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8.550927 - BACH, J.S.: Organ Chorales from the Leipzig Manuscript, Vol. 2
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach was a member of a family that had for generations been occupied in music. His sons were to continue the tradition, providing the foundation of a new style of music that prevailed in the later part of the eighteenth century. Johann Sebastian Bach himself represented the end of an age, the culmination of the Baroque in a magnificent synthesis of Italian melodic invention, French rhythmic dance forms and German contrapuntal mastery.
Born in Eisenach in 1685, Bach was educated largely by his eldest brother, after the early death of his parents. At the age of eighteen he embarked on his career as a musician, serving first as a court musician at Weimar, before appointment as organist at Arnstadt. Four years later he moved to Mühlhausen as organist and the following year became organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar. Securing his release with difficulty, in 1717 he was appointed Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen and remained at Cöthen until 1723, when he moved to Leipzig as Cantor at the School of St. Thomas, with responsibility for the music of the five principal city churches. Bach was to remain in Leipzig until his death in 1750.
As a craftsman obliged to fulfil the terms of his employment, Bach provided music suited to his various appointments. It was natural that his earlier work as an organist and something of an expert on the construction of organs, should result in music for that instrument. At Cöthen, where the Pietist leanings of the court made church music unnecessary, he provided a quantity of instrumental music for the court orchestra and its players. In Leipzig he began by composing series of cantatas for the church year, later turning his attention to instrumental music for the Collegium musicum of the University, and to the collection and ordering of his own compositions.
Nunkomm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the Heathen) appears in three versions. The chorale on which it is based is Martin Luther's adaptation of the original Ambrosian hymn Veni Redemptor gentium. The first of these, for two manuals and pedals, opens with the first measures of the chorale theme in the tenor, imitated at once in the alto register, over a constantly moving pedal bass. The melody is then elaborated in the upper part to form an ornamented line. The second treatment of the chorale is in the form of a Trio, three melodic lines, one for each hand and one for the pedals. Here a contrapuntal imitative opening by the two lower parts is followed by the appearance of the ornamented chorale theme, to which the two lower parts provide a postlude in conclusion. The third version of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is described as in organo pleno, il canto fermo nel pedale (for full organ, with the chorale melody in the pedal part). An introductory contrapuntal passage derived from the chorale leads to the solemn appearance of the chorale itself in the lowest register, successive pedal entries preceded by similar prefatory passages.
Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Her (To God alone be praise) is also given in three different versions. The Lutheran chorale is based on the Gloria in excelsis in a German version by Nikolaus Decius, an early follower of Martin Luther. Marked Adagio, the first treatment of the chorale has a contrapuntal introduction that leads to the appearance of the chorale theme, much ornamented, in the upper part, with subsequent sections of the melody similarly prefaced. The second version, marked Cantabile, has the cantus firmus in the tenor, preceded by a contrapuntal passage that includes, in the triple metre of the work, a statement of the chorale melody in the pedals. This version ends with a passage built on a tonic pedal, a sustained G, at first with the left hand and then with left hand and pedals. The final treatment of the melody is as a Trio, with upper parts entering in contrapuntal imitation.
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (Jesus Christ, our Saviour), a communion hymn, has a text of Hussite origin, Jesus Christus, nostra salus, translated into German by Luther, with a thirteenth century melody. A derivative of the chorale appears first in the tenor, over a lower part still played on the manuals, followed by the melody in the alto, and the unadorned opening notes on the pedals. The second version is in compound time, with the chorale in the upper part, with a continuing texture for manuals only, with a final tonic pedal-note to add dignity to the closing measures.
Komm, Gott, Schopfer, Heiliger Geist (Come, God, Creator, Holy Ghost) is for full organ with pedal obligato. The chorale is taken from the Gregorian chant Veni, Creator Spiritus. In 12/8 metre, the melody is heard in the upper voice, before a brief contrapuntal episode leads to its re-appearance in augmented form in the pedals.
The canonic variations on Vom Himmel hoch (From Heaven on high) were apparently written in 1747 and offered by Bach when he was admitted to the polymath Lorenz Christoph Mizler von Kolof's Correspondierenden Societät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften (Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences). Bach was the fourteenth of a membership limited to twenty scholars and musicians, including, among those now better remembered, Telemann and Handel. The Christmas chorale by Martin Luther first appears in the pedal part of a Canon at the Octave that involves the two upper parts in such canonic imitation. The cantus firmus is again heard in the pedals, in the second Canon at the Fifth, followed by the chorale melody itself in canon at the sixth and in inversion in the lower voice, accompanied by a moving pedal part. Once the chorale has been heard in this form, Bachadds a canon at the third, with the upper part entering first with an inversion of the melody. A canon at the second follows, between the pedal bass and tenor in inversion, and then, at the ninth, between a pedal inversion and the top voice. This varied treatment of the cantus firmus itself leads to a Canon at the Seventh between the pedals and tenor. A Canon in Augmentation sets an augmented tenor part in canon with a more rapid upper part, with the steadier chorale melody introduced by the pedals. The Canonic Variations constitute a remarkable technical and musical tour de force.
Vor deinen Thron tret ich (Before Thy throne I stand), based on a sixteenth century melody by Loys Bourgeois, is incomplete in the Leipzig Autograph, where it appears, in any case, in another hand, perhaps dictated at a time when Bach had lost his sight. This is, in any case, a reworking of Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When we are in greatest need), in which an introductory contrapuntal passage leads to the appearance of the chorale melody in the upper part, a procedure that is followed throughout. The words now chosen seem appropriate enough in these closing years of Bach's life.
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