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8.550965 - German Organ Music, Vol. 2
GERMAN ORGAN MUSIC VOLUME 2
Much of the development of early German organ music is closely related to polyphonic vocal forms, either as direct transcriptions, cantus firmus settings of sacred and secular melodies, or preludes. These were not originally keyboard pieces despite the alterations usually involving ornamentation that were frequently made. Not until the fifteenth century do we find a type of idiomatic keyboard music conceived without reference to pre-existent forms and in terms of the keyboard medium. They exist in fragmentary sources from Sagan, Breslau, Erlangen and Hamburg, predating the profusion of "method books" of working organists. They were all written in a system of notation called tablature: fingering scripts utilizing numerals, alphabet letters, and combinations of letters. These forms began to appear in Germany around 1430. One of these is particularly remarkable for having the earliest bar-lines, which became common only in the seventeenth century. The tablature systems were used exclusively until about 1620. Organ music flourished greatly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, not only because of the sheer abundance of tablature sources that had survived but also for the superb quality of the music itself. Tremendous strides were made in the techniques of notation and execution. Pieces were composed in six, seven, and even ten voices, often employing double pedals.
The tablature collection of hymns and songs by the blind organist and theorist, Arnolt Schlick of Heidelberg, published at Mainz in 1512, contains the stunningly beautiful Maria zart, a devotional hymn with a soprano melody supported with subtly embellished ornamentation. In its manner of canonic and anticipatory imitation as a preparation to the full statement of the melody, it is an important precursor of the Lutheran organ chorale.
The politico-religious instability of the Reformation may be to blame for the decline of German keyboard music from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the published collections of Elias Nicolaus Ammerbach, organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. In his printed tablatures of 1571, 1575 and 1583 (the earliest in Germany), he initiated the particular form of notation which remained dominant until the eighteenth century. (Occasionally, J. S. Bach availed himself of its facility - in his Orgelbüchlein, for instance - for reasons of space). A lighter form of the dignified pavan, the passamezzo (literally, a step and a half) was the most popular dance of the sixteenth century. Ammerbach's present example employs a standard melody of Spanish provenance.
Not unlike the first part of the previous century, the musical scene in seventeenth-century Germany presents a somewhat chaotic picture. Much of it, again, was indirectly brought on by the Reformation, but most of it was caused by the destruction and havoc of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when French and Swedish armies ransacked the country. Needless to say, musical activity was severely diminished. As German manuscripts were dispersed throughout Europe, not surprisingly, a great deal of German music found its way into Scandinavian libraries. A most important keyboard source is the Petri Manuscript preserved in the cathedral chapter at Visby, Sweden. Though the ascription is anonymous, there has been no doubt that the composer was Hieronymus Praetorius, a member of a notable family of Hamburg musicians and organist at the Jacobikirche (not related, however, to the later Michael Praetorius, author of the famous Syntagma musicum, whose family origins stem from Silesia). Composed around 1611, the Kyrie Martyrum is a particularly compelling example of his output for organ, which, along with a considerable yield of motets and masses, earned him a reputation as the foremost North German composer of the early seventeenth century.
The continuance of a major tradition of German organ culture in Hamburg is directly attributable to the influence of Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck, the Dutch composer, whose pupils included Heinrich Scheidemann. Succeeding his father as organist of the Catharinenkirche, Scheidemann presided over a magnificent instrument of four manuals and 56 stops. He was also esteemed as an organ expert. Extending the keyboard style of Sweelinck into an idiomatic display of the resources of the North German organ, the current work by Scheidemann exemplifies the art of chorale improvisation.
The appearance of discernible trends in German keyboard music marks the beginning of the seventeenth century. In addition to the traditional separation between sacred and secular forms there was another: Catholic or Protestant. Each religion had its characteristic liturgy and musical forms, although some were common to both, and indigenous to geographic boundaries. While the North embraced the Protestant faith, the South remained steadfastly Catholic.
The Catholic liturgy, which had almost entirely abandoned congregational singing, limited organists to versets, preludes and interludes that were based on a Gregorian cantus firmus, though some characteristic musical forms did come into existence through the inspiration of the new currents of national schools, particularly Italian and French types. The Italian form of the keyboard score, using the standard forms of mensural notation, made its appearance in Austria and Bavaria where the Italian influence was strongest. Here, organists who were also court musicians and harpsichordists, enthusiastically embraced the music of Frescobaldi and Lully. But the organ was used mainly in connection with the Mass, the Magnificat, and a few devotional hymns usually associated with Vespers. These were cantus firmus compositions based on the plainsong propers and preserved, presumably, the alternatim practice of juxtaposing organ versets against vocal plainchant. We also find universal forms such as the toccata used in the Mass, since compositions intended expressly for Catholic use were not prevalent at the time. This paucity of Catholic organ music is quite surprising, given the importance of composers such as Georg Muffat, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Franz Xaver Murschhauser who were active in Catholic cities such as Munich and Vienna. Instead, imitative contrapuntal forms and secular genres constitute the more impressive portion of their output for the keyboard. Paradoxically, a significant amount of Catholic organ repertory was not written by Catholic composers at all but by their Protestant colleagues, since many Lutheran cathedrals still used Masses, Magnificats, and certain office hymns with their Latin texts. Noteworthy, are no less than ninety-four fugues on the Magnificat by Johann Pachelbel!
