Program Pieces

Organ Recital #3


1. Bach's Little Prelude and Fugue in E minor

“Parental Advice: Unconditional Love & Rigorous Discipline”

The first piece of my student recital is Bach's Little Prelude and Fugue in E minor, presumably written as an instructional piece for his two boys - who were later to become more famous than their father (See Mozart’s Connection to Bach) – the power of positive parenting – although the eldest died of alcoholism – the price of fame.

As the piece is written father to sons my organist hears this as parental guidance to their children. The piece is broken into 2 distinct sections. The Mother begins in the loosely constructed Prelude. “We will love you always – no matter what. We will stand behind you in all your endeavors - assisting you along your path to the best of our abilities. Realize that you have us a foundation from which you can realize your dreams of transforming the world.”

In the tightly structure fugue which immediately follows the father offers more somber advice. “Boy, I have something to tell you. So listen hard. Life’s a bitch. Along with its little pains and pleasures there is an abundance of hard work – many excruciating situations – frequently unfair. But if you put in long arduous practice – rather than get lost in frivolous amusements – you will be blessed with great accomplishment. A deep sense of satisfaction accompanies the realization that you are one of the chosen few. Only the struggles and privations of silent toil lead to a lifetime of achievement – a job well done – a life well lived. So keep at it, my children. It won’t be easy, but the internal rewards are great.”

An auditory analysis will accompany this piece. The theme will be broken into chromatic and minor scale. The piece is classic Baroque Flute – as only the Flute Pipes are activated on only one register (keyboard) for Clarity.

2. Brahms: “O God, Thou Faithful God” in A minor

“Despite frailty have done my best.”

I hear this piece as the plaintive cry of a dying man. "O God, thou faithful God. Heal my broken body and purify my mind. Although I have been far from perfect - making many mistakes along the way - I have done my best to add some beauty to this plane of suffering in my allotted time. Gratitude to the Divinity for choosing me as a Divine Vessel."

This piece is registered in Romantic Flute – all three registers funneled into the Great (the middle manual) for a fuller sound – Color. The piece alternates registers from the Great to the Flute 6 times – echoing the words of the Chorale upon which it is based.

“O God, thou faithful God, Thou lavish fount of giving
Without whom naught can be – From whom we’re all receiving –
Oh, make my body well – And mayst Thou then ordain –
That it a humble soul – And wholesome mind contain.”

A disclaimer: My Organist relies on the Emergent Properties of Slow due to the inability to his old fingers to play fast enough to generate the Romantic Color of this piece. Luckily each of us is equipped with a Beginner’s Mind (perhaps due to inexperience) – allowing us to appreciate what is, rather than fret about what should be.

(For more biographical information – O God, Thou Faithful God.)

3. Bach: Our Father in Heaven (#37 Orgel Buchlein)

"Grant strength to Love our Neighbors with both Mind and Heart"

Next is a little something Bach might have written in prison at the age of 32. This period of concentrated uninterrupted attention ignited his career. (Who says jail is bad?) From the Little Organ Book this Chorale Prelude has the following words associated with it.

Our Father in Heaven Who art,
Who tellest all of us, from the Heart
Brothers be. And from thy call
Wilt have prayer from one and all
Grant that the mouth not only pray
From deepest heart O help its way.


Paraphrasing {God, I pray thee, Help me to love my Neighbor as a Brother, not just from my Mouth but from my Heart as well.)

“This beautiful and intimate composition is dominated by a short 4 note motive. There is scarcely a beat in which it does not appear and it lends to the composition a perfection of unity which is remarkable.”

For Baroque Clarity the Flute Family is employed on just one manual (keyboard).

4. Bach: [The Giant] “We believe all in one God.” Credo

“Earned my Luck” (German: “Wir Glauben”)

“Fugue in D Minor” with (THE GIANT) printed beneath is the title that labels the music for this piece – chosen randomly from my organ books. Evidently the piece was labeled wrong. It is not a fugue at all, but instead is another of Bach’s Chorale Preludes – sort of. It seems that Bach wrote this piece in Leipzig in the maturity of his career to establish himself as a composer – even having it published (one of the few). It is based upon the most important chorale of Northern German culture – hence its nickname – ‘The Giant’ or ‘The Credo’ – the creed of German monotheism.

