At the age of 32 Johann Sebastian Bach was jailed for demanding release from the Duke of Weimar’s service. During his incarceration (November 6 -> December 2, 1717), Bach began writing his Chorale Preludes. These compositions initiated his career as a composer and defined his style. A Chorale is a season-specific hymn sung in church. Based upon the melody line of these familiar pieces the Prelude preceded the hymn – 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.
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.
A selection from the Little Organ Book. Here are its Words.
To shepherds, as they watched by night,
Appeared a troop of Angels bright.
Behold the tender babe, they said,
In yonder lowly manger laid.
The music suggests pictorially the descent of the angel choir from heaven to announce the birth of the baby Jesus to the shepherds and then their ascent home – as the base line descends in the first two sections and rises in the final two. The words express an innocent concept, which on the surface is quite joyous. However the music reveals a much more complex sentiment as Bach confides his innermost thoughts to the music.
The minor key sequences in the scales of the pedal and middle lines reflects the great sadness the angels feel at the tragic trials that Jesus has in store due to the incredible stupidity of humanity. There is even the suggestion of his eventual crucifixion in these short but painful passages. Although the minor quality of the first and third sections evoke the disgust that Bach feels for what happens to Jesus, the relatively major quality of the 2nd and 4th sections affirms the absolute necessity of the events that are to transpire – a ratification of this divine process. This attitude of perfection is reflected in Bach’s compositional style.
A Chorale Prelude from the Little Organ Book – the Words:
“When Adam fell, the human race was doomed to condemnation;
Bereft were we of innocence, Sin’s poison wrought destruction,
But thanks to God, Who spares the rod,
From death have we been taken.
The Serpent – Eve didst once deceive – beholds his power shaken.”
A typical statement of original sin. Bach reflects Adam’s fall pictorially in the pedal line with a series of descending sevenths – a very difficult sequence to resolve. Because the base line always goes down in a distinctly dissonant fashion I have always called this piece Descent into Hell. The composition is based less upon the sadness of a minor key and more upon the difficulties of the chromaticism –half tone sequences, rather than scales. Further although the entire piece is not beautiful in the traditional sense –actually quite turgid and cloudy only a few soothing harmonies, it ends on a major chord. As such the piece evokes the traditional idea that it is necessary to descend into Hell to attain Heaven. I envision embarking upon a difficult project, which is worked through until completion. There are six distinct sections – each with a beginning and an end. These correspond with the stages of the project – each of which is fraught with perils beyond imagining. The transition between each section is a brief sigh combined with the flickering idea – Aurgh! Back to it again – Must descend into the muck to finish this damned project. Why did I ever take it up? Whew! Got that part finished. Good grief! More problems Why me? Then … At last. Whew! Finally winding this cursed task up with a deep sense of satisfaction for what you’ve accomplished – even though you’ve endured excruciating trials as you trudged through the mud. A happy ending following rugged travails.
Another selection from the Little Organ Book. On the surface this is one of the simplest of Bach’s Chorale Preludes as it only has three voices. But what voices! An exquisitely expressive cantus firmus or melody line in the top voice of the right hand – a supportive and very regular pedal line – with an intricate line in the left hand, which imparts the glory to the piece.
What do the Words express? What is the emotional intent?
“I call to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ, – O hear my sore complaining!
In Thy good time unto me list – Thine ear to me inclining!
True faith in Thee – O Lord, I seek.
O make me now and wholly – Love Thee solely,
My neighbor hold as self – And keep Thy word e’er holy.”
A sinner is calling to Jesus to hear his ‘sore complaint’ – that he needs divine assistance to stay on the correct path – including faith and ‘holding neighbor as self’. Perhaps anger, desire or greed has corrupted his behavior and he needs help. he has been his. In other words the singer has some problems with existence and wants to express them to whoever is in charge – presumably a divine being somewhere, who will hopefully listen and perhaps grant some peace. Although harmonically very beautiful
While the words of the hymn express a traditional complaint, what was the secret complaint that Bach was confiding to his music? “Why Oh God in the majesty of your Being do you sometimes punish the good and reward evil? Why is it that you allow such misery and suffering in those that love you? And what did I do to deserve my fate? Oh, I know that your ways are mysterious and that this Life is filled with Tests. But why, oh why, do you put your most faithful and devoted Servants through such misery? However don’t get me wrong. I’m not really angry at all. In fact I’m incredibly grateful to be in your presence. I’m just wondering why. That’s all. Please cleanse my mind of these doubts, and allow me to love my neighbor as my self.
In 1897 at the age 62 Brahms wrote a series of 11 short organ compositions. This was to be the last summer of his life. 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. This composition is one of the group.
"O God, thou faithful God, Thou Fountain ever flowing,
Who good and perfect gifts – in mercy art bestowing –
Give me a healthy frame – And may I have within –
A conscience free from blame – A soul unhurt by sin."
As per the hymn the piece is divided into 6 parts, each of which is subdivided into 3 sections, which are again subdivided into 3 more mini sections – the last of which is the most complex. Each of the six parts begins with a bold yang statement – a variation played upon the middle register – the principle. A sensitive yin statement follows – a variation of the theme played upon the bottom manual – the chorus. The third and final section contains the cantus firmus conceived in the style of the first two sections. This pattern continues until the six and final part – which contains an obvious surprise – the entry of the pedal..
Externally the words of the hymn say “Oh great and glorious god, fount of all giving - make my body and mind well.” The music reflects this theme with subtle variations. The nature of the initial bold yang statement of each variation – I am proud of what I’ve accomplished and who I am. The yin statement – God I’m weak, and my body is failing – my time is running out. The third and final statement evokes the words of the hymn itself – “Save me, O Lord, from myself. Give me strength of body and purity of mind." The final part morphs, ending with the emotional sentiment – “I go fearlessly unto death, knowing I’ve done my best during my brief sojourn in this awe-inspiring yet mysterious Universe.”
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