About this Recording
8.553629 - BACH, J.S.: Organ Chorales / Preludes and Fugues / Fantasia

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685- 1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685- 1750)

Organ Chorales

BWV 714, 717-718, 720, 722, 724-725,

733, 734-735, 737-738, 741

Preludes and Fugues

BWV 551, 533, 569, 575,

Fantasia BWV 563


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 Muhlhausen 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-C6then and remained at C6then unti11723, 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 Cothen, 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.


In 1705 Bach had visited Buxtehude in Lubeck, walking there on foot, anxious to hear the greatest organist of the older generation and perhaps interested in seeking to succeed him, something that would have involved unacceptable marriage to Buxtehude's thirty-year-old daughter, an honour he preferred to decline. The Prelude and Fugue in A minor are thought, on internal evidence, to pre-date this visit. The Prelude opens with scale-like figuration for the right hand, joined by the left in sixths and thirds, before the entry of the pedals, ending the opening and leading at once, in the twelfth bar, to the Fugue, its subject stated in the soprano, answered in the second soprano, followed by alto, tenor and finally bass, in the pedals. A slower five-part passage leads to a second chromatic fugal subject, starting with the descending notes of the tonic triad, before ascending chromatically. The work is something in the early style of toccata, with its prelude, first fugue, intervening section, second fugue and postlude.


The organ chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 718, (Christ lay in the bonds of death) may again be dated to the period before Bach's employment as organist at Weimar. It is based on Martin Luther's hymn, itself derived from the Latin Victimae paschali laudes. Descent to Hell is depicted in the descending bass line with which the chorale opens, followed by an ornamented version of the chorale theme. This two-part texture continues until the fifteenth bar, with its added third voice. The melody is treated in triplets, followed by a passage that allows echo effects between manuals. The final section brings an augmented version of the end of the chorale, at first on the manuals and then in the pedals.


The chorale per canonem, Ach Gott und Herr, BWV 714 (O God and Lord), the melody of a Lenten hymn by Martin Rutilius, is presented in an accompanied canon between the upper voice and tenor. It has been conjecturally dated to the period Bach spent at Weimar between 1708 and 1717.


Ach Gott, vom Himmel siek' darein, BWV 741, (O God look down from Heaven), in organa pleno, is from the period before Weimar, but was revised in 1740. The text by Luther, published in 1524, has a melody from the same date. Here the chorale melody is given in seven separate phrases on the pedals, with a preceding imitation in one or other of the four other parts. It ends with a double pedal part.


The Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 533, was again written before 1708. The opening is improvisatory in nature, followed by a passage in which chords on the manuals are answered on the pedals, which take a more active role in the final section. The fugue subject is stated in the tenor, to be answered in the voice immediately below. A soprano entry follows, answered in the alto, leaving the pedals to conclude the five-voice exposition. A brief episode leads to a tonic entry in the tenor, duly answered in the soprano, followed by the subject in the alto. A further episode leads to the final pedal entry.


Allein Gott in der Hoh' sei Ehr', BWV 717, (To God alone on high be praise) is based on a melody derived from plainchant, with words that paraphrase the Gloria in excels is of the Mass. The organ chorale is for manuals only and in 12/8 time. It opens with a fugal subject in the lower part, answered above, before the appearance of the chorale melody itself in the top part as a cantus firmus. This version of the chorale belongs to the Weimar period.


Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 720, (A firm stronghold is our God) takes one of the best known of Martin Luther's hymns, for which he himself adapted the melody from plainchant. The words are derived from Psalm XL VI. For three manuals and pedals, the organ chorale opens with a decorated version of the beginning of the chorale, to which an upper part replies, with another version of the melody, now with contrasted registration. There follows a short section of two-part imitation, with pedal accompaniment, before the appearance of the chorale as a cantus firmus in the pedals. A section of two-part imitation with pedal accompaniment treats another line of the melody, followed by a plainer version of the last line of the hymn, with accompanying counterpoint. The chorale ends with a four-voice texture in which the last line of the hymn appears again, leading to a conclusion over a tonic pedal-point.


The Prelude in A minor, BWV 569, was probably written before 1708. It opens over a tonic pedal, which, with the leap of an octave, provides a figure that re-appears throughout the work, with a four-note rhythmic figure that assumes equal early importance. Affinity has been suggested with the chaconne, a dance-variation form. This is implied by the 3/4 metre and the tendency to offer a series of short variations over a descending harmonic pattern.


Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 722, (Praised be you, Jesus Christ), may have been written at Arnstadt or in the period spent in Weimar. The text is a German adaptation by Luther of the Christmas Grates nunc omnes reddamus (Let us now all give thanks), with a melody derived from the original plainchant. Written on only two staves, it can be played on manuals only. An ornamented chordal version of the chorale allows a brief, rapid flourish between each line and there is a rather more elaborate treatment in the last four bars of the Kyrie eleison with which Luther's hymn ends.


Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein, BWV 734, (Now rejoice, dear Christians together), comes, presumably, from the Weimar period, although its authenticity has been doubted. It can be played on the manuals and has a chorale melody that is an adaptation by Luther from a secular song, associated by him with the text of his Advent hymn, which takes some elements from the Dies irae. The outline of the first line of the chorale melody is suggested in the semiquavers of the introduction, before the entry of the chorale itself in the tenor.


Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her, BWV 738, (From Heaven on high I come) is based on Luther's Christmas hymn, for which he provided the well known melody. In 12/8 metre, the melody appears at once in the upper part, with a continuing pattern of semiquavers, either in elaboration of the melody, in accompaniment or in interludes between lines of the chorale. It seems to belong to the Weimar period.


Gottes Sohn ist kommen, BWV 724, (God's Son has come) has the alternative text Gott, durch deine Gute (God, through your goodness), a hymn by Johann Spangenberg. The other text is from a 1544 hymn by Johann Roh in a collection of hymns of the Bohemian Brethren. It is, in this latter form, a Christmas hymn, with a melody taken from the Latin Ave ierarchia celestis et pia (Hail celestial and merciful hierarchy). The organ chorale belongs to the pre-Weimar period and opens with the beginning of the chorale, imitated in a lower voice and repeated, before the continuing contrapuntal treatment of the material.


Based on Luther's paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer, with a melody published with it in Leipzig in 1539, Vater unser im Himmelreich, BWV 737, (Our Father in Heaven) can be played on manuals only and is given on two staves in the surviving copy, not an autograph. This, of course, never precludes the use of pedals, where the texture allows. Dating perhaps from the Weimar period, the work opens with fore-imitation, suggestions of the melody before its fuller appearance in the top part, where it continues, each line followed by a short interlude leading to the next.


The Fugue in C minor, BWV 575, conjecturally dated to the period in Weimar, is principally for manuals, leaving the pedal entry to the last twelve bars. The fugal subject is a long one, given in the soprano voice in four bars of semiquavers. This is answered in the alto, followed by the tenor, answered by the bass. An episode is followed by a tonic entry in the highest register, and a further tonic entry in the lowest voice, answered in the middle voice. There are further appearances of the subject, either in part or complete, before the pedal entry adds weight to the texture, with a final burst of activity before the C major close.


Herr Gott dick loben wir, BWV 725, (Lord God we praise you), probably written in Weimar, is based on Luther's version of the Te Deum, with a melody derived from plainchant. It seems to offer a varied accompaniment to the hymn, allowing increased elaboration of the accompaniment as it proceeds in five-voice texture through the many verses. There are suggestions of word-painting, ascending scales for the angels and hosts of Heaven, although this is a figure that re-appears, and the lowest pedal register used to add majesty to the divine kingdom. The prevailing Phrygian mode is allowed to end in a powerful E major.


The Fantasia con imitatione in B minor, BWV 563, dated to a period before 1707, is in fact a prelude and fugue, the first based on a short repeated figure, with a minimal use of pedals. The Imitatio is a fugue, its six-note subject stated first in the soprano, answered in the alto, followed by the lowest part. A series of similar subjects are offered for brief treatment.


The Fantasia super: Valet will ick dir geben, BWV 735, (I shall bid you farewell), a treatment of a hymn by Valerius Herberger with music by Melchior Teschner, cum pedale obligato, belongs to Bach's period in Leipzig after 1723. The first line of the hymn is treated fugally in three voices, before the pedal entry gives a clear statement of the melody. The procedure is continued, after the necessary repetition of the first part of the hymn, leading to a final extended tonic pedal.


The Fuga sopra il Magnijlcat, BWV 733, takes a melody derived from the plainchant tonus peregrinus and seems to have been written in the period at Weimar. The melody is treated in two parts, then in three, with a running lowest voice. This develops into a four-part texture. As the work reaches a climax the melody is augmented in the pedals, against the four-part manual texture above, leading to a final pedal-point. The use of the title Fuga seems here justified rather by the fugal texture than by any strictly formal fugal process.





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