free of the miserable parallel fifths and octaves we’d produced. There’s no better training, either for theory, for composition, or for practical church music. A few days ago, for instance, a friend posted this on Facebook:

The dog ate my harmony.

Just like Bach, he had to improvise an accompaniment in four parts!

With enough skill and practice, it’s even possible to improvise preludes in the manner of the Orgelbüchlein. You’d start with a melody, harmonize it, and then embellish each part in turn with ornamental figures. Here’s Balint Karosi improvising in Baroque style on a very familiar tune:

Here’s Thomas Radnai playing “Vater unser” on the organ of St. James Church in Pécs, Hungary. The registration isn’t quite the same as what I’d use, but if you want to hear my take on this piece, you’ll have to come to St. John the Divine on March 21!

Day 36: Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot’, BWV 635

After our last two miscellaneous preludes, today we move into a short section of catechism chorales with “Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot,'” BWV 635. This is one of Martin Luther’s six catechism hymns, which explain and expand on crucial aspects of Christian faith. Roughly, each stanza presents one of the Ten Commandments. As you might guess, this makes a very long hymn – 12 verses in total! – but then, the Lutherans have always loved to sing. The historian Charles Burney tells the tale of a 1772 visit to Bremen in inimitable style:

I found the congregation singing a dismal melody, without the organ. When this was ended, the organist gave out a hymn-tune …

After hearing this tune … repeated ten or twelve times, I went to see the town, and returning to the cathedral two hours after, I still found the people singing all in unison, and as loud as they could, the same tune, to the same accompaniment. I went to the post office … [and] returned once more to this church, and, to my great astonishment, still found them, vocally and organically, performing the same ditty …

This may give some idea how necessary length is, in the musical performances of some parts of Germany.

Charles Burney (1726–1814), seen here telling the Lutherans to get on with it.

The melody of “Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot'” is one of the strangest of all chorales; Burney might well have found such a tune “dismal.” As a folk song, it dates to around 1200; in its present form it goes back to 1524. It has a strongly modal character, nominally Mixolydian (G major with F♮). But look what happens at the end:

The harmony is from Bach, BWV 298.

There we were, happily bellowing along in G-Mixolydian, minding our own business, and definitely not coveting our neighbor’s ox, when all of a sudden that B♭ in the melody came out of nowhere. (This is probably a later addition; early published versions of the tune don’t seem to have it.) Because of that B♭, all of Bach’s settings lean heavily flatward at the end, making an already serious tune sound even more stern.

When Bach set this chorale, he loved to illustrate in music the idea of God’s law. The strictest way to represent the law is with a canon, or exact imitation, and this is what Bach does in BWV 678, from Clavierübung Part III. Similarly, in the astounding first movement of Cantata No. 77, he sets the tune – without text – as an augmentation canon between a trumpet in its very highest register and the bass in its lowest range.

Rembrandt, Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, 1659.

Bach frequently embedded number symbolism into his settings of this chorale as well. In the small organ prelude, BWV 679, from Clavierübung III, he writes a fugue in which the subject covers exactly 10 semitones, and enters exactly ten times. In the opening movement of Cantata 77, the trumpet has ten entrances; and BWV 678 is the tenth chorale prelude in Clavierübung III.

It’s harder to discover instances of the number ten in the Orgelbüchlein prelude. Albert Schweitzer claims that there are ten entrances of the opening motive with exactly the same intervals. This seems to me like grasping at straws, since there are also fifteen other entries with slightly different intervals. Harvey Grace, on the other hand, complained that the piece was about “insistence, order, dogma – anything but statistics.” Here’s the opening:

The opening motive is a diminution of the first phrase of the tune. The rigid insistence on steady, unwavering eighth-note rhythm sets the mood; this prelude fairly wags its finger at you.

This motive is used both right-side up and in inversion, and it’s never for a moment absent until the very last bar. If you put words to it, you’d hear “These are the Holy Ten Commands” repeated incessantly throughout the whole piece. The point Bach makes here is that God’s commandments permeate everything. They run through the entire structure of the prelude, and, Bach suggests, inform all aspects of life. You might as well try to get away from them as give up oxygen for Lent.

Here’s a performance by Jacques Amade: