CD Booklet notes:
1739 was an important year both for Leipzig and Lutheranism: it was the bicentenary of Luther’s sermon at St. Thomas Church and also of the Augsburg Confession. Thus Bach went out of his way to stress some of the major liturgical components of Lutheranism in his third publication of “Keyboard Practice” (Clavierübung), the first to be dedicated to the organ rather than the harpsichord.
Many scholars have been eager to perceive several levels of religious and numerical symbolism both in the music and in the format of the original print. For instance, just as Clavierübung II (the Italian Concerto and the French Overture) stressed “two-ness” in contrasting two seemingly-opposed national styles, this third part stresses “three-ness.” The number of movements is twenty-seven (three to the power of three) thus relating both to the Trinity and the number of New Testament Books. The prelude and the fugue which open and close the work are both in E-flat major (three flats) – a highly unusual key for many organ temperaments of the time, and the fugue is actually a triple fugue. And of course, Bach perhaps waited until the year “’39” to publish this collection.
Other interesting numerical aspects include the fact that the title page contains 53 words, Bach’s age at the beginning of 1739; the theme of the final fugue generates the number 41 if the letters of the alphabet are converted to numbers, exactly the same total generated by the letters, “J-S-B-A-C-H.” Similarly, the pedal receives one of the main themes of “Vater unser” (BWV 682), for the only time, in m. 41. Simple number symbolism seems most certain in cases such as the fughetta setting of “Dies sind die heiligen zehen Gebot” where the ten fugal entries symbolize the ten commandments.
The title page mentions the appeal of the publication “particularly for connoisseurs of such work,” and this has led many to search for obscure symbolism. However, beyond the fairly obvious and simple examples of symbolism mentioned above (and perhaps not all of these at that), the search for mystical numbers and messages in Bach’s music is a reeky prospect: such findings are difficult to prove or disprove; “fake” messages are all too easy to construct by way of control; and, most importantly, it has become increasingly evident that cabalistic practices were not central to Lutheran thought and were frowned upon by Orthodox theologians. Another challenge to the “mystical messages” theory of the cycle is the recent research by Gregory Butler, showing that the stages of completion of the cycle were somewhat unsystematic, with several changes of plan actually during the course of printing.
Thus the reference to connoisseurs on the title page might rather apply to the severity and thoroughness of much of the writing, thus promoting the science of musical composition; it perhaps also relates to the notion of music’s indispensable role in the regulated liturgy of the Orthodox Lutheran church, something constantly under threat from the Lutheran Pietist movement which discouraged elaborate music and formal liturgy. In other words, the whole might reflect Bach’s stand against popular and ephemeral music, his stubborn reply to recent criticism that his music was bombastic, artificial and unsingable. The bulk of Clavierübung III is composed of chorale preludes for manuals only, and chorale preludes for manuals and pedal. Certainly the manuals-only settings show a catalogue of fugal techniques, a function taken over by the Well-Tempered Clavier II and the Art of the Fugue which Bach prepared in the years immediately after this publication.
Like the Orgelbüchlein which Bach prepared in Weimar more than twenty years earlier, the Clavierübung III also serves the very practical purpose of providing the organist with a reservoir of pieces appropriate for the liturgy, one that caters both to large organs with pedals and to those without (the pairing might, moreover, relate to Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms). The pieces may have functioned in alternation, and particularly in introduction, to congregational chorales; indeed the variety of keys also points to adaptability for congregational use. As a cycle of pieces covering major aspects of both liturgy and doctrine it is more a “speculative” cycle than something intended for complete sequential performance in the service itself. There might also be a sense in which the pieces (particularly those without pedals) might play a part in private home devotions.
Another possible feature of the collection as a whole is that it reflects one of Bach’s own organ recitals, which would ordinarily have been improvised to show both a plethora of musical styles and the capabilities of any particular organ. Certainly the matching prelude and fugue framing the collection accords with what is known of Bach’s own recital practice. This pair epitomizes many aspects of the collection as a whole: the juxtaposition of elements that are modern (concerto and overture elements in the prelude, catchy dotted rhythms), and those that represent a studied attempt to return to older styles of “pure” polyphony (the opening alla breve section of the fugue). The most striking combination of traditional and modern elements is found in the extraordinary setting of the Lord’s Prayer (“Vater unser,” BWV 682) where modish Scotch-snaps (“Lombard” rhythms) and triplet figuration are combined with strict canonic writing, something that seems to allude to the possibility of maintaining the discipline of Christian faith within a (for Bach) modern environment.
