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Johann Sebastian Bach

Jacques van Oortmerssen

Organ Works Vol. 3

  • Type CD
  • Label Challenge Classics
  • UPC 0608917204728
  • Catalog number CC 72047
  • Release date 03 August 2010
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About the album

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and the organ
Although Bach was not occupied exclusively as an organist, his name and his works are clearly associated with the organ. He came into contact with the instrument in his earliest years: at around ten years old (following the death of his parents), he was taken in by his elder brother Johann Christoph, the organist of Ohrdruf, and his family. From 1700-1702 he was a pupil at the Michaelis School in Lüneburg, where he probably came into contact with Georg Böhm (organist of St.Johannis) and with the organ-builder Johann Balthasar Held, a pupil of the famous Arp Schnitger. From Lüneburg he journied to Hamburg, where he heard Johann Adam Reincken (organist of St.Catherinen) play, and someone whom he would later meet - in 1720 - when applying for the organist’s position at St.Jacobi in Hamburg. At the end of 1705 Bach travelled on foot to Lübeck to hear Dietrich Buxtehude, an organist who enjoyed considerable fame; he stayed three months! Bach received his first appointment in 1703 at St.Bonifacius in Arnstadt and his nomination to the organistship (and church musician) of St.Blasius, Mühlhausen followed in 1707. From 1708 to 1717 Bach was employed as the Court Organist at Weimar, where he wrote the majority of his works for organ. Subsequently he served as Kapellmeister to the court at Cöthen (1717-1723). In his capacity as Kapellmeister, it was expected of him to write church cantatas for specific occasions. Although it is uncertain whether he had to fulfil organist’s duties, various organ works date from this period. His last appointment was that of Kantor at St.Thomas, Leipzig (1723-50), where he was responsible for the church’s music (composing in addition to directing). As in Cöthen there was no specific task as organist but this seemed to be no obstacle to the composition of works for the organ. In earlier centuries it was the norm for composers to write functional music - Bach’s works are no exception to this. Not only the chorale-based works, clearly written with an eye to the different periods of the church year, but also most of the ‘free’ organ works can be accorded a place in the liturgy. Research on this point must undoubtedly be considered speculative; challenging however, and through it unexpected perspectives are opened up.

The ‘Bach organ’
Numerous authors have considered the question of the type of organ most ideal for the interpretation of Bach’s organ works. The notion of a ‘Bach organ’ quickly established itself. All things considered, the conclusion can only be that the ‘Bach organ’ is a fiction: Bach had an extensive knowledge of organ-building and came into contact with builders of differing German organ-building traditions. His own sphere was Thuringia and Saxony, areas where a multitude of influences from other regions can be traced, and which possessed their own indigenous type of organ. He became acquainted and played instruments of all traditions, and undoubtedly thought about the types of instrument in the course of writing down his own compositions. The eclectic nature of Bach’s works for organ finds, as it were, a parallel in the diversity of organ timbres he encountered. The versatility of his organ compositions, with their immense stylistic palette, makes for (division) performance on organs of different traditions not only possible but even desirable.

In choosing registrations for his Bach recordings, Jacques van Oortmerssen is following exactly Bach’s (infrequent) indications for the use of one or more manuals, and the forte/piano dynamics. In addition he is basing his interpretation on that which is known about the registrational practice in Bach’s time and region, in particular the surviving prescriptions of (e.g.) Georg Friedrich Kauffmann (1733/36) and Jacob Adlung (1758). For plena used in the large ‘free works’, he is following conventions that are rooted in older traditions. Trios are registered with timbres corresponding to instrumental trio works. A colourful spectrum of sound is thus brought to life, and the player is therefore able to illustrate effectively the diverse Affekten.

The Doctrines of Affections (Affektenlehre) and Musical Figures (Figurenlehre)
Music can evoke different states of mind; known in the Baroque as Affekten. According to the opinions of the time, the composer was most concerned that his composition should induce a specific state of mind in the listener. One can distinguish different Affekten; simply they can be separated into two main categories: joy and sadness. Affekten can be intense or less intense, positive or negative. A composer can employ a variety of means to evoke Affekten: different keys, a specific tempo and rhythm, harsh or less harsh dissonant intervals, etc. The rules of Classical rhetoric formed, for the Baroque composer, a departure point for the design of a piece; with the help of comprehensive Figurenlehre (musical figurations and formulae) he could subsequently fill in the details.

