What is a violin fugue doing at the organ?
This morning’s postlude is an organ fugue in d minor (BWV 539) known as the "violin" fugue because it was re-worked by Bach from a fugue he wrote for solo violin: the second movement of Sonata No. 1 in G Minor (BWV 1001). On String Sunday, I simply can’t resist playing this piece to conclude the service–it is almost too perfect for the occasion! Bach was nothing if not practical. Like many composers of the time, he was fond of re-working materials he particularly liked. Often, this meant a change of instrument. Bach must have liked this fugue quite a lot because he also re-worked it for solo lute (BWV 1000). Though it may at first be difficult to imagine how a work for solo violin could possibly translate to the organ, it’s really not much of a stretch. Those of you who are familiar with Bach’s concerto transcriptions for organ know what I’m talking about. Here I’m thinking particularly of the A Minor Concerto by Antonio Vivaldi, originally for two solo violins and string ensemble, transcribed by Bach for solo organ–and it really works! Of course, it helps that, along with his outrageous genius as a composer, Bach was a supreme master at transcribing and adapting music to suit just about any purpose. For the "violin" fugue, you may want to begin by listening to the violin version (see the link below. . .for the fugue, you’ll have to go in about 3 minutes, 44 seconds, but of course you may want to listen to the first movement too!), then compare it with the organ version played Sunday morning. Both versions are remarkably idiomatic for their respective instruments, and both showcase Bach’s genius extremely well.
We are so privileged to once again have violinist Marcia Edwards and friends participating in worship today. Over the years, it has been such a joy to listen to these delightful musicians–usually spanning the generations, as Marcia has encouraged all ages to join in–play familiar and beloved Christmas carols on each second Sunday of Advent. This tradition is very much a part of the fabric of Westminster’s Advent worship, and we would certainly be poorer without it! As you listen to the lovely sounds of strings, which represent the "Harmony" candle on our Advent wreath, you are sure to appreciate the rich symbolism. If only our relationships and our world could operate with the seamless harmony offered by a finely tuned string ensemble!
The Chancel Choir’s offertory anthem, O Jesus, Grant Me Hope and Comfort by Johann Wolfgang Franck (arranged by Walter Buszin), is a favorite of mine. I can’t help but program it year after year because it is so well-suited to the season. When you hear our choir sing it, the singers’ expressive engagement and emotional commitment to the music will shine through in each phrase. The anthem’s lush harmonies, along with a truly marvelous text, really gets us thinking about the meaning of Advent. Franck (1644-1710) was a German composer who primarily wrote operas. Later in his life he worked in Spain and England.
The choir’s Communion anthem, Cradle Hymn, has a thought-provoking text by Isaac Watts set to the tune Restoration (from The Sacred Harp, though the tune is also credited to Southern Harmony, 1835). A haunting, minor-mode tune like Restoration provides the perfect vehicle for Watts’ text, which so beautifully contrasts the relative comfort of a "modern" infant with the harsh conditions of Jesus’ birth. Food for thought, certainly.
And speaking of food, this afternoon’s Lovefeast is truly a feast for the senses: beautiful music, sights, smells, and tastes abound. Westminster’s Lovefeast tradition is a strong one, deeply rooted in what we love most about this season. Watching our wonderful young people serve the meal and distribute the candles is a high point for many. Year after year, for those of us who love its rich symbolism, the Lovefeast ushers in the Christmas season. A Lovefeast is designed to strengthen the bonds of love, harmony, goodwill, and congeniality in a community. Most famously practiced by the Moravians, Lovefeasts are so compelling and charming, many other denominations have taken them on as well. The Moravian Lovefeast is based upon the Agape feast and the meals of the early churches described in the Acts of the Apostles. In addition to the wonderful smells and tastes–not only from the buns and coffee, but from the newly-placed Christmas greenery–music is a central part of all Lovefeast services. In the Moravian tradition, brass ensembles are prominently featured, along with the singing of hymns and choral music. Though we certainly have a strong brass tradition here at Westminster, we tend to reserve the most prominent brass presence for Christmas Eve and Easter services, while our Lovefeasts have always featured choral and organ music, together with a good deal of congregational singing. In recent years, we have developed a completely in-house Lovefeast Choir, and we’re very proud of that accomplishment. Lovefeast singers dedicate themselves to learning special anthems for this service in a series of three rehearsals, open to all interested singers in the community. It is a true labor of love, and a heartwarming experience for all our participants. We delight in coming up with Advent and Christmas arrangements that add a sense of wonder to the experience, and we sincerely hope you will enjoy our musical selections, which this year include charming settings of Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella and Silent Night (complete with a verse sung in German), among other beautiful pieces. The service itself begins at 5 p.m. Come early to get a good seat and listen to the organ preludes (which begin at 4:30).