Three Leipzig Chorales
“Komm, Heiliger Geist” BWV651
“Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” BWV 660
“Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend” BWV 655
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Music for organ occupied Bach for the entire duration of his career. Long before he arrived in Leipzig to oversee music at the Thomaskirche, even before his years in Cöthen serving the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach was busy earning a living as an organist. By the time he was 18, he had secured a position as organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. Four years later, he accepted a promising opportunity in Mühlhausen, where the organ at St. Blasius was rebuilt to his specifications in 1707. His renown was growing through central Germany, and within a year he was lured to a position at the ducal court in Weimar as Kapellmeister and Kammermusikus. By March 1714 he was Weimar’s Konzertmeister as well (Bach was an excellent violinist as well as organist). He remained there until Prince Leopold persuaded him to come to Cöthen in 1717.
Organ chorales interested Bach throughout his life. The group known as the “Eighteen Chorales” or “Leipzig Chorales” date primarily from the Weimar years (1708-1717); however, he revised and expanded them in the last decade of his life. They thus represent Bach’s most mature thoughts on the harmonization of these traditional Protestant melodies. Essentially they are large chorale-fantasies. In their imagination, delicacy of ornament, depth of feeling, and superior polyphonic writing, they represent the apogee of organ technique married to devout faith.
Bach included two settings of the Pentecost hymn “Komm, Heiliger Geist” [“Come, Holy Ghost”] in the Leipzig Chorales. This one places the chorale melody in slow-moving notes in the bass, a technique called cantus firmus. Rests delineate the individual phrases. Swirling imitative figuration dances above in virtuosic toccata style. At more than five minutes, this is one of Bach’s lengthiest chorales. We hear it in Mr. Labadie’s arrangement for strings and continuo.
The title “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” is variously translated as “Come, redeemer of our race” or the more politically correct “Come now, Saviour of the heathen” or “Come now, Saviour of men.” It is one of the best known in the Lutheran hymn book. Bach used it several times during his career. Two of his cantatas are based on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61 and BWV 62; both were intended for performance on the first Sunday in Advent. He included three settings of it in the Leipzig Chorales. This one is a chorale trio, with an unusual texture: Bach writes a two-part invention for the lower parts, awarding the embellished chorale melody to the upper voice. Mr. Labadie has arranged it for solo viola and two cellos.
“Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend” [“Lord Jesu Christ, turn to us”] is another chorale trio, in the style of a trio sonata. It is a bubbly work, usually compared to a carillon or glockenspiel. Bach is thought to have been text-painting the jubilation of the hymn’s third stanza (Eternal joy and blessed light). The two upper parts perk along in figuration reminiscent of the Third Brandenburg Concerto, while the lower voice (pedal in the organ original) anchors the harmony. All three lines derive from motives in the chorale melody, which we hear in full in the bass part toward the end.
Mr. Labadie’s arrangement is for strings and continuo.
Concerto in A Major for Oboe d’amore, Strings and Continuo, BWV 1055
Johann Sebastian Bach
Music historians have traditionally regarded Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, with its prominent harpsichord role, as the most important antecedent of the solo keyboard concerto. More recent scholarship has argued convincingly in favor of the various concerti for one, two, three and four harpsichords that date from Bach's Leipzig years (1723-1750). Supplementing his extraordinary schedule of obligations to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig was his work with the Collegium Musicum that had been founded by Telemann in 1704. Here, making music for pleasure among friends and students, Bach found another outlet for his inexhaustible creativity, balancing the emphasis on church music required of him as Kantor.
Most of the harpsichord concerti are believed to have been arranged for performance at the Collegium concerts. Ironically, and adding to the confusion and mystery of Bach scholarship, almost all of them were originally solo concerti (primarily for violin) that he arranged for keyboard instruments.
