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Bach: Little Organ Book – Orgelbuchlein – The Liturgical Year (1717)

The Little Organ Book, the Orgel Buchlein, consists of a series of compositions that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote while jailed as a young man at the age of 32 for leaving his post without leave to hear Buxtehude, the avant-garde organist/composer of the day. Bach was also demanding release from the Duke of Weimar’s service – another reason for his incarceration. This proved to be a defining moment in his life. During his confinement (November 6 -> December 2, 1717), Bach began writing these compositions, which initiated his career as a composer and defined his style.

The Little Organ Book consists of 45 Chorale Preludes. They are called preludes because they are meant to be played before the chorale upon which they are based. A Chorale is a season-specific hymn sung in church. Based upon the melody line of these familiar pieces the Prelude is a fancier version written for the organ without the voice. Bach intended to write 161 pieces for the entire church year (at least according to his notebook). Although he only completed 45, the English speaking countries still call this body of work ‘The Liturgical Year’. Because the pieces are all relatively short and simple the Germans call it Orgelbuchlein or Little Organ Book.

Source of Bach’s Genius – Structure and/or Emotion?

Although Bach was relatively unknown as a composer and unrecognized as a musical genius when he died at the age of 65, a cult of Bach emerged in the following century and shows no sign of abating. Musical scholars have attempted to explore why he was so great. Spitta, the first to do extensive research, suggested it had to do with the architectural nature of his work, which has never been equaled or surpassed. This refers to the absolute structure of his works, their inevitability. As many were based on the Golden Mean, each note was essential to the whole – nothing could be left out.

Albert Schweitzer, another Bach fanatic, suggested that Bach’s greatness had to do with the specific emotional content of the work. According to his analysis Bach used specific notes, keys, and phrasing to suggest distinct emotions such as Joy, Pain and Happiness. A modern musicologist suggests that Bach confided his innermost feelings to his music – which makes it very personal.

Baroque Clarity vs. Romantic Color

Organ Registrations – Bach vs. Brahms

Although the form of Bach’s Baroque and Brahms’ Romantic Chorale Preludes is identical their realizations are vastly different in kind – like Chinese and English. As both are masters of their musical periods their organ compositions epitomize the dissimilarities between Baroque and Romantic music. As a generality the Romantic emphasizes Color while the Baroque emphasizes Clarity. (Note that Clarity and Color are inversely proportional – their product a constant. As one goes down the other goes up – innately without exception.)

As an example the two styles of organ preludes require an entirely different registration on the organ. As Brahms’ Romantic style requires more Color all the families of the organ (reed, flute and principal) are used simultaneously with no over or under tones. Employing all the families increases the Color due the lush multi-textured sound, but decreases Clarity. Alternately Bach’s Baroque preludes only employ one family per voice, which emphasizes each note – making them distinct – augmenting the clarity while sacrificing the rich Romantic color – the joys of distinct flavors versus a well-simmered musical stew.

Further in the Romantic registrations there are no partials, mixtures or mutations – as the accidental dissonances they introduce cloud the Color. In contrast the Baroque ear is fond of these combination stops – as they increase the complexity of each sound and hence the clarity – the twang of country. (See essay on The History of Dissonance.)

Brahms' Chorale Preludes (1897)

In 1897 at the age 62 in the last summer of his life Brahms wrote a series of 11 short organ compositions. Each of the pieces in this series is a Chorale Prelude – a solo organ piece based upon the melody lines of traditional Protestant hymns (chorales). As Brahms wrote very little organ music this could have been a tribute to Bach, who also wrote many Chorale Preludes – “From one genius to another, as I pass from one lifetime to the next.” As evidence to the scarcity of his organ works this wasn’t even published until 1902 – years after he died – as his 122nd and last opus. Although the compositions are all very short they have been called ‘exquisite gems’. Succinctly, but exquisitely, understated – packed with variation. They have a melancholy nature as they were composed ‘in memory of his dear and most faithful friend, Clara Schumann’ at the same time that he sensed he was dying.