The Preludes and Fugues
For nearly forty years Bach was occupied with the writing (or revision) of ‘free’ works under the title of ‘Praeludium’, ‘Praeludium et/con Fuga’, ‘Fuga’, ‘Toccata’, ‘Toccata con Fuga’, ‘Fantasia’, ‘Fantasia con Fuga’. When one summarises these categories of works under the name ‘Preludes and Fugues’, and compares them with similar compositions from the time before Bach, it must be remembered that Bach brought this form to a synthesis from northern and southern German preludial and fugal idioms. In north Germany preludes and fugues were multi-sectional pieces, wherein ‘free’ sections alternate with fugal sections; alternatively the southern German preludes and fugues were separated and individual movements (or even works). With his synthesis Bach is recognised to have brought this compositional form to a (new) culmination in organ literature. Following Bach’s death these compositions have enjoyed an unbroken popularity. Over the long period in which the works in this form were written, an exciting development can be perceived. We can distinguish six different types: from a continuous form in the early works to a convincing concerto -form in the later compositions. In the early works we find successive influences from south Germany, France, and north Germany; in the later, the application of string-playing style and Italianate influences result in concertoforms (in which tutti and soli sections converse with one another), or the use of ritornelli (refrain-like sections).

The Trio Sonatas
Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818), Bach’s first biographer, mentioned in his 1803 book that the six Trio Sonatas (BWV 525-530) were written as studies for Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. The dating of these works is generally accepted to be around 1727. These works have become known as an advanced tutor for organ playing and as such they must certainly have made a contribution to Wilhelm Friedemann’s education; he was later considered to be the best organist of his generation. The sonatas survive in Bach’s autograph manuscript; the titles always speak of Sonata à 2 clav: et Pedal. Many authors hold the opinion that these works were actually written for (two manual) harpsichord or clavichord with pedal; nevertheless they must be thought of in relation to the organ. The ‘trio sonata’ is a characteristic musical form for the Baroque; two solo parts accompanied by a bass ( i.e. basso continuo). All three parts are absolutely independent; left and right hand play both upper parts, written in a concertato style (concertare = to vie or compete), and both feet take responsibility for the bass part. The resulting whole demands much of the player. Trio forms are be found frequently in organ literature, but never is there such a detailed (in a complete sonata form) and perfect use made of them than in these works. It is clear that these pieces were not exclusively designed to be study material. Whether they played a role in the service (e.g. as Musica sub Communione - music during the communion in the Lutheran service - as some hypothesise) is the question. Previously a performance in a situation other than the church service would have been assumed.

The chorale settings
Bach’s chorale settings for organ have survived mainly in collections: the ‘Neumeister-Sammlung’ - discovered in 1985 - containing BWV 714, 719, 742, 957, 1090- 1120; the ‘Orgel-Büchlein’ (BWV 599-644); the ‘Schübler-Chorale’ (BWV 645-650); and the ‘Leipziger-Choräle’ (BWV 651-668). The third part of the ‘Clavier-Übung’ (a self-contained work) comprises 21 chorale settings. Finally, there are more than 40 settings, which may be divided into two groups: BWV 690-713 (from the ‘Kirnberger Collection’) and BWV 714-764 (works surviving separately in a number of diverse manuscripts). In these last two groups are works that in the past have been wrongly attributed to Bach or are of doubtful authorship. Together nearly 170 chorale settings, not counting the 20 or so variations. Every conceivable way of treating a chorale melody for organ is employed by Bach, and the early settings show the way in which he experimented with forms, models, and ornamentation. His chorale settings offer a true sample of his works; from short, simple settings to long, freely-worked trios - an output which knew no limits!

Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 546
The Prelude and the Fugue each date from different periods. The Prelude was probably written in Leipzig between 1725 and 1729 and around that time combined with a revised version of the Fugue which, in its earlier form, had been coupled to the Fantasia in C minor (BWV 562). The Prelude is written in the Italian ‘concerto form’ with ritornelli. Thematically speaking the opening shows a concordance with the opening chorus of Cantata no. 47 (Wer sich selbst erhöhet) from 1726 and the introductory choruses of the double choir motets composed between 1723 and 1729. Around a third of the Fugue expounds a second theme which is subsequently combined with the main theme. The Prelude is perhaps more elaborate than the Fugue, but the combination of both makes this one of the most mature works in Bach’s output for organ. The key, C minor, is - according to the theorist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) - associated with both sweet and sorrowful sentiments.