By comparison, there is an extraordinary amount of music based on Lutheran chorale melodies by Protestant organist-composers. This was an outgrowth of Martin Luther's third reform (Luther's Werke, L,368-74) which thoroughly endorsed congregational singing. Indeed, it encouraged "sensitivity to the beauty of artistically refined music." Luther, himself, loved the contrapuntal compositions of Josquin, Isaac, and Senfl. He wrote a most eloquent and romantic eulogy to polyphonic art, though he abhorred the deliriously wandering melismata in which words evaporated like incense. He wanted to restore the intelligibility of the text.
The chorale themes form the musical basis of the Reformation liturgy, initially consisted of plainchant melodies, popular tunes, and songs of German, Italian, French, and Dutch origin. The early reformers themselves enriched the Protestant hymnal; Luther contributed over forty original, adapted, and borrowed themes. As in Roman practice, where plainsong is proper to particular seasons and festivals, the Protestant chorale is of integral importance to the Protestant liturgy, with a distinctive character and function for each occasion. Furthermore, certain chorales correspond to components of the Mass (Wir glauben all' an einen Gott, for example, is the Lutheran Credo). The assimilation of this huge body of material, not only into organ music but vocal and instrumental works as well, was undertaken with great enterprise by the Protestant composers.
There are three distinct types of contrapuntal elaboration of chorale melodies for which the generic term "organ chorale" is conveniently used. All bear resemblance to cantus firmus compositions in general.
First, the simple prelude - Choralvorspiel - was exclusively liturgical, intended primarily as an introduction to congregational hymn-singing, presenting the chorale melody in one voice, more or less ornamented, with an accompaniment in the other parts. As musical commentaries on the succeeding hymn, these preludes always use the hymn-tune as their motive for elaboration, ornamentation, musico-philosophical illustration, or other flight of the imagination.
The so-called chorale fantasy is rooted in Renaissance forms, particularly the paraphrase treatment of a cantus firmus. Characterized by fugal passages in a virtuosic, toccata style, it was the most elaborate of all forms cultivated by Scheidemann, Böhm, Buxtehude, and other northern German organists. Typically, the term applies to large-scale works (e.g. Bach's Ein feste Burg) in which the chorale melody is fragmented, appearing now and again in all parts. Often it takes the form of a fugue using motives of the chorale treated successively in imitation (e.g. W. H. Pachelbel's Meine Seele, lass es gehen).
The oldest genre of chorale setting for the organ is analogous to the variations on secular songs that appear in sixteenth-century English and Dutch keyboard music. The plainsong terminology is usually followed and the term "versus" is used for each variation (e.g. Buxtehude's Vater Unser, German Organ Music, Volume 1, Naxos 8.550964).
Beginning around 1730 fundamental aesthetic changes began to take place that had a profound impact not only on the writing of organ chorales but on compositions for the keyboard generally. The emotionalism inherent in the style of the new age was heralded in unprecedented forms and, as church music began to lose in significance, organ music experienced a most striking decline. By the end of the century no important composers paid much attention to it. Though they did continue a modest existence of some sort, the older forms of chorale writing, the toccata, prelude and fugue dwindled. The emphasis in repertory shifted to forms of secular music, especially the harpsichord suite. The sonata, passed on to the sons of Bach from the Italians, emerged as the standardized, principal new genre. A few fine composers remained faithful to the strictly liturgical art forms. Walther, Kittel, Kellner, Krebs, and other members of the 'Bach Circle', carried on the old polyphonic genres, but their mode of composition was tar simpler, more homophonic, and, more or less, in keeping with the progressive spirit of galanterie. Ultimately, the organ chorale became superfluous, transmogrified into a Romantic character piece for organ which Gotthold Frotscher referred to generically as the "religious Adagio".
By and large, the leading composers after Bach composed little or nothing for the instrument that had once occupied a central position in all musical activity. It remained until after Mendelssohn's rediscovery of Bach's music and the age of Reger and Walcker for the organ to regain its prominent place in the German musical mainstream.
1994 Joseph Payne
Based in Boston, where he has lived since 1965, he has taught at several major American universities and now appears throughout the world, performing over sixty concerts a year on the harpsichord and organ. His many recordings include the world-premiere recording of the 33 Neumeister chorale-preludes attributed to J. S. Bach and re-discovered at Yale University in 1984. He has received grants and awards from the Lowell Institute at Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has produced The Bach Connection, and other syndicated series for radio which have been heard coast-to-coast throughout North America.
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