Maniera is a 16th century Italian term, referring to the “aesthetic basis of music”. It’s based upon ‘concetta’ – the concept that there is an innate connection between Art and Nature. In the “evolutionary process of human culture” Art begins by imitating Nature, whether attempting to represent the forms of nature visibly or the sounds of nature musically. In this way the artist achieves the ‘opus supranaturale’ – a supernatural creation, which can be either natural, a replication, or anti-natural, asymmetric or abstract.

While the painter has many external examples to inspire his art, the composer has birds. To move beyond this stage Music must first establish Nature by employing that which is inherent - ‘numero sonoro’ – the sounding number, i.e. the harmonic relations between notes. Towards this end composers establish ‘soggetto’ = ‘objects’ – musical subjects or themes, which are founded in ‘modi’ – modes, manifestations. These modes are of an infinite variety, as they are based on everything from the ‘numero in musica’ = the numbers of the music = the harmonics, to the ‘soggetto delle parole’= the object (point) of the text and the ‘soggetto della cantilena’ = cantus firmus = the melody line of the composition.

After fixing the soggetto (the musical theme) the composer attempts to reveal the ‘verita del soggetto’ – the truth of the subject – the inner capacities of this series of notes.

Applying this concept to the past the Italian theorists became aware of style, which led to a revival of ancient forms – an example of theory interacting with composition to synthesize past and present to create the future.

As a contrast most popular music sticks with a fixed rhythm and theme – no exploration of these ‘modi’, no counter theme, and no exploring the underlying truths of the raw numbers of the music (‘verita del soggetto’). Of course this is why pop music is more accessible. It doesn’t demand as much of the listener.

Mozart’s Connection to Bach

By Mozart's time the 'gallant' style of the Classical Period was replacing the 'strict' style of the Baroque that had gone before. However most of these 'gallant' composers viewed the 'strict' style as not only out-of-date, but actually inferior music. On the cutting edge Mozart participated in the same viewpoint.

This changed after he journied to Vienna to make his mark. While there he met a Baron Van Sweeten, who was the musical connection with the royalty – a good connection to have. This Baron also had a tremendous influence on both Haydn and Beethoven. His job was to be a conduit between a high-ranking Count and Frederick the Great.

When the Baron got talking to Frederick the Great about music …

Fred: "I know you like so and so composers but have you heard Bach's stuff."

Baron: "Carl Phillip's. I know it well. It's OK."

Fred: "No, old Bach."

Baron: "Never."

Fred: "Well let me turn you on to his Art of Fugue and the Well Tempered Clavier. It will blow you away. He came to my court once to improvise on a theme. I was amazed at the originality of his expression."

On being exposed to old Bach's compositions the baron was also blown away and had some copies made for his own collection. Upon meeting Mozart a similar conversation transpired with a similar result. Mozart proceeded to arrange old Bach's compositions for some string quartets and quintets for a group that they were both in.

Overwhelmed at what Bach was expressing in counterpoint – the strict style - Mozart went through a musical crisis. He composed some inferior fugues to add this style to his repertoire and then proceeded to include some fugue like parts in many of his major compositions.

He had never heard the potentials of the old style, but when he did he had to employ the techniques although it was counter to his natural inclinations.

This story also indicates how unknown old Bach was even in his own time. Another unrecognized genius, who died blind, leaving his wife penniless. Mozart was so out of favor by the time he died that he couldn't even get any music students. It took another decade or so after his death for his music to be recognized as the work of a master.

Anyway such is life.

Emergent Properties of Slow

Dialogues with my teachers on the requirements of Brahms' Romantic pieces have evoked some interesting reflections on tempo. Ideally the compositions should be played rather rapidly in order to evoke Color. Unfortunately my old fingers do not move that fast. However all is not lost due to the Emergent Properties of Slow.

When water is in a glass it has a far different qualities than when it is in an ocean. For instance one has waves that can be surfed or cause devastation, where the other is fairly benign. This has to do with the emergent properties of size.

