Classical Blues by Bach & Brahms

Organ Recital #2

12-28-09 & 1-27-10

The hour long program is a combination of Bach and Brahms – a nice contrast of Baroque and Romantic – of short and long pieces – 1 minute to 12 minutes. Like last year I will deconstruct some of the pieces to show their inner workings. The theme will be chromaticism and dissonance.

Program Pieces

1. ‘Savior of the Nations Come’
Choral Prelude #1 by JSBach

This piece is from the Orgel Buchlein, a series of compositions that Bach wrote while jailed as a young man for leaving his post without leave to hear Buxtehude, the avant-garde organist/composer of the day. They are called choral preludes because they are meant to be played before the chorale (or hymn) upon which they are based.

The words were written by Saint Ambrose in the 4th century – harmonized by the Italians for the Roman Catholic Mass in the Middle Ages – then adapted and translated into German by Martin Luther in 1524 for the Reformed Service. Early in the 18th century, Bach harmonized the chorale with more sophisticated chromatic harmony. 300 years later I’m playing this same piece. Quite an extended history for this one minute composition.

Layered across 6 voices, which are added and subtracted in regular sequences to give a distinct ebb and flow to the volume, the piece speaks to the difficulty of spreading Jesus’ message of pacifism, tolerance and understanding to the barbarians that happen to be leading our countries into the endless wars that are so destructive to the average person who just wants to live a life of peace. (Of course St, Ambrose was encouraging these same leaders to bring mayhem and destruction into the world to forcibly bring converts into the Catholic Church.)

The music regularly uses extreme dissonance to get its difficult message across.

2. Allabreva in D major by JS Bach

JS Bach’s Allabreva in D major consists of 6 sections all based on the same theme. The name, alla breva, refers to an earlier form of notation, the mensural, and means a passage in half notes (none of the faster quarter or eighth notes yet). As such this early form is more free flowing – not as structural as the later fugues that were Bach’s specialty. Probably written for his oldest son, this etude is frequently the beginning piece for a freshman organ student – not too hard or easy.

The long first section remains in the happy major key repeating the same theme in all four voices, which are added in succession – like a round. The second section modulates to the sad minor key – adding voices similarly. But Bach accents the angrier variation with a descending whole note chromatic scale in the soprano – which imparts ambiguity and intensity to the passage. Herein lies Bach’s genius.

Although remaining minor, the third section retreats from the prior intensity, as it contains no chromatics. The fourth section begins and continues in the glorious major key but then suddenly, albeit naturally, ends in a minor key – taking the listener’s breath away in awe at the inevitability and yet unexpected nature of the transition.

The crucial fifth section starts out in the happy major, seems as if it will stay major – a happily-ever-after tale – when suddenly the chromatic enters from the bass – then continues in the soprano. The wife angrily confronts the husband about his betrayal. Upon discovering the truth behind the propaganda the naïve rages against the Establishment for the self-serving corruption that leads to such disgusting and reprehensible behavior. The fury is expressed relentlessly – founded upon irrefutable facts. These complex emotions are evoked due to the steady chromatic progression.

The final section begins major, shifts into minor with the addition of voices, then steps up the complexity of this black and white statement with an 8 step descending chromatic in the bass line. The immensity of the statement is jaw-dropping. The veil of illusion rises revealing the darkness beneath. The Indian brave has killed for the first time. The depth of the depravity is seen clearly. Buddha sees poverty, injustice and mortality.

Bach completes the composition with an organ pedal point – holding the same low note while the upper voices reiterate the theme. This introduces an inherent, dissonant bittersweet to the positive ending – an example of where holding one’s ground provides the most resistance of all.

3. ‘Blessed Ye Who live in Faith Unswerving’
Chorale Prelude #6 by Brahms

Brahms wrote this piece at the end of his life – perhaps as a tribute to Bach – as these are the only compositions of this style by Brahms, while Bach wrote many of these preludes.

The words to the chorale that this particular prelude was based upon were written in 1635 – the music in 1649 – and harmonized by Bach in the early 1700s. Brahms wrote this prelude in 1897 at the age of 62 in the last summer of his life – over 250 years after the original poetry was composed.

Although the form of Bach’s Baroque and Brahms’ Romantic 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.)

Although the preceding Classical period in music employed the chromatic little if at all the Romantic embraced the chromatic as a way of making key changes. Hence it is impossible to highlight the appearance of chromatic sequences in Brahms, as they are everywhere.

