Bach Before Forty: Organ Recital

Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 4pm
Bach Before Forty
Organ Recital with Organist, Peter Sykes
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 67 East Street, Pittsfield, MA
$25 // $20 for BBS, AGO, and OLLI members. Students Free with ID.

Advance ticket sales are closed, but tickets will be available at the door.

Toccata in (C) Major, BWV 566
Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehr’, BWV 717  —  Manualiter
Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehr’, BWV 711  —  Bicinium
Allein Gott in die Höh sei Ehr’, BWV 715  —  Organo Pleno
Pastorale in F Major, BWV 59o
Prelude and Fugue in g minor, BWV 535
Prelude and Fugue in d minor (“Fiddle”), BWV 539
Partita on O Gott, du frommer Gott, BWV 767
Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, BWV 730, 731
Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor, BWV 582

Bach turned forty in the year 1725. By then he was in his third year as Capellmeister of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, his last official post; he had already served as organist in Arnstadt (1703-07), Mühlhausen (1707-08), as court organist and Cammer Musicus in Weimar (1708-17) and as Cappelmeister in Cöthen (1717-23). By 1725 he had had ten children, of which two (twins) had died in infancy; he had been married for thirteen years to Maria Barbara Bach, who died in 1720, and four years to Anna Magdalena Bach. In 1725 his son Wilhelm Friedemann was fifteen years old, Carl Phillip Emmanuel eleven; another ten years would go by before the birth of Johann Christian. The St. John Passion was being given its second performance at the Thomaskirche in 1725; still in the future were the St. Matthew Passion, the Clavierübung collection, the B minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, most of the cantatas, and of course the Musical Offering and Art of Fugue. Still also in the future was Bach’s appointment as director of the Leipzig collegium musicum and the many concertos written for that organization. But by 1725 he had already written very much organ music, certainly the greater amount of the total number of his organ compositions, although he was to continue to write and revise organ works to the very end of his life.

Bach’s earliest musical training was as a keyboard player, not as a composer, and his early influences among composers (as listed by C.P.E. Bach in the obituary for Bach) were all keyboard players and composers; Froberger, Kerll, Pachelbel, Frescobaldi, Fischer, Strungk, certain French composers, Bruhns, Buxtehude, Reinken and Böhm. C.P.E. Bach then goes on to say that Bach however had formed his style through his own efforts and developed his fugal technique through private study and reflection. This is interesting, indeed heartening, since in looking at “early works of Bach” one seeks in vain for clear stylistic influences or a single path of development. Alongside a German fugue one finds French ornamentation; in the middle of something recognizable one finds something stunningly original. This is called genius, and it cannot be reduced to a neat formula for the purpose of study or even description. In the end, one must simply listen to the music, and let it speak.

This program is devoted to early organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Both the Prelude and Fugue in g minor and the Toccata in (C) Major (which also appears in E Major, hence the parenthesis around the C)  show Bach paying homage to Buxtehude and other north German organists. The Toccata is, in fact, formally arranged exactly like a Buxtehude toccata or praeludium –  it is in five parts, mixing free and fugal sections, with brilliant figuration – but there are some hints of Bach’s performing virtuosity and harmonic audacity that transcend many of Buxtehude’s compositions. The g minor Prelude and Fugue, in two separate movements, follows later structural developments while retaining the spirit and fire of Bach’s earliest compositions; the Prelude contains one of the longest sequences of unrelieved figuration to be found in keyboard music, while on a contemporary copy of the Fugue, in a margin is written “In this Fugue, one must kick one’s feet around quite a bit.” (!)  The Prelude and Fugue in d minor stands as an exercise in transcription – the Fugue is a keyboard transcription of the second movement of Bach’s g minor sonata for solo violin, thus the moniker “Fiddle” for this piece – and the prelude is the only one by Bach for manuals alone, without a pedal part. The Partita on “O Gott, du frommer Gott” presents the chorale with a following set of variations (in this case, eight) in the mold of German composers such as Böhm or Pachelbel, in which manipulation of the musical material of the chorale takes precedence over a portrayal of any affectual relationship with the sense of the text (as in the manner of Buxtehude). Somewhat in the form of a dance suite, this set of variations therefore shows not so much an expressive as a decorative intent, showing different registrational combinations as well as different musical styles. This piece does not call for the use of the pedal, although the last variation demands two manuals for an echo effect. I notice a great similarity between the figuration of certain variations in this partita and the variations of another, more famous Bach early organ work, also in c minor – the great Passacaglia. The Pastorale is a sort of catch-all piece, in form something between a suite and a sonata, conforming to nothing else in Bach’s output. The name most probably refers to the first movement, which both in key and affect recalls similar pastoral movements written for either keyboard or orchestra; the other movements recall either suite ideas (the second and fourth movements) or sonata ideas (the expressive and violinistic third movement).

The other chorale settings show Bach’s great grasp of harmony and its expressive capabilities even at an early stage of development – the first  “Liebster Jesu” setting is hardly more than a harmonization, but what exquisite harmonies – and, in the second, his ability to learn (for example, from Böhm, and perhaps D’Anglebert) the expressiveness of an ornamented solo line incorporating French-style ornamentation. The three “Allein Gott” preludes are not a compositional set, but are simply assembled here tonight as a group in homage to the larger, later, “three Allein Gotts” of the Leipzig chorale collection. The first is a gentle three-part setting with the two lower voices in free imitation (quite reminiscent of the E-flat Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II) , with the top line carrying the cantus firmus; the second is a two-part bicinium, with the bottom line spinning out a cello-like ostinato under the cantus firmus presented simply in the soprano. The last setting shows Bach’s audacity in all its confrontational glory – perhaps it was pieces like this one that earned him the ire of his superiors claiming that his “strange harmonies confused the congregation,” for its harmonies are indeed strange. At one point, close to the end, a chain of unresolved diminished seventh chords harmonize the chorale tune just at the point when the text (in the first verse, anyway) speaks of heavenly joy – Bach in youthful play, perhaps, but in complete control of his art.

Peter Sykes (Click for bio)

This concert is underwritten in part by the Berkshire Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.