Similarly when a piece is played slower or faster it has emergent properties as well. In general speed emphasizes the horizontal nature of the composition (due to enhanced connectivity), while slowness emphasizes the vertical nature (due to emphasis on the harmonic resonances of the chords). As such speed places the emphasis on the cantus firmus, individual voices and/or note combinations, slowness on the harmonies behind the individual notes. Many of Bach's pieces deserve to be played slower due to the exquisite harmonies that are lost at the higher speeds, while many of Chopin's compositions must be played quickly to capture the exquisite textures that are entirely lost at a slower tempo. Baroque vs. Romantic?

Re Brahms: As an untrained musician with meager talents and no musical context my slower performance of the piece (My Heart is Yearning) has emphasized its exquisite harmonic nature. Not just mechanical this rendition evokes the deep emotions which are connected with the words and the mood of the melody (cantus firmus). It actually makes me cry. However due to the severely reduced speed, which allows me to linger on certain luscious passages, the actual song is lost to the listener, as well as myself.

Hence those who have been trained and accustomed to hear this familiar melody line are frustrated and perhaps even annoyed at this lack. This distracts the sophisticated listener from hearing the emergent properties of slow that evoke such deep emotions. However the untrained listener (my audience) is not distracted by what their ear has always heard and is thereby able to hear these emergent properties of slow.

As per my teachers’ advice I have recorded and listened to my performance – which I enjoy tremendously. On the contrary all the YouTube performances of this piece (3X quicker than mine) that I have heard are unpleasant to my hillbilly ears - can't hear any of the parts that I find so arousing. Further I have no motivation to play the piece faster as the emergent properties of slow that I enjoy so much (including the persistent drone) are turned into quickly traveling ocean waves that do their work and disappear like the morning mists before the sun - no lingering - no holding onto Life with the approach of Death - the slowing of the funeral march to prolong the end.

The Diamond looked at from another angle.

Playing the Silence or Touch Control

More than any other instrument the Organ is a Machine, as there are many mechanical elements - on-off switches – with no personal contact – as in bow to string. As such an unspoken goal of the Organist is to transcend the Mechanical to produce Music. As the Organ is a sound Machine - able to fill cathedrals with its resonant reverberations – cultivating the emptiness through silence is one way of establishing control over the Beast.

My Organist’s relationship with this Silence began many decades ago – when he came to the realization that he needed to play the rests – (very different than the piano where the rests just happen naturally). The next step in their relationship occurred just a few years ago when he began clearly differentiating a repeated note. Then a year ago his abilities finally reached the stage where he could finally separate the pedal notes of the feet with a little silence – like a stand up bass. And now just last season (due to notations made by Brahms for his organ works) he came to understand that any of the 4 voices could be broken up with silence to augment and emphasize the essence of this musical communication from the past (intelligible although from a different language, culture and time period). These breaks and pauses also introduce an element of variety – to stimulate and arouse the Ear from its Lethargy - an essence of Art.

However according to his pattern - as a born-again convert to Touch Control my Organist has probably gotten carried away – perhaps injecting too much Silence. Such is the process of mastery: Nothing – Too Much – Not Enough – Just Right. Yet as each of these techniques is incorporated into our Cerebellum/Body in this step-by-step method it is essential not to lose the Music – in our obsession with Perfection – getting lost in a Technical display with no Heart.

Stages of Playing the Silence

Why so many pieces about Death?

You may have noticed that my programs are filled with the presumably depressing topics of death and difficulty - trial and tribulation. This is no accident. My obsession with music is based upon its ability to evoke the deep emotions that tend to be frowned upon in polite society – agony over the suffering and death of loved ones – surmounting the seemingly endless trials and tribulations that seem to beset our earthly path. We frequently attempt to put a bright face on the unpleasant – while holding it inside – power of positive attitude and all. In contrast this concert is an opportunity to feel these emotions in an aesthetic context, as Music allows us to feel the inexpressible.

If you’d prefer not to face these seemingly depressing aspects of existence this recital is not for you. Further if you’d rather hear a piece that is executed flawlessly in the proper style with the proper technique this is also not for you. Drawn only to pieces that express complex and ambiguous emotions our organist has stepped beyond his meager abilitities.

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