About this Recording
8.573524 - Vocal and Organ Recital: Brewer, Christine / Jacobs, Paul - BACH, J.S. / GOUNOD, C. / FRANCK, C. / BOULANGER, N. / PUCCINI, G. (Divine Redeemer)

Divine Redeemer


In December 1721, Bach married his second wife, the young musician Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Bach seems to have taken a special interest in her abilities, and in 1722 presented her with the Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bachin (Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach), a compendium of keyboard works by Bach. A second notebook followed in 1725, larger than the first, and containing music by Bach and other well-known composers of the time. Long a favourite for wedding ceremonies, the secular aria Bist du bei mir is found in this second notebook, and was until recently assumed to be the work of Bach himself. Scholars now believe the piece to have been composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690–1749) for his (now lost) opera Diomedes. Anna Magdalena’s copy of the aria is all that survives of Stölzel’s score, and is preserved in a rather skeletal form, with the voice accompanied only by an unfigured (unharmonised) bass line. The text is an intimate one, describing a lover’s willingness to face even death, so long as her beloved is by her side.

The genre of prelude and fugue is more closely associated with J.S. Bach than with any other composer. In addition to the forty-eight such works found in the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier, there are numerous preludes and fugues for organ, spanning the entirety of Bach’s long career as an organ virtuoso. Because of its high degree of unification, careful structure, and contrapuntal artifice, the Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547, is thought to be a later work from the Leipzig period. Colloquially known as “The 9/8” because of its somewhat unusual time signature, the prelude is comprised of three short triadic motives which are ingeniously elaborated, inverted, and recombined over the course of the piece. The five-voice fugue is one of the most stunning examples of Bach’s contrapuntal abilities: the short modulatory subject is introduced in both rectus (original form) and inversus (inverted form) through three discrete expositions. The forms are then combined, and finally joined by the pedal, held out until the final section, which presents the subject in augmentation (longer note values). A series of stretto entrances in the last few measures complete a veritable encyclopedia of fugal technique.

Although he is now best known for his opera Faust, Charles Gounod was twice employed as an organist and composed a large amount of sacred vocal music. A winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome, Gounod was also among the first Parisian organists to become acquainted with the works of Bach. O Divine Redeemer, originally scored for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, and published posthumously in 1894, shows Gounod to be a sensitive melodist and master of the theatrical style. The text is a tender plea for mercy from a repentant man facing the imminent prospect of death and divine judgement.

Like Gounod, Giacomo Puccini is known to opera lovers around the world as one of the most successful and popular composers of the genre, and the final representative of an unbroken tradition of Italian operatic masters stretching back more than three centuries. Salve Regina dates from Puccini’s days as a student in Lucca, and, like many of his early non-operatic works, remained unpublished at his death in 1924. The text is an anonymous Italian paraphrase of the traditional Latin hymn, and features the expressive, subtly inflected approach to text setting that later made Puccini a household name.

César Franck is one of the most beloved, and most performed, composers in the organ repertoire. As the long-tenured organist of the Basilica of Sainte Clotilde in Paris, he also produced a sizable quantity of sacred vocal music, including two complete settings of the Mass. The later work, Messe à 3 voix, dates from 1860, and includes Franck’s setting of Panis angelicus, the final verse of a hymn by Saint Thomas Aquinas, interpolated between the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. While it offers little of the kaleidoscopic chromaticism that would define his masterful later works, the classical phrase structure and nobly expressive melody have made it a staple of the repertoire since its publication.

Nadia Boulanger’s centrality in the history of twentieth-century music rests primarily with her role as an internationally renowned pedagogue and composition teacher. She was also a talented organist, having studied with Vierne and Guilmant and given the première performance of Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. The three organ works published in 1912 are her most substantial contribution to the instrument’s repertoire. The lyrical Prélude, modally inflected Petit Canon, and sombre Improvisation demonstrate a sophisticated and chromatic harmonic language redolent of her teacher Vierne.

One of the defining events of Nadia Boulanger’s life was the premature death of her sister Lili. The younger Boulanger had been the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, and seemed to be on the cusp of a great career when she succumbed to intestinal tuberculosis at age 24 in 1918. Lili’s final composition, Pie Jesu, was dictated to Nadia on her deathbed. The work is a setting of the final two lines of the Dies Irae, the Sequence of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. The opening ascending fifth is a clear allusion to Fauré’s famous setting of the same text, but Boulanger’s music is substantially more modernist. The music is freely, though not abrasively, dissonant, with only the barest outlines of functional harmony—at times it even seems to anticipate later techniques such as tone clusters and polytonality. The loss of her sister, whom she had always considered the superior composer, was a terrible blow to Nadia, and she gave up composing music completely in the early 1920s.

Together with his one-time school-friend Mahler, Hugo Wolf was one of the last masters of the German artsong, or Lied. A passionate devotee of Wagner, Wolf reached artistic maturity in the late 1880s, when he successfully distilled the emotional intensity and pathos of his idol’s titanic operas into the miniature form of the Lied. Gebet was published in Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder of 1888, his first substantial collection. The text is a short prayer for balance in life, and Wolf’s regular chordal accompaniment suggests the character of a hymn. Nun wandre, Maria and Führ mich, Kind, nach Bethlehem! are from the Spanisches Liederbuch, a diverse collection of Spanish texts translated into German. Nun wandre takes the form of a monologue delivered by Joseph to his wife Mary, encouraging her on their journey to Bethlehem. The flowing parallel thirds and regular bass pattern of the accompaniment seem to suggest movement, and the unsettled harmonies bespeak Joseph’s growing anxiety. Führ mich, Kind is in a similar vein, again describing a journey to Bethlehem. Here the traveller is an unnamed believer, and the journey is metaphorical, but Wolf uses similar musical material to evoke the spiritual pilgrimage.

The three Wolf songs are among the several arranged for organ and voice by Max Reger, a younger German contemporary, and one of the most unique musical voices of the period. Reger’s music makes incredible technical demands of the performer, and his post-tonal harmonic language was an important forerunner to the modernist impulses of Schoenberg. The Toccata and Fugue, Op. 59 demonstrates his indebtedness to Baroque styles and forms, in particular to the music of Bach. The rhapsodic toccata is coupled with an “acceleration” fugue, in which Reger notates gradual increases in tempo.

The power of music was a ubiquitous theme for Baroque composers. Handel’s setting of John Dryden’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, written for the feast of the patron saint of musicians, characterizes music as one of the primary creative forces of the universe. The penultimate aria, But oh! What art can teach, praises the organ as an instrument unparalleled in expressive capabilities. Not surprisingly, it features an extensive organ prelude.

David Crean

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