Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord are extraordinary, ground-breaking works. Want to know more? Read on. . .
Today’s preludes–and offertory at 8:30 worship–feature J. S. Bach’s wonderful Sonata in B Minor for Violin and Harpsichord (BWV 1014). The great Bach’s six sonatas for violin and harpsichord are extremely intricate works, written in sonata da chiesa (church sonata) form: they have four movements (slow-fast-slow-fast) rather than the three (fast-slow-fast) typical of a chamber sonata. The complexity of these works can hardly be overstated. In fact, both players get a real workout! This is quite an important point in and of itself because, in other sonatas of Bach’s time (and before), the harpsichord part usually offered only harmonic support. The role of so-called basso continuo instruments (usually cello or viola da gamba and harpsichord) was straight-forward enough that the keyboard part was not even fully written out, but rather was represented by figured bass symbols, showing the basic harmonic underpinning. The keyboard player read from the single bass line shared by all the basso continuo instruments, interpreting the figured bass symbols on the spot. In these sonatas, Bach went far afield from this tradition. He wrote out a complete harpsichord part that was equally as complex as the violin’s, including right hand parts that play melody in counterpoint to the violin, as in a trio sonata. Thus, Bach was able to take music that might be played on three or more instruments and collapsed it down to two, creating a complex, richly textured interplay, a real partnership between the instrumentalists. The slow movements are exquisitely profound and stunningly beautiful, while many of the fast movements are dancelike, managing to seem simultaneously solemn and joyous.
We are privileged to have violinist Marcia Edwards join us for both services this morning. About six years ago, over a period of months, Marcia and I played the entire set of six sonatas right here in worship at Westminster. It was a challenging and joyous venture for us, and we are happy to experience this wonderful music again. Few things in Western music come quite as close to perfection as the works of J. S. Bach, certainly one of the greatest geniuses of all time.
On each World Communion Sunday, we make a special effort to include music that in some way speaks to the whole of our Christian world community. Along with hymns that address this theme, the choir’s anthem, At the Table of the World, brings us a simple, yet profound message: As we look beyond ourselves, we cannot help but notice the disparity in our world, the vast chasms that separate the haves from the have-nots. Yet, at the table of our Lord, all are welcome, all are honored, all are plentifully fed. This metaphor fills us with hope and peace. It also leads to profound change as we work for justice and equality in our broken world. May Brian Wren’s powerful words become our mantra for such change: "Blow among us, Spirit of God, fill us with your courage and care! Hurricane and Breath, take us on a journey of love!" An interesting side note: The choir first sang this anthem in the Fall of 1996, just as Hurricane Fran was preparing to batter us. In fact, we practiced this anthem on the very night Fran hit our area. And it’s the only anthem we know containing the word "hurricane." If that doesn’t send chills down your spine, I don’t know what will!