Some evidence suggests that Bach's original version of this A Major concerto may have been for oboe d'amore, as we hear it this evening. If that is in fact the case, then we may pinpoint the date of BWV 1055 as 1723 or after. As Bach's biographer Malcolm Boyd has pointed out, the oboe d'amore was a fairly new instrument in the first quarter of the 18th century. So far as we know, 1723 was the first year in which Bach wrote for oboe d’amore, in his Cantata No. 23. The instrument sounds a minor third lower than it is notated. Slightly larger than the standard oboe, it is smaller than the English horn, which sounds a fifth below the oboe. We may think of oboe d’amore as the mezzo-soprano of the double reed family.
This A Major concerto is noteworthy for its exceptional detail in the solo part, which provides the oboist with the challenge of intricacy and linear complexity. We are most keenly aware of this challenge in the breathtakingly lovely Larghetto. A 12/8 siciliana, it highlights both Bach's inexhaustible gift for long melodic lines and the soloist’s musicianship in shaping those gently vaulting phrases.
The score calls for solo oboe d’amore, strings, and continuo.
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Johann Sebastian Bach
Arranged for strings and continuo by Bernard Labadie
During an era when musical improvisation was a vital and respected art expected of any town organist, Bach composed a substantial amount for his own personal use. His early organ pieces are fascinating studies in the development both of German organ music and of Bach’s compositional genius.
The Passacaglia is one of the finest of them. Scholars once debated whether Bach intended it for organ or harpsichord with pedals, an uncertainty that prompted pianists from Ferruccio Busoni and Wilhelm Kempff to André Watts and Awadagin Pratt to arrange it for the modern keyboard. Its brilliant coloristic potential has invited symphonic transcription as well: both Ottorino Respighi and Leopold Stokowski arranged the Passacaglia for full orchestra. Now Mr. Labadie has crafted a version for strings and continuo.
Although no certain chronology can be established for the piece, scholars believe that the Passacaglia dates from 1708-1712, years when Bach was in Weimar. He was in a period of transition from freer keyboard works such as toccatas and fantasias to pieces with a tighter organizational plan. Eventually that plan would be codified in the mighty series of mature preludes and fugues. In this case, the form is theme, twenty variations, and fugue.
The passacaglia is a Baroque form of sequential variations whose ‘theme’ is a bass line. Passacaglias are generally in slow triple meter, with the theme providing the harmonic ground upon which the composer builds his musical structure; that is the origin of the term “ground bass.” The variations proceed without pause.
The first four bars of Bach’s theme are identical to one in a mass in the French composer André Raison’s first Livre d’orgue (1688), a collection that Bach probably knew. Bach’s treatment — two groups of ten variations culminating in a concluding fugue — has precedent in the organ music of Dietrich Buxtehude. The variations progress from simple to complex and even heroic. After the first group of ten, Bach switches the theme from bass to treble, providing an aural landmark within the continuous form. The might double fugue (limited to the first four bars of the ground bass) is one of the summits of Bach’s contrapuntal achievement.
Concerto in C minor for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060
Johann Sebastian Bach
This is another example of a concerto Bach composed for one or more solo instruments that he later arranged for one or more harpsichords. In a curious twist of fate, most of the original versions have been lost, leaving us with only the keyboard concerti. We know of the earlier versions through references in documents from Bach's time, but have had to rely on scholarly reconstructions of the original scoring based on the harpsichord concerti. BWV 1060 is such a concerto, and has become better known in the version we hear this evening than as a two-keyboard work. No autograph manuscript has survived. Of the fourteen surviving manuscript copies, only one has a direct link to Bach: a mid-eighteenth century copy in the hand of Johann Heinrich Michel, who was the regular copyist of Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Presumably Michel copied the concerto at the younger Bach’s request and under his supervision. The scoring is for two harpsichords and orchestra, but the lively right hand parts are persuasive evidence that the music originated in a concerto for two melody instruments.
This particular concerto exists in two different keys, C minor and D minor, the result of reconstructions for violin and oboe dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Violinists tend to prefer D minor because it lies better for their instrument. Oboists can play comfortably in either key; however, one pitch in the second movement would have been difficult to play on an oboe of Bach’s time, which argues for performing the work in C minor.
