Durham Cathedral Choir Association

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Toccata, Adagio and Fugue BWV 564        

This work, dating from 1709 is a product of Bach’s Weimar days and as such is a combination of the musical traditions in which he was brought up, and on which he built, and the influences he was absorbing in his new situation. More particularly, Bach manages to successfully unite the North German style, inherited from Buxtehude and others, and the Italian style of composers such as Albinoni and Corelli.

The Toccata demands our attention immediately with its opening rhetoric and flourishes up and down the length of the keyboard: this is followed by a remarkable paragraph for pedals alone, effectively a cadenza. These opening gestures over, the  main body of the Allegro movement begins, emerging in Italian concerto style with two contrasted ideas already hinted at in the pedal cadenza. The Adagio might also be the slow movement from an Italian concerto with the decorated cantabile line, easily playable on  a violin or an oboe, accompanied simply and with a pizzicato bass line featuring the interval of an octave. This beautifully sculpted melody draws to a close and a brief recitative leads into the concluding bars during which the most divine harmony slowly weaves its way  to C major via ingenious progressions and agonising suspensions. The Fugue shocks us with its complete change of mood: this lively dance inspired movement in 6/8 time is light and humorous. The end of the movement comprises a short virtuoso display reminiscent of the Toccata’s opening style, and a delightfully brief chord commands our attention to the very last.

Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV 709 and BWV 655

The first of these two arrangements of the chorale ‘Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend’ is moving in its simplicity. The richly embellished melody in the soprano advances slowly, placing a solemn seal on the piece. The three lower parts make an extremely modest contribution, using snatches of the original chorale melody.

Bach made several arrangements of this chorale, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the text. BWV 655 seems to reflect the jubilation of the host of angels in the third verse, whereas in BWV 709 Bach perhaps had the first verse in mind, which invokes the help of Christ in finding the path to truth. The sustained opening notes of each phrase may indicate that this is the first arrangement Bach made of this chorale. In any case, the piece dates from his younger years, from the early Weimar period, or maybe even from when he was working in Mühlhausen. BWV 655 is one of the eighteen ‘Leipzig’ chorale preludes; the melody of the chorale is suggested in the motivic phrases and is quoted in full in the pedals towards the end of the piece.

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 665

This outstanding prelude is also from the Leipzig collection. The chorale is associated with Holy Communion and indeed with Maundy Thursday; each phrase is treated separately in fugato style, with its own very distinct countersubject, the pedal entry being the final hearing of the chorale melody in each case.

Prelude and Fugue in A BWV 536

The Prelude and Fugue in A major is not very well known, but it is still an interesting and well-written work. The relative simplicity and brevity (32 measures) of the Prelude, together with the seamless counterpoint of the Fugue, make them ideal for service music as a prelude and postlude.

The Prelude opens with an arpeggiated figure that recalls Buxtehude’s Praeludium in D major, BuxWV 139. This motive forms the backbone of the piece, reappearing most noticeably at the end. In between this framework, several dance-like motives are developed, and some wonderful effects are created by the dialogues between the four voices.

The Fugue, with its eight-measure ostinato subject, the rocking motion of the countersubject and the accompanying eigth-note figurations in the other voices, has a smooth, triple-time dance feel. This effect is heightened by the numerous stretti which occur throughout the section. After the final entrance of the subject in the pedal, a syncopated figure in the soprano carries the motion forward to the final, chord.

Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott BWV 721

This chorale is one of Bach’s most strikingly simple arrangements: the tune sings in the soprano above an unwavering texture of chords in the other voices. Within this simplicity, however, is profundity. The setting has effect of a mysterious, sombre procession, evoking the plea for mercy of the text.

Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein BWV 734

The melody of “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein” is one of the earliest Lutheran hymn tunes, having been derived by Martin Luther himself in 1524 (the tune was also associated, from 1682 on, with the text “Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit”, and one will occasionally find BWV 734 under that title). Bach puts this cantus firmus in the tenor voice, to be played by the inner fingers of the left hand while the bass moves along in steady quavers and the right hand indulges in a florid semiquaver obbligato whose opening tones subtly foreshadow, in outline, the first five or six notes of the tenor's cantus firmus melody. As in the original hymn, the first pair of phrases are repeated; the final three phrases make for one long push towards the final G major cadence, richly extended (in Bach’s usual plagal/subdominant way) by the running bass and treble obbligato under the umbrella of the tenor’s sustained G pedal tone.

Partita diverse sopra il Corale Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig BWV 768

Unlike his contemporary Handel who travelled extensively to Italy and England, Bach never left his native Germany, and spent most of his life in the service of either the church or nobility. His most notable and lengthy appointment was as a cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig; before that he spent 15 years at the courts of Weimar and Anhalt-Kothen. Before this he held organists’ posts at Mulhausen and Arnstadt. At Arnstadt as elsewhere it was customary to improvise upon the chorale melody as an introduction the the hymn for the congregation.

The partitia consists of 11 variations on a hymn which appears in Vopelius’ Gesangbuch (Leipzig 1682). It is not clear when the partitia was composed; indeed it seems most likely that some variations were added later to those already written. The first five and the seventh are written for manuals only , and the rest have a pedal part. The final variation is a restatement of the chorale proper with an enriched harmonisation.

Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her BWV 769

 The Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” (“From Heaven above the Earth I come”) are a set of five variations in canon for organ with two manuals and pedals by Johann Sebastian Bach on the Christmas hymn by Martin Luther of the same name. The variations were prepared as a showpieces for Bach’s entry as fourteenth member of Mizler’s. This outstanding is also from the Leipzig collection. The chorale is associated with Holy Communion and indeed with Maundy Thursday; Bach indulges to the full his mastery of the art of writing canons; they appear at different intervals, augmented and inverted, and at the end of each variation except the (largely diatonic) first one he hides his musical signature B-A-C-H (in English notation, B flat - A - C - B natural).

Fantasia super Komm, Heiliger Geist BWV 651

The overwhelming opening of this grand chorale fantasia refers almost literally to the opening lines of Acts 2 from the Bible, which say about Pentecost: “ And when the day of Pentecost was fully come,. They were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”.

The underlying melody, which Bach used for various Pentecost cantatas, is heard in the pedal, but only after the drone of a sustained noted (a ‘pedal point’) has resounded in our ears. Then - with short interruptions - we are presented with the whole chorale melody, which remains a beacon of tranquility in the midst of the notes tumbling over one another in the upper parts. As in the much shorter original version of this chorale, which most probably originated in Weimar, Bach imaginatively draws on many different compositions. He does so, for instance, in  his fervent illustration of the commotion of ‘speaking in tongues’, to which the words of the chorale also refer. Finally, all the turbulence ends in a short but powerful hallelujah.

Programme notes: Ian Alexander


J.S. Bach from Durham

PRCD 1179


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Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C BWV 564

Herr Jesu Christm dich zu uns wend BWV 709 à 2 claviers et pédale

Trio super Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV 655 à 2 claviers et pédale

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 665 sub communione / pedaliter

Prelude and Fugue in A BWV 536

Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott BWV 721

Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein BWV 734 choralis in tenore; manualiter

Partite diverse sopra il Corale Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig BWV 768

Einige kanonische Veränderungen über das Weinachtslied Vom Himmel Hoch, da komm ich her BWV 769 für die Orgel mit zwei Klavieren und dem Pedal

Fantasia super Komm, Heiliger Geist BWV 651 in organo pleno / il canto fermo nel pédale