A toast to James Gilchrist

The Bach Collegium Japan live-streamed a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion today on philharmonie.tv, Kölner Philharmonie’s “digital concert hall.” I was delighted that James Gilchrist was singing the role of the Evangelist. Gilchrist is one of my favorite Evangelists—not for the sound of his voice as such, but because he is one of the few, it seems to me, who fully understands the delicacy of the role. The Evangelist is everpresent, and yet never quite in the center of attention (like the continuo). He’s also always making endearingly expressive faces along with others’ arias.

I first heard Gilchrist live in Boston’s Symphony Hall around 2007 in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion. (I think it was with the Handel & Haydn Society, but it might have been a touring group.) This was the performance that significantly formed my favorable opinion of his art: specifically, his rendering of the lines “Petrus ging heraus und weinete bitterlich.” and “Das ist verdeutschet: Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?” Those are the litmus tests in Matthew, if you ask me. Nothing more tedious than an Evangelist who thinks he’s the main character at such crucial (ahem) moments; and boy are there plenty of those kinds of Evangelists.

Notes on Bach’s Clavierübung (1739)

The 1730s were characterized by two factors for Bach. The first was the recurrance of squabbles with civic and school authorities over the prerogatives of his office. For example, in late 1728 a clergyman demanded the right to choose the Vespers hymns, something the Cantor had always done. Bach reacted strongly, saying his rights had been encroached upon, but the dispute was settled in the clergyman’s favor. Things got worse when in 1730 Bach drafted an important memorandum detailing problems with church music in Leipzig; the situation was made even more complicated because Bach was not on good terms personally with the interim Rector of the school.  The matter dragged on for years — the subject of the argument drifted, but the adversaries were always the same — and in 1737 Bach appealed over the council’s heads directly to the King of Poland. The Scheibe-Birnbaum controversy of 1737–8, in which former student Johann Adolph Scheibe criticized Bach in the press, was a personal low point.

The second factor, perhaps a response to the first, was Bach’s engagement with new musical projects unrelated to his official duties. In 1729 Bach assumed leadership of the Leipzig collegium musicum, a music society of university students founded by Telemann in 1702. The collegium gave weekly performances in Zimmermann’s Coffeehouse. Many of Bach’s instrumental works — his concertos in particular, as well as the eponymous Coffee Cantata BWV 211 — were written for and performed by the collegium.

Most significant was Bach’s work on an ambitious publishing program for keyboard works. Between 1726 and 1730 he published the six keyboard partitias BWV 825–830, reissued together in 1731 as his “opus 1.” The handsomely engraved title page recalls his predecessor Johann Kuhnau’s own Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Practice,” 1689/1692) and dedicates the suites “denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths-Ergözung” (to [music-]lovers for the spirit’s delight). The Clavier-Übung II (1735) contained the so-called Italian Concerto BWV 971, which sometime nemesis Scheibe regarded as “the perfect model of a well designed concerto,” and the French Overture BWV 831; the pairing epitomizes the mixing of the two eponymous national styles in the “mixed taste” so much in vogue in German art and letters.

The third volume of the Clavier-Übung was composed 1735–6 and published 1739 as the latest installment of Bach’s publication series. It is an anthology of liturgical organ music in various styles, setting each of the various parts of the Lutheran mass and catechism twice, both with and without pedal. Like so many of Bach’s collections—such as the Well-Tempered Clavier is for tonality, the Brandenburg concertos for orchestration, or the B-minor Mass for concerted church music—the Clavier-Übung III is an encyclopedic compendium of service music for the organ. It treats the three-fold Kyrie, the Lutheran Gloria (Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr), the Ten Commandments, Credo (Wir glauben all), the Lord’s Prayer (Vater unser), and Luther’s catechism chorales on the three sacraments (Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam for Baptism; Aus tiefer Not for Confession; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland for Communion). The Kyrie vignette is unified by the procession of the cantus firmus through successively lower voices; Bach used this technique to unify the opening movements of the first four cantatas of his 1724–5 chorale cantata cycle (namely BWV 20, 2, 7, 135). The Credo (Wir glauben all), set as a plenum fugue, articulates a central pillar in the middle of the work corresponding to its medial function in the liturgy.