The fast outer movements incorporate echo effects, sequences, and a motoric rhythm punctuated by strong accents. The violin functions both as section leader in the tutti sections and, in passages with reduced orchestra accompaniment, as a soloist conversing with the oboe. As the only woodwind instrument in the ensemble, the oboe tends to be in the foreground. Some oboists elect to remain silent during the full orchestra passages in the outer movements, literally and figuratively taking a breather. The slow movement is a lovely cantilena that highlights the contrast in timbre between the two soloists. Bach's inexhaustible gifts for melody and strong rhythmic profile are a delight throughout this concerto.
Fantasia in G Major, BWV 572
Johann Sebastian Bach
The fantasia is an ancient genre with roots in late Renaissance and Baroque music. Works labeled fantasia first emerged as a popular form of instrumental composition in the late Renaissance. They have traditionally been associated with improvisation. Eighteenth-century composers employing the title Fantasia removed themselves from the expectations of strict forms, whether the Baroque fugue or the classical sonata. Instead, they responded to the whim of the moment, moving capriciously from slow sections to faster ones, with sudden stops and starts and equally abrupt changes of dynamics. Even the meter could change. The principles governing a fantasia are a sectional structure with dramatic contrasts, sometimes employing thematic links between and among sections.
Like the original versions of the chorale preludes that opened this evening’s program, this Fantasia probably dates from Bach’s Weimar years. (Some scholars argue that it is even earlier, from Arnstadt.) We know that he copied Nicolas de Grigny’s Premier livre d’orgue (1700) when he was in Weimar, and this substantial piece – marked Pièce d’orgue in the original source – reflects French style. It consists of three principal sections, all with French titles (Très vitement - Gravement - Lentement). The opening is toccata-like, while the more sedate Gravement expands to chromatic five-part fugal writing. Bach opts for a virtuosic free-fantasy style in the final segment, now arpeggiated over an extended pedal anchor, to grand effect.
Mr. Labadie has arranged the Fantasia for strings and continuo.
Concerto in D minor for two violins, strings & continuo, BWV 1043
Johann Sebastian Bach
Between 1717 and 1723, Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a music-loving nobleman from an area northeast of Weimar in what used to be called East Germany. The position was rather similar to the one that Haydn was to hold with the Esterházy family later on in the century. When Bach was engaged as Kapellmeister, Leopold’s court boasted one of the largest and finest orchestras in Europe. Bach composed a considerable amount of instrumental music for the Cöthen musicians, including most of his solo concertos.
Bach was keenly interested in the Italian style of concerto writing, particularly the works of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). He studied Vivaldi's music avidly, sometimes copying the scores to develop greater familiarity with the style. It is no surprise that the D minor Concerto for two violins reflects certain Italian Baroque characteristics.
The three movements adhere to the Vivaldian model of fast-slow-fast. Bach makes extensive use of sequences and contrast between full orchestra (ripieno) and his solo group (concertino, in this case the two violins). The presence of two soloists in the D minor concerto highlights the contrapuntal intricacy of Bach's texture. Their entrances are frequently canonic; he also makes use of invertible counterpoint, whereby the two voices exchange material, maintaining the integrity of each contrapuntal line.
The slow movement, an elegant F major cantilena in gently rocking 12/8 meter, has striking melodic beauty. Once again, invertible counterpoint plays a significant role, but it is the suspended harmonies that enhance the operatic expressivity of this Largo.
A stormy, aggressive opening motive sets the tone for Bach’s finale, which distances itself from the dance-like finales of his solo concertos. Indeed, the relationship between concertino and ripieno is practically reversed here. The orchestra shares in the densely overlapped principal statement, a close canon that functions as a ritornello. Twice in the course of the movement, both soloists play several measures repeated double-stops in steady eighth notes. Together, they form a chordal accompaniment to the sequential gestures the orchestra is tossing about. Bach’s abundant melodic material attests to his power of imagination.
This Double Concerto was extremely popular throughout the 19th century, after the ‘Bach Revival’ spearheaded by Felix Mendelssohn took hold. It remains one of Bach’s best-loved instrumental compositions.
Program notes by Laurie Shulman ©2018