Was Brahms attracted to this piece because of the potentials of the melody line or was he attracted to the words? Was he envious of those who had ‘faith unswerving’? Was he jealous that these ‘blessed ones’ could joyously accept anything that happened as the Divine Will of God – unquestioning – without doubt or skepticism? This was in stark contrast to his emotionally tortured life – full of neurotic agony – presumably brought on by self-doubt.

Whatever the reasons for Brahms’ motivations this piece is a great example of Romantic Color.

The Death Set & Classical Blues

I think of the last 4 pieces in my program as the Death Set. The 1st – the glorious sunset at the end of the day. The 2nd - a humorous and whimsical response to the fact that humans must die. The 3rd - questioning Divine Justice with the unexpected death of a child. & The 4th and final – time to leave this world – a poignant response to human frailty.

As you may have guessed this recital is not about Christmas carols and the joys of the rebirth of the year as expressed through the birth of Jesus. It is not even meant to make you feel good. Instead it is meant to evoke your darkest pain – to allow you to feel its deepest hurt – setting the prisoner free. These combinations of intentional vibrations emitted from inside this chapel are specifically designed to melt the heart chains that bind unadulterated Being to the illusory worlds created by the intellect. An exposé, rather than a cover-up - an enhancement of feeling, rather than a sedation. This is why I my recital Classical Blues. Ouch!

Rage, Betrayal, Death – all expressed so exquisitely by theses two masters, Bach and Brahms. Although global injustice and premature death, disabling diseases and injuries, financial setback and loss, pain and disappointment Beauty transcends all. Their music simultaneously expresses the pain and allows us to truly feel by miraculously unlocking unusual sensations that might even elicit spontaneous sobbing. But what a release! The singing teakettle - the pressure escapes with a sigh.

4. The Adagio of Bach’s Trio Sonata in E flat Major

A Glorious Sunset

The Adagio, the second movement of a Trio Sonata written by JS Bach in 1723 as a practice piece for his 13 year old son, expresses the exquisite glory of the sunset before the dying of the day- one last project before the lights go out- staying up late talking hilariously knowing the end is near – 2 toddlers playing exuberantly. The parent joins in the frivolity- knowing all the while that this innocent interchange will all pass – as change is the only constant. Two aging dancers putting on their final performance- the tears of the audience evoked by this exquisite rendition of mortality.

No chromaticism – just subtle hints of dissonance to suggest the bittersweet – a magnificent modulation in the second section. However the real beauty lies in the simple, but intricate, play of three voices. The right and life hand scamper up and down the keyboard- echoing themes – imitating each other – equal partners in the dance. Inside out – upside down – obviously relishing in each other’s company – especially so because it’s the last time. The feet harmonize the two hands with a running bass line meant to emphasize the fun – the magnificent burst before the darkness sets in.

To augment the Clarity of the distinct voices two organ families were chosen. The right hand begins in the Flutes followed shortly by the left hand in the Reeds – an obvious and distinct difference. The feet accompanies in the Flute family.

This piece has personal meaning to me. Discovered my beloved mother in law had advanced breast cancer while initially learning the piece. Revived the piece when she died – as it is associated with her love of life and beauty. Discovered it was my close friend’s favorite Bach piece as she too is struggling with the disease of mortality – the fading glory. Further the book in which the composition is printed contains penciled in notes written for my mother, who died unexpectedly in the full bloom of life, by her organ teacher. The Void approaches inexorably, randomly, seemingly without meaning, Rather than fear and trembling going out with unrestrained exuberance.

5. “All Humans Must Die”, Choral Prelude #44 by JSBach

Thumbing the Nose at Death

“All Humans Must Die” is another of Bach’s Choral Preludes #44 Orgel Buchlein. The words, written in 1652, the original music in 1678, state that our physical body is like clay, which fades like grass. Composed by Bach as a young rebellious man in his late 20s the prelude is a whimsical take on mortality. The listener gets the idea that he is almost thumbing his nose at Death – maybe somehow confident that his life’s work would confer Immortality upon his Person. He achieves this ironic twist on mortality by employing the chromatic at key moments – playfully nuancing the seriousness of the topic.

