Our Chancel Choir loves singing anthems by this favorite choral composer. Backing up a few centuries, we celebrate the fruits of an organ dynasty in today’s prelude and postlude. Ever heard of the stylus fantasticus? It might be the organ’s best secret weapon. Intrigued? Read on. . .
If you’ve been attending Westminster for some time, you may recognize the name K. Lee Scott. Our Chancel Choir loves his music, has sung many of his choral works multiple times (his Peace Came to Earth is one of our favorite Advent/Christmas anthems and appears in nearly every Christmas Eve service), and in 1999 even commissioned Mr. Scott to write an anthem: Humbly Walk with God was dedicated to Haywood Holderness on the occasion of his 25 years of ministry at Westminster.
K. Lee Scott (b. 1950) resides in Birmingham, Alabama, and is an internationally known teacher, conductor, and composer of sacred music. Thy Perfect Love continues our reflection on Stewardship themes, here by focusing on the primacy of love in a Christ-centered life. In this beautiful anthem, Scott takes a well-known–though anonymous–15th-century English poem and fashions it into a jewel. Because the words are so ancient, some lines may require a bit of interpretation before they come to life in our contemporary world: "and wound [originally spelled wounde] my heart in thy love free" poetically refers to God’s loving discipline. Scott cleverly adds a passage from Ephesians to bring the poem to life in light of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to be a reflection of God, to lead a life of love, as Christ loved us.
If you are interested–as I am–in the nature vs. nurture question, you need look no further than the numerous lines of organist families in Europe, which produced generation after generation of dynastic strongholds for centuries (artistic nepotism at its finest!). J. S. Bach himself came from a long family line of musicians who lived in and around Thuringia; except for his singular genius, J. S. pretty much blended into the Bach family fabric. Music was a trade–a craft–as well as an art. The North German organist/composer Vincent Lübeck (1654-1740) offers another example. His father, also named Vincent, worked as an organist, as did his two sons, who assisted and succeeded him. One could ask: Were all these musicians simply following family tradition and doing what was expected of them, or were they indeed drawn to the work solely by their talent? The answer is: both. Clearly Vincent Lübeck followed in his family’s tradition in part because it was expected of him, and his rigorous musical training certainly didn’t hurt, but only his natural-born talent allowed him to leave us such beautiful examples of organ works written in what is known as the stylus fantasticus (fantastic style)–the signature of North German organ playing during this period, best exemplified by Dietrich Buxtehude (who had a huge influence on Lübeck). The stylus fantasticus is an ingenious, incredible melding of instrument and space. It incorporates the best of what the organ is capable of: improvisation-based techniques–stunning solo pedal lines, intricate ornamentation, sudden silences, rapid scale runs and patterns that dazzle and then appear to drop off a cliff–interspersed with fugal (imitative) writing; all making full use of the grand acoustic spaces that housed the best organs of the time. The effect was dramatic and dazzling in its time, and remains so to this day.
Lübeck worked at Stade’s St. Cosmae church and later at Hamburg’s famous St. Nikolai church, where he played one of the largest contemporary organs. Despite his longevity and fame, few of Lübeck’s compositions survive. But his organ works are favored among players to this day because of their sophisticated and virtuosic use of the instrument. I have fond memories of playing Lübeck’s Prelude and Fugue in E Major on my junior organ recital at Baldwin Wallace College many years ago. It represented my first serious foray into the world of North German organ music, and it left a lasting impression on me.
One interesting tidbit concerns use of the title "Prelude and Fugue." In German organ works prior to Bach’s in particular, it was a generic title. Calling something a "Prelude and Fugue" was common practice; it did not necessarily signify an intention to offer a clear demarcation between what was "prelude" and what was "fugue." In fact, as we see in the Lübeck works played this morning, such pieces often went back and forth between "free" prelude sections and fugal (imitative) sections, not just once, but several times. A virtually interchangeable title was "toccata." The primary distinction in organ music of that time was between these so-called "free" works (i.e., those "freely composed" and not based on a chorale or hymn tune) and those that are based on chorales.
Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748), J. S. Bach’s cousin and his exact contemporary, was a prolific composer, organist, and theorist, known primarily for his organ transcriptions of orchestral concertos (which likely influenced Bach) and his chorale-based works. Walther was perhaps best known as the compiler of Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732), a huge dictionary of music and musicians–the first written in the German language and the first to contain both terms and biographical information about composers and performers. In the piece played this morning, Walther used a common–though highly sophisticated– technique in which the chorale melody is presented in canon (strict imitation) between the soprano line and the bass. Interestingly, it is exactly the same technique used by Marcel Dupré centuries later in Lucis Creator optime (which we heard on September 25th), though one would initially not think of these pieces as being even remotely similar. Bear in mind that, though the chorale melody itself may not be familiar to most of us, to the German congregations of Walther’s time it was as well known as Amazing Grace is to American congregations today.