Sonata in E flat major BWV 525
Although no tempo indication has come down to us for the first movement, the second and third movements are marked ‘Adagio’ and ‘Allegro’ respectively. The first movement has an ABABA-form with a theme that begins with two rising broken chord figures. Both the ‘Adagio’ and ‘Allegro’ are constructed as binary movements, the former (in C minor), through its lyrical writing, contrasting with the lively outer movements. The pregnant theme of the third movement opens with a chain of intervals which gradually become smaller (from an octave to a third) and thus lend the movement a springy character. It is striking that the themes of all three movements are used in their inverted as well as original forms.

Fantasia (Concerto) in G major BWV 571
No autograph manuscript survives of this rather short Concerto and some writers doubt that it was composed by Bach. On the other hand there are many elements which make Bach’s authorship plausible. It is certainly an early work and may well have been considered as a stylistic study of the Italian ‘concerto form’. The first movement is longer in proportion to the other two movements and has no character or tempo indication. The second movement is an Adagio and the third movement (Allegro) is a sort of Ciacona comprising a collection of variations over an uninterrupted short descending theme which lies in the bass.

‘Sechs Choräle von verschiedener Art’ BWV 645-650
These six chorales have become known as the ‘Schübler Chorales’, after the engraver and publisher of the printed edition, Johann Georg Schübler. Six copies from the original printing (dating from 1746 or later) survive including Bach’s own copy which contains a number of corrections and additions (e.g. stop indications). It is clear that five of the six settings are movements composed earlier for Leipzig Cantatas. Opinions differ over Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 646) as an ‘original’ of this piece does not exist; some authors opine that it has been lost whilst others believe that it is itself an original composition and unrelated to a cantata movement. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (‘à 2 Clav: et Pedal, Canto fermo in Tenore’) BWV 645 sets the cantus firmus in the tenor. The original is ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’, the fourth movement from the Cantata Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140) which was composed for Sunday 25th November 1731. It is scored for a tenor with violins, viola, and basso continuo; the key is E flat major. Wo soll ich fliehen hin or Auf meinen lieben Gott (‘à 2 Clav: et Pedal’) BWV 646 places the cantus firmus in the tenor (played by the pedal); the key is E minor. Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten BWV 647 is originally to be found as the duet ‘Er kennt die rechten Freudenstunden’ (scored for soprano, alto, violins, viola, and basso continuo), the fourth movement from the Cantata Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (BWV 93) which was first performed on 9th July 1724. The key is C minor and the cantus firmus is in the pedal. Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (‘à 2 Clav: et Pedal’) BWV 648 places the cantus firmus in the soprano. The original is the duet ‘Er denkt der Barmherzigkeit’ for alto, tenor, oboes, trumpet, and basso continuo from the Cantata Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (BWV 10), composed for Sunday 2nd July 1724, the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. ‘Meine Seele erhebt den Herren’, the German Magnificat or the Song of the Blessed Virgin Mary, uses a melody identical to the Gregorian Magnificat. The key is D minor. The original setting of Ach bleib bey uns Herr Jesu Christ BWV 649 is the three part chorale ‘Ach bleib bey uns Herr Jesu Christ’ for soprano, violoncello piccolo, and basso continuo from the Cantata of the same name, BWV 6 (third movement). It was written for Easter Monday, 1725. The key is B flat major and the cantus firmus lies in the soprano. Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter BWV 650 appears in its original form as the second movement of the Cantata Lobe den Herren, der alles so herrlich regieret (BWV 137), a three part aria for alto (with the cantus firmus), solo violin, and basso continuo. This Cantata was first performed on 19th August 1725. The key is G major.

Prelude and Fugue in D major BWV 532
It is not certain whether the Prelude and the Fugue were composed as a pair; the sources seem to indicate that this was not the case. The Fugue exists in another, shorter version and opinions differ as to whether this is an earlier or later version. As for the period of this work’s composition, the years between 1706 and 1712 can be considered. The Prelude consists of four sections: an opening section beginning with a scale played in the pedal and followed by broken chords and scalic figuration; a portion over a pedal point with dotted rhythms and tremolo figures; an ‘alla breve’ section and fourthly an ‘Adagio’. The similarities in character and writing with the D major Toccata for harpsichord (BWV 912) are striking. The first part of the Fugue’s theme is, in reality, based on a very simple motif; the second part offers an answer to this and spins the whole subject out to great length. The theme lends itself to a question-and-answer treatment that, through Bach’s masterly hand, achieves a very playful fugue full of echo effects. The rapid semiquaver (sixteenth notes) figures recall examples by Buxtehude and Reincken, and give this fugue a ‘perpetuum mobile’-like character. After the pedal solo, the opening motif returns to conclude the piece but it is this time reinforced with an octave leap in the pedal; a powerful thematic reminiscence which mirrors the Prelude’s opening pedal scales beautifully.

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