6. Canzona in D minor by JS Bach

The Exquisite Pain of Love and Loss

Bach’s Canzona in D minor is based upon a foundational form for classical music. The history of the form indicates the multinational nature of music. In the 1400s the Franco-Flemish school developed a chanson noted for clarity and balance of form. In the 1500s the Italians applied livelier rhythms, placed more restrictions on the form and called it a Canzone. Composers employed this structured form for both keyboard and ensemble – each of which eventually developed their own style. In the 1600s as the Germans confined the structure even more, it morphed into the Sonata for Ensembles and the Fugue for Keyboards. Bach’s exhibits his mastery by composing exquisite music with each of these forms – from the least structured Allabreva, to the transitional Canzona - to the crystalline Fugue.

This piece is a culmination of all the principles we’ve been speaking about. It epitomizes maniera, skillfully manipulating the main theme as well as Bach employs the principle of maniera, where instead of just varying a theme he actually introduces a seemingly brand new theme in the second half. But it is a subtle variation of the first - in 3/2 time rather than 4/4. Further the counter theme for both sections is a descending 6-step chromatic scale, whose excruciating dissonances express the shades of grey behind the pain of compassion.

When learning this piece a local lady lost her teenage son in a senseless accident. As such this piece is imprinted with that memory.

Each of the sections is in 4 distinct voices that are having a polyphonic conversation: the grieving mother, the soprano – the other voices, her consoling friends. The second section begins with the 3 friends compassionately discussing the tragedy, when the mother enters with her wail in the upper voice, “Why me? It hurts so badly. How can I possibly go on?“ Her friends do their best to console her.

Listening and crying together seems to have a calming effect. However as the three friends speak of Gods’s Will, Heaven, ‘meant to be’ and ‘stiff upper lip’, she cries out in a restrained but plaintive fashion – a melancholy moan: “You have no idea. These words mean nothing. I will never see my son again – his bright smile and cheery disposition lost forever. Where’s the Divine Justice in that? Aieeee!” The friends gently support her – one at a time - hugging and assuring her of their support in her loss.

With the expression of her pain the key of the piece gradually shifts from minor to major – from resignation mixed with the need to go on – proceed forth despite – to a glorious acceptance of suffering from loss as an example of what it is to Love. Then two consecutive trills – first tenor, then soprano – the mother’s final shriek. This false ending is followed by a difficult and challenging transition between two dimensions – going into the unknown – neither chromatic, nor a key – which culminates in a sweet minor – which morphs into a complete major – on the last note only. Relief at last – an Affirmation.

[Editor: A fraud – a sham – this ‘happily ever after’ stuff.]

7. “O World, I Must Leave Thee”
Chorale Prelude #3 by Brahms

Going Home

O World, I Must Leave Thee’, the 7th and final piece is Organ Chorale Prelude #3, was written by Johannes Brahms in 1897. Archduke Max wrote the words in 1495 and commissioned the music the same year – over 500 years ago. Wow! A musical connection across half a millennium - despite differences in language, culture and technology. Death and Departure form a common bond.

The words: “World, I must leave thee. Must travel the road homeward bound. As my spirit departs I place my Love and Life in God’s most gracious hands.”

In this piece death brings comfort. To paraphrase: “Time to leave this mess - going home. Place my all in Divinity’s hand.” This image is not harsh or fearful, but soothing – moving back to the family – a return to Quiet. The theme is quite appropriate for Brahms, as he wrote the piece at the end of his life as he was dying of an unknown disease.

The music expresses this exultation of going home to rest through a stately Larghetto – a graceful funeral march – with regular pauses along the path – proceeding inexorably towards the final resting place in the warmth of the ground.

Brahms divides his piece into 3 distinct sections. He concludes the first two parts with exquisite dissonances to express life’s bittersweet – the jubilation at what has been accomplished combined with the disappointment at what could have been – Anger and then resignation at how things turned out – the triumphs and failures overwhelmed by the end. The clamber and glory, how short it is – then poof! – out – extinguished forever. The last section is initially filled with excruciating dissonances skillfully woven into the traditional positive harmony. These turn into long sighs which morph into a triumphal yet defiant march into the boat that crosses the River Styx into the netherworld.

Yet the piece makes the inherent statement of every musical composition – Beauty trumps the Agony. The aesthetic statement somehow tempers the bite of the ugly, unpleasant realities of temporal existence– Distracting us with Aesthetics.

This is another Romanic piece where Color is of more important than Clarity. Hence all the organ families will be employed simultaneously to produce a full, lush sound.


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