The various chorales on either side of this pillar explore various organ techniques “not merely in an offhand way, but according to the sense (Affect) of the words” of the chorales, as another student reported Bach taught. Thus the Gloria (Allein Gott in der Höh) settings tend to be in a higher register, a kind of musical reference to the fact that this represents the song of the angels in excelsis. The first Ten Commandments setting BWV 678 uses a canon, which some have seen as a representation of the “law”—but of course there are canons everywhere in Bach’s music, and if they do not all represent the law, this one cannot represent the law except by special pleading. On the other hand, the use a five-part texture is borrowed from de Grigny’s Livre d’Orgue (1699), and moreover the juxtaposition of an austere canon in long notes in the left hand and the florid writing of the voices in the right hand may symbolize the “old” versus “new” law. The gigue-like manualiter setting BWV 679 may represent Luther’s exhortation to “do what the Lord commands cheerfully.”

The Vater unser setting BWV 682 is perhaps Bach’s most masterful chorale setting. It is in five parts like BWV 678, but the canon is distributed between the hands, as are the two upper voices of the trio. The trio-element of its ritornello form is in the galant manner, with highly expressive rhythms and chromatic touches. Against these the chorale cantus firmus wends its way almost covertly. Accordingly, it is much more difficult to play and to hear than BWV 678 (since the parts are overlapping in the same register), to the extent that the musicologist Hermann Keller proposed that BWV 682 was actually an organ duet, to be played by two organists on four manuals. This idea is generally rejected, but it illustrates the intellectual complexity of the piece both for player and audience. Christ unser Herr BWV 684 is another ritornello form, but the simplicity of the texture and the cantus firmus in the bass makes it much more straightforward though no less elegant. This form is and texture is common to Bach’s so-called Schübler chorales, including the well-known Wachet auf BWV 645.

Aus tiefer Not BWV 686 and Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 688 are wonderful foils for each other. The one is in the stile antico, thickly voiced in six parts with double pedal, full of chromatic harmony, but relatively straightforward in its rhythmic scansion and counterpoint. The other is in the florid style, delicately scored in two invention-like upper parts plus cantus firmus bass, with euphonous harmony of thirds and sixths, but with chromatic melodies, distorting syncopated harmonies and crossing of parts, and subtle procedures of contrapuntal inversion at the octave, tenth, and twelfth.

Like the B-minor Mass, another ostensibly liturgical anthology, the Clavier-Übung III cannot have been used wholesale in any single service, but as a collection it serves as a comprehensive treatment of the fundamentals of Lutheran doctrine and liturgy, such as any organist would need. It is a source of pieces to excerpt and a model for improvisation and composition. Unlike the B-minor Mass, which appears was never performed in its entirety in the eighteenth century, it is conceivable that an eighteenth-century organist, perhaps even Bach himself, might have performed the Clavier-Übung III straight through as a concert. Bach’s organ recitals were frequently many hours long, and indeed the sequence of pieces in the Clavier-Übung III seems to follow not only the Lutheran liturgy but also what is known about Bach’s concert programming. From Forkel we have the following testimony, probably related to him by the Bach sons:

When Johann Sebastian Bach seated himself at the organ when there was no divine service, which he was often requested to do, he used to choose some subject and to execute it in all the various forms of organ composition so that the subject constantly remained his material, even if he had played, without intermission, for two hours or more. First, he hused this theme for a prelude and a fugue, with the full organ. Then he showed his art of using the stops for a trio, a quartet, etc., always upon the same subject. Afterwords followed a chorale, the melody of which was playfully surrounded in the most diversified manner by the original subject, in three or four parts. Finally, the conclusion was made by a fugue, with the full organ, in which either another treatment only of the first subject predominanted, or one or, according to its nature, two others were mixed in.

Forkel describes Bach opening and closing his concerts with free works for the plenum, just as we have in the Clavier-Übung III. In the middle, he played pieces using a variety of smaller registrations, demonstrating “his art of using the stops” that Forkel described elsewhere as a “peculiar manner in which he combined the different stops of the organ with each other, or his mode of registration. It was so uncommon that many organ builders and organists were frightened when they saw him draw the stops. They believed that such a combination of stops could never sound well, but were much surprised when they afterwards perceived that the organ sounded best just so, and had now something peculiar and uncommon, which never could be produced by their mode of registration.” Of course, this manner of programming pieces through a the sequence of registrations had its origins in service playing—plenum fantasias and fugues for processions at the beginning and end of the service, softer prelude pieces to introduce the hymns and accompany liturgical actions—even if the proportions of the pieces found in the Clavier-Übung III exceed what would ordinarily have been required for a service. In this way, Bach’s Clavier-Übung III adumbrates a subsequent development of music culture, whereby the “liturgy” of a secular public concert is modeled on and even supplants the liturgy of divine worship in church.