Elsewhere in the collection the ancient and modern elements are more clearly differentiated. The most strict and austere alla breve pieces are the three opening Kyrie settings, BWV 669, 670, 671, and the setting of “Aus tiefer Not,” BWV 686, a piece remarkable for its use of a double pedal line. More modern settings include the trio on “Allein Gott,” BWV 676, the affective setting of “Dies sind die heilgen zehen Gebot,” BWV 678, and the extraordinary duet on “Jesus Christus, unser Heiland,” BWV 688, where the pincer movement of the theme is often taken to symbolize the cross.
Among the greater mysteries concerning Bach’s intentions for the cycle are the four duets preceding the final fugue. While it is true that these were added late in the process of compiling the printed collection, they were not necessarily a mere makeweight. There is nothing quite like them in the remainder of Bach’s oeuvre; they have no immediate connection with the liturgical purpose of the collection and they seem to combine virtuosity and characterful – almost witty – writing, with a curious severity of texture.
The six organ chorales published by the Thuringian iron cutter and music engraver Johann Georg Schübler, c. 1748, have always been something of a mystery in Bach studies. At least five of them are transcriptions from Bach’s cantatas (only “Wo soll ich fliehen hin,” BWV 646, lacks a surviving model) and the carelessness with which the print was prepared has suggested to some that Bach had little to do with the project. However, his personal copy of the print has survived and his annotations are detailed enough to show that he was concerned with the accuracy of the music and some of the details of transcription. Furthermore, with the knowledge that even works like the Mass in B minor draw largely on previous compositions, transcription no longer holds the stigma it once did; indeed, Bach’s ability to transfer musical material from one function to another and, particularly, to adapt the instrumental style of one instrument to another, is an essential aspect of his genius. The majority of the Schübler transcriptions come from cantatas of the so-called “Chorale cycle” (1724 – 25) in which each verse of the chorale was used directly or paraphrased as each successive movement of the cantata. Although the majority of the inner movements are textual paraphrases and do not refer directly to the original chorale melodies, there are enough settings of the melodies in trio or quartet format to provide models for organ transcription. The texture suggests that Bach may have seen them as a sequel to the six trio sonatas for organ, which likewise contain some transcriptions of instrumental music.
The model for “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” may have been in one of the cantatas from the two cycles that have long been considered lost. The first chorale, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 645, stands out from those drawn from the chorale cycle, coming as it does from the cantata of the same name that Bach wrote in 1731. This piece comes closest to the fashionable galant idiom, devoid of complex counterpoint and employing a simple, repetitive bass line and “sighing” melody. This feature, at the outset of the collection, would have made the group as a whole particularly attractive to purchasers in the late 1740s. The collection is in a considerably lighter vein than Clavierübung III, as if to show that Bach was capable of covering the entire stylistic spectrum of his age.
Bach may have taken some of his inspiration for both collections from G. F. Kauffmann’s Harmonische Seelenlust (1733 – 36), a highly successful publication of organ chorales that spanned from the most austere stile antico to modern, galant idioms greatly influenced by instrumental writing. Indeed Kauffmann includes a solo oboe line for some of his preludes and many of them may be transcriptions from his own cantatas. Bach’s pupil, Johann Ludwig Krebs, likewise pursued the organ and oboe combination so it seems that “instrumental” organ music was very much in vogue during the middle years of the eighteenth century.
Although the chorales seem loosely applicable to the Advent season, Bach does not seem to have had any particular topic or system in mind; it may well be that his choices of prelude were conditioned by the existing repertory of cantatas. However, there is some contrast of mood: the rather strident tone of “Wachet auf” (referring to the watchman’s voice of the original text?) is mollified by the more conventional “invention” style of “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” and the expressive motet-texture of “Wer nor den lieben Gott.” Most gentle of all is perhaps “Meine Seele” which combines the ancient tonus peregrinus that Luther employed for the German Magnificat with a lilting siciliano accompaniment. The last two preludes are transcriptions of virtuoso string obbligatos, featuring wide string crossings which are a challenge for the keyboard player. While the pedal part o “Ach bleb bei ins” takes over the original continuo line, that of “Kommst du nun” presents the chorale melody, to be played on a high 4′ stop, complete with trills.
Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her”
The relation between the two sources for the canonic variations – an autograph manuscript and a print – has long been a subject of controversy. Gregory Butler has convincingly demonstrated that the manuscript presents the earliest source while the original print (by Balthasar Schmid of Nuremberg) was put together over a protracted period, 1746 – 7. Bach presented a fair copy of the work to Lorenz Mizler’s Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences, perhaps when he as inducted as its 14th member (14 being the total from the letters of “B-A-C-H”) in June 1747; somewhat later, possibly at Leipzig’s Michaelmas trade fair, the printed version was released. Although there seem to be two possible versions and orderings of the work, variation IV (the final variation in the manuscript version) seems to have been composed somewhat later than the others.
Although there are some differences in note between the two versions, the principal difference between them lies in the ordering of the variations. Some scholars favor the manuscript offering of the piece (BWV 769a) since it presents a symmetrical form with the weighty variation V in the center. However, the printed order (which, Butler suggests, might have more to do with the protracted printing process than with Bach’s final intentions) presents a more climactic sequence for performance (variation V introducing impressive diminution and stretto). It is interesting to note that both variations IV and V present the B-A-C-H motive in their final bars as if to show that both could work as concluding pieces.
The Canonic Variations perhaps represent Bach’s “strictest” organ music with each variation presenting two voices in exact canonic imitation (at the octave in variation one, at the fifth in variation two, at the seventh in variation three, at the octave in augmentation in variation four, and in inversion at various intervals and speeds in variation five, which concludes the printed version of the work). However, the set is not without its aural delight: the opening variation presents a moto perpetuo of tumbling sixteenths above the chorale melody held in long notes in the pedal. Most prominent in the third variation is the lyrical melody, marked cantabile, which winds its way around the cantus firmus; it is, in fact, the seemingly innocuous accompaniment that is canonic. Most melodious of all is the upper line of the fourth variation (the final variation in the manuscript version), yet this is the same melody as the bass line which is played at half the speed. In other words, much of Bach’s art lies in his concealing the strict structuring of the variations, something that must have had metaphysical or theological connotations for him: God’s order lies underneath that which delights our senses.
Only in the fifth variation does Bach seem to wear the contrapuntal devices on his sleeve. Here close inverted imitation is immediately obvious to the ear above a Corellian “walking-bass.” The close imitations throughout contribute to the excitement and virtuosity of the music. The final three bars present the closest imitation in as many voices as possible and the piece ends leaving us with the impression that Bach has exhausted every possible combination.
Variation 1 begins with a scalar descent through an octave which is imitated immediately at the octave below, giving the impression of a downward-sweeping cascade which perfectly reflects the affect of the first strophe of the chorale. The designation alio modo in the title of Variation 2 suggests a pairing of the first two variations, and indeed the cantus firmus is presented at the same pitch level. However, while the canonic voices in Variation 1 are free, in Variation 2 they begin with a slightly ornamented version of the first phrase of the chorale melody.
In Variation 5, the cantus firmus canon appears at the end, while in the autograph it is placed symmetrically as the central axis of the work to give the overall scheme of 1-2-5-3-4. Internal evidence would seem to support the view that this represents Bach’s definitive order. Not only are Variations 1 and 2 paired, but they are clearly distinguished from Variations 3 and 4 by a change in texture from three to four voices. It is interesting that the free, fourth voice first enters at the mid-point of variation V. In the first half, two distinct canons at consonant intervals (a 6th and a 3rd) are presented, as in Variations 1 and 2, in the two uppermost voices. The accompanying voice in the pedal throughout is in running eighth notes. In the second half two more distinct canons at dissonant intervals (a 2nd and 9th) are contrapuntally inverted so that the dux becomes the comes and vice versa, and they migrate first to the lowest two voices and finally to the outer two. here, the added fourth voice is in sixteenth notes throughout. All these features impart to Variation 5 a central, pivotal role in an axially symmetrical disposition. In the closing bars of this variation, various phrases of the cantus firmus are presented in diminution, and then in stretto, over the concluding phrase of the chorale stated in long notes by the pedals.
Like Variation 2, no. 3 begins with an anticipation, more extended this time, of the initial phrase of the chorale melody, here in canon at the upper 7th. The marking Cantabile suggests a slower tempo, and the pervasive use of syncopation, chromaticism, and appoggiatura figures, along with the drawn-out plagal cadence, impart an affect of melancholy. With breaks between phrases of the cantus firmus as long as seven bars, this is by far the longest of the variations. The canon is presented in the outer voices, and, as in Variation 1, at the lower octave. The dux is highly florid and convoluted, proceeding for the most part in thirty-second notes. With the notes B flat, A, C, B natural (B-A-C-H in German parlance) in the alto voice over the concluding two notes of the cantus firmus, Bach signs his name to this imposing final variation.