It is a most unusual composition. Although based upon a hymn there is no apparent melody line. In fact it takes 3 voices to establish a theme that is repeated 6 times throughout the piece. None of the voices can stand alone. Each needs the other to make the complete statement. In each of the 6 sections the upper voices of the hands begin and the pedal line of the feet ends. Employing the classic cycle of 5ths he proceeds from the key of D minor, A minor, F major, C major, G minor, and then finishes where he began in D minor. This minor to major oscillation reflects the trials and rewards of a life well lived.

Between the 5th and 6th (the final) variation on the theme, Bach inserts a somewhat joyous melodic section – indicated musically by a shift from the dominant Great to the supportive Choir manual (keyboard). This section speaks of the good life – harmonious family and friends combined with relative prosperity living in a peaceful and beautiful part of the planet. The final section offers a major qualification. “Yes, I have it good. But you have no idea what I went through to arrive here.”

As such it perfectly reflected the sentiments I was experiencing at the time I began practicing the piece. Had just finished 4 excruciating years – Worked in 10 different restaurants, training a total of 26 days, combined with 2 career threatening injuries, which led to a Breakdown – complete with Workman’s Comp, Disability and Unemployment checks. Having just emerged from the chaos I was struck in the same month with melanoma, root canals, and to top it off a painful hernia, which required an operation. Was about a month away from surgery – at which time I surmised that my seeming endless ordeals were at an end.

Despite the severity of the trials I had emerged relatively unscathed financially, physically and emotionally – and in fact was in better shape in all these categories than when I had entered the Test. Grateful for my circumstances “Earned my Luck” became my personal title for this piece. It wasn’t easy to achieve the abundance of life’s blessings – including my family and friends that are at this performance. I imagine that most humans must go through equivalent trials of one nature or another to arrive at a state of gratitude for their circumstances. This universal sentiment is what this piece signifies for me.

Something written at the time – “Made it through these excruciating struggles that are almost at an end. Perseverance through great difficulties – Just a little longer – Proud to have persisted and survived – Been to hell and back – Still unconquered by Satan’s snares – the defeatism, discouragement, and doubt that undermine vitality. Although the Path had been hard, ‘Hoorah, Hooray, that I made it and am here today.”

To signify this journey from ordeal to resolution the music, which is in the ‘sad’ minor key of D until the very last note, ends in the ‘happy’ major key of D major – as signified by the lone F sharp.  This piece is classic Baroque Organ – employing only the traditional Principal register on the Great manual to maximize Clarity.

5. Brahms: “My Heart is Yearning for Death”

Johannes Brahms wrote “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” at the end of his life when he knew he was dying of cancer. Accordingly the entire composition suggests the following theme: “I made my mark – left my residue – my legacy. Born enough suffering. It’s time to go – move on.” However the intimations of the piece are a study in contrasts. Let’s look a little more closely.

Following are the words of the original hymn (composed in 1601) from which Brahms' Chorale Prelude was derived.

“My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release –
From ills that surround me and woes that never cease.
This cruel world is ending – ‘twill be a blessed boon.
I sigh for joys eternal. Sweet death, O please come soon.”

The expressed sentiment is not American at all – for we as a culture rarely welcome death, but in fact resist it at all costs – financially and emotionally. However perhaps we have known those whom we wished could die – maybe due to a painful, debilitating disease or perhaps serious dementia. As such the final line “O sweet death, please come soon,” might more aptly apply to a loved one or companion. In my case the piece evokes the thought of a friend who is suffering the normal excruciating agonies of an incurable cancer combined with chemotherapy.

Let’s see how Brahms communicates these sentiments.

Already the key signature is in the descending minor key of A. As such a meta-organization of the piece is a slight rise followed by a steady fall – a pattern realized in the cantus firmus of the original, which is maintained by the bass line in Brahms rendition. To augment this structure Brahma’s dominant soprano goes a little higher than expected and immediately falls far lower than expected – inspiration followed by relapse. Further the downward movement of the notes is unsteady, almost stumbling as an indication of frailty.