Tags: , ,

Louis Couperin, de Grigny, and Bach

Matthew J. Hall, organ

“In the art of the organ, he took the works of Bruhns, Reincken, Buxtehude, and several good French organists as models.” So wrote Johann Friedrich Agricola and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in 1754 in Johann Sebastian Bach’s obituary. C. P. E. Bach reiterated this in 1775 when he wrote to Johann Nicolaus Forkel that his father had “heard and studied…some old and good Frenchmen.”

Who were these Frenchmen? Jacques Boyvin’s two organ books (1689 and 1700) are transmitted in the hand of Bach’s apprentice Johann Caspar Vogler. Bach copied de Grigny’s organ book (1699), as well as the harpsichord collections of Charles Dieupart (1701) and Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1689); the latter volume includes six organ pieces. In addition, there are historical hints that Bach may have had more personal engagement with French musicians: the encounter with Louis Marchard in Dresden in 1717 is well known, though what exactly actually transpired is less clear. Even more foggily, a nineteenth-century member of the Couperin family stated that her ancestor François Couperin had exchanged letters with Bach, but that Bach’s letters had been used to cover jam pots.

How did French music influence Bach? In some cases, we know that Bach adopted French repertory. One of François Couperin’s pieces was copied into the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Jakob Adlung remembered hearing Bach “play the pieces of Marchand from memory in his own way, that is, briskly and ingeniously.” There are also examples of clear, direct influence of specific French pieces on Bach’s compositions: Boyvin’s Grand plein jeu continu seems to be the basis for the middle section of Bach’s Pièce d’orgue BWV 572. Bach arranged a trio from François Couperin’s Les Nations for organ as the Aria BWV 587; some of the obbligato pedal writing in this arrangement reappears in Bach’s trio sonatas. Some scholars believe that d’Anglebert’s five organ fugues, all on the same subject and each exploring a different contrapuntal procedure and rhythmic cast, was a source of inspiration for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

Such influences are easiest to trace, but ultimately are not those that I am exploring on this recital. Instead, consider the similarities between Bach’s music and what I will call Couperin’s “narrative” sense and de Grigny’s “mystical” sense.

The influence of the North German organ school is so central to Bach’s organ music that its influence on other organ traditions is easily overshadowed. Such is the case with Louis Couperin. Louis Couperin’s connection with German repertory and techniques comes through Johann Jakob Froberger, whom he met in 1651–2. Although the influence is best known through the free unmeasured Prélude à l’imitation de M. Froberger, Froberger, who studied counterpoint with Johann Ulrich Steigleder (him of the Tabulaturbuch das Vater Unser) and Samuel Scheidt, also influenced Couperin in the strict style. Figural elaborations of a cantus firmus in polyphonic style like the Cantus firmus en alto on Pange Lingua recall the music of Scheidt and Steigleder. Couperin’s Trio on Pange Lingua is in a mixed style: the texture and imitative technique is typical of the North German school, but the written-out ornamentation recalls Froberger’s assimilation of Italian models. Like Louis Couperin’s music, Bach’s Fuga sopra il Magnificat BWV 733 is in a mixed style. The harmonies and treatment of the cantus firmus in the pedal recall French models; the systematic layout of canonic cantus firmus entries is indebted to North German models.

Couperin’s use of dissonance in durezze e ligature movements like the Fantaisie Duretez seems to me to be aiming for more than the cheap thrills that often characterize such movements. Instead of, “Hey, listen to these whacky chords,” or “Watch me paint myself into a corner and then get out if it,” the techniques take a back seat to the unfolding of a musical-emotional narrative: dissonant, angular melodies and false relations are tempered by smooth sequences, and intermediate crests lead inexorably to a point of maximal passion. Surprisingly, the ultimate climax is relatively consonant, high, and thinner in texture. I hear in this a musical depiction of a psychological drama of mounting confusion, anxiety, and fevered thinking that is relieved in an instant by serendipitous but fleeting insight. Such is the drama that I hear also in Bach’s setting of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659, particularly at the line where “the Virgin’s child is recognized as the Savior, and the whole world wonders.” There is no evidence that Bach knew Louis Couperin’s music; instead, it is a question of two masters working in shared rhetorical forms — though in different musical genres.

With de Grigny, however, the influence was direct. Bach could not have failed to notice de Grigny’s contrapuntal sophistication, particularly the skillful and frequent use of five-part texture, when he copied out de Grigny’s organ book. The Fantasia in C minor BWV 562 — in de Grigny’s organistic SATTB, not Bach’s more Italianate SSATB configuration — is the work most clearly influenced by de Grigny. But again, the influence extends beyond technical aspects: Bach adopted de Grigny’s aesthetic sensibility as well. De Grigny’s five-part fugues are all severe treatments of severe subjects, with sudden changes of texture and rhythm. Unlike the stringing together of sections in North German ricercars or the short-breathed quality fugues of other French Classical composers, the “scenes” in de Grigny’s fugues organize an architecture of the whole. In each section of the fugue on the Eucharistic hymn Pange Lingua, a climactic note, a striking harmony, or an ornamental flourish is achieved and then held, as if out of time, meter, and harmony; as the sections accumulate, the ear and mind are drawn to ever deeper contemplation. Likewise in Bach’s Fantasia, the counterpoint is larded with dissonances and ornaments; the sequential episodes in triple counterpoint, although in a thinner texture, intensify the discourse with ever harsher cross relations and wilder modulations. The heart of the Fantasia, a quiescent pedal point on E-flat, is balanced (or rather countered) by the final, tortured pedal point on C, in which painful dissonance is maintained until the last possible moment before dissolving ecstatically to a major chord. The brilliant coloraturas over the pedal point in this work and at the end of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland are borrowed — practically lifted verbatim — from de Grigny, and are deployed, it seems to me, for a similar transcedent effect.

In this recital I try to use different colors of the Cornell Baroque Organ than are ordinarily heard. I am experimenting with registrations on a 16-foot basis, inspired by the 16-foot Montre and Bourdon manual stops that characterize so many French organs. (To do this, I am frequently playing higher-pitched stops at lower octaves.) I also omit the use of the plenum. In such dark, passionate music as I offer today, and as we brace for winter, these shadowy colors reflect my inner mind’s ear.

Yield Troubled Shadows: Bach and Modern Society

Project Synopsis

Where does the church music of J. S. Bach belong in today’s world? Originally written to serve as “musical sermons” in the context of Lutheran church services, Bach’s cantatas were intended to provide listeners the opportunity for ethical reflection and inspire them to right action. Might something of that ethical function still be possible in a modern, secular context? Times change, but many issues of concern remain the same.

This concert-forum is a two-fold experiment. On the one hand we hope that these cantatas might spark thought, discussion, and maybe even productive action on issues like gender and economic justice. At the same time, we think that experiences of these modern-day concerns could amplify our aesthetic appreciation of the music itself. These are huge, complex issues, but huge issues are exactly what Bach had in mind when he wrote his church music. It was a matter of heaven and hell for his first audiences; the cantata themes are still ones of life and death today.

The motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf optimistically affirms that human beings are essentially good, even when we feel at a loss for what to do or say, and encourages us to muster the courage to act in accordance with our consciences.

Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, a wedding cantata, is about sex and the gendered roles of the lovers. Prof. David Yearsley (Music) spoke on the courtship and conjugal customs and mores of the eighteenth century and thereby endeavored to demythologize and so humanize the person of Johann Sebastian Bach — often imagined to be a disembodied, floating brain of a genius. But Yearsley’s lecture provoked a hearing from the perspective of a person in the flesh, in a way that corrected the idealist, romantic fiction of a poet of pure spirit while avoiding the reciprocal error (common in ‘posthuman’ discourse) of a singly bodily, mechanistic person. Both fictions misunderstand the radicalness paradox of Cartesian dualism, in which mind and body are coextensive but incommensurate.

Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort trades in a more familiar imagery of fire and brimstone to urge listeners to repay the debt of sin. But by using the earthly language of money and commerce, it draws a connection between spiritual and material debts—holding up salvation and fairness as equal goals. Prof. Robert Hocket (Law) tied Judeo-Christian concept of the Jubilee, a year of universal pardon of both spiritual and material debts (cf. Leviticus 25:10), to the structural causes of and potential remedies in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the ethical problems that inhere in both. Prof. Hocket also offered a meditation on the aesthetic likeness between the beauty and balance of Bach’s counterpoint and of double-entry bookkeeping.

Part of the purpose of this concert was to foster discussion and audience engagement with both issues and music. We can report that the post-event reception lasted over 90 minutes, and the audience were deeply invested in discussing the music and the historical and ethical perspectives suggested by the speakers. Some of the eminent guest performers, too, remarked that this was one of the most unique contexts in which they have presented Bach’s music, which they otherwise are very familiar with. We think it is a good thing, for example, when a violist and a lawyer can have a meaningful and progressive conversation about Bach and interest rates.

The event brought together many musicians and scholars with personal connections to Ithaca and Cornell. Many of the collaborating presenters indicated that their earliest professional inspirations were fostered on Cornell’s campus at Barnes Hall in particular, and they delighted at the opportunity to contribute to such an experience for current Cornell students.

Barnes Hall was filled to capacity (about 280 persons), and the audience included members of the Cornell faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, as well as members of the Ithaca community.