In the first measure Brahms establishes the somber key of A minor then introduces a C sharp in the pattern as an audio cue to suggest a happier major scale. However a droned G natural in the tenor line contradicts the positive, instead suggesting a bittersweet sentiment. Contradicting the expected is a regular feature of Brahms compositions – suggesting spontaneity, although inevitable.

Regularly the piece returns to a drone in the primary key, which at first evokes relief, as this establishes a comfort zone, a regularity. Very quickly this reverts to an oppressive boredom – a habituation. “Aurgh! When are we going to leave this cage?” Just at this point he breaks the interminable pattern.

The first half of the piece – devoted to the first two lines – stays entirely within the key – no variations whatsoever. At the beginning of the second half Brahms introduces the unexpected D# in the top line, which is not reinforced harmonically in any way (a transition or suggestion). Auditorially this indicates a great unresolved dissatisfaction – as the D# does not fit the key signature. Further this diminished 4th is considered the Devil’s chord – the most dissonant of any combination – assiduously avoided as a harmonic mistake by Baroque composers. Brahms’ is expressing his ultimate disgust with humanity.

Now let’s look to the contradictory nature of the combination of words and music. As mentioned the first half is classic A descending minor, which reflects the somber tone of the words. The fun begins in the second half. The third line: “This cruel world is ending, twill be a blessed boon.” Is expressed in most joyous terms musically with the brief establishment of the inherently joyous C major scale. He, we, are ecstatic that the cruel world of injustice is doomed – ending in some type of eco-disaster due to human folly. This line concludes with a comfortable descending chromatic in three voices – which suggests a gentle, though inevitable, winding down.

However instead of a sweet resolution the composition takes a startling turn for the worse. In the final phrases Brahms begins by reestablishing the key of A minor – suggests a happy ending with a C sharp accompanied by the appropriate supporting crew – at last – but the next beat – the F natural in the cantus firmus of the deep bass line – immediately dashes the sentiment. The disquieting nature of the piece is augmented in the final notes as it reintroduces the Devil’s D sharp, which finally resolves into A minor on the final note of the piece.

The last line – “I sigh for joys eternal. O sweet death, please come soon.” – is a study in contradiction. A rich cacophony of conflicting keys due to held notes – accompanies the ‘joys eternal’ – suggesting an uncertainty about facing the Void – not so sure about these heavenly joys promised by the Church – even some fear and trepidation regarding the transition.

This is reinforced in the final line “O sweet death, please come soon.” Although the words express urgency, the music expresses a great reluctance – indicated musically by the notation ‘riten. sempre’ – a deceleration of rhythm. Brahms is at the Gateway looking into the Void. He pauses, looking back longingly at the drama and excitement, but knowing that his term has ended – he steps into the abyss. Death please come, but not too soon. Let’s not rush things. Aurgh!"

To achieve this ambiguity of emotion Brahms regularly contradicts the melody line with his other voices – something Bach would never do. There will be a demonstration of this phenomenon at the concert.

6. Bach: "I Call to Thee."

The Beauty of a Shared Aesthetic Experience

Also from the Little Organ Book this gorgeous piece only has 3 voices – each totally unique from the others (unlike the fugue in particular, where each voice sings the same song). The melody line, expressed in lyrical, yet undisguised, fashion in the soprano voice of the right hand, is expressed through the distinctive Reed family (the first time employed in this concert) and played on the bottom keyboard – the Chorus register. At the same time the left hand, playing on the middle keyboard – the Great – with a different family – the Flute, maintains a steady rhythm of quicker 8th notes – which sings its own uniquely beautiful song to complement the melody line. Finally the bass or pedal line is a steady beat – half speed – ¼ notes with no melody whatsoever.

The words of the song are a call to the Lord to assist the singer in faith and love.

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.

My take is different. The exquisite balance and magnificent repose of this piece reflects the organ recital. Loved ones, family and friends getting together for an aesthetic experience in an exquisite environment – listening to beautiful music together.

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