Bach and Buxtehude, a truly formidable pair. . .
This morning I’m excited to be playing organ music by two of my favorite composers: Bach and Buxtehude. As I’ve mentioned previously in these notes, Bach’s so-called trio sonatas for the organ (actually simply titled sonatas) are right at the top of the list for testing an organist’s musicianship and technical expertise. Composed for his son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the trio sonatas are written in a contrapuntal texture of three independent voices (one for each manual and one for the pedals). The Andante from Sonata IV is as sublimely beautiful as it is tricky to play.
Bach, as an organist and devout Lutheran, was naturally concerned with the chorales, and used them in countless ways throughout his vocal and keyboard works. Bach’s numerous elaborate treatments brought the organ chorale prelude to an unparalleled level of artistic perfection. His prelude on Von Gott will ich nicht lassen is one of the so-called Great Eighteen Chorales. Here, the cantus firmus (c.f., or melody) is assigned to a 4-foot stop in the pedal and is surrounded by elaborate keyboard parts using a repeating rhythmic pattern known as the "joy" motive (two 32nd notes followed by a 16th note). This is not unusual in the least. Bach’s music is rich with intricate symbolism–musical, numerical, and theological affects or codes, if you will–of all kinds. These symbols–also known as a doctrine of figures–essentially created musical equivalents for figures of speech in the art of rhetoric. They were part of the standard musical language of Bach’s time, and as with most things, Bach brought their use to a peak of complexity and intricacy not known before or since. Some symbolism was quite pictorial; for example, a composer’s use of a rising scale line to depict a text concerning rising from the dead. Other symbolism was a bit less direct, but nonetheless important information for those wishing to delve beneath the surface of the music. For example, extensive use of chromaticism often depicts sorrow, pain, or sin (remember this part when we come to the season of Lent).
Buxtehude’s beautiful composition based on the chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (In peace and joy I now depart) was written as funeral music on the death of his father in 1674. The chorale melody itself is a very old one by Martin Luther, and first appeared in a publication of 1524. Traditionally, this chorale is associated with funerals, the Eucharist, and with the post-Christmas season generally, because it is based on the Song of Simeon (Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace. . .also known as the Nunc dimittis). Buxtehude’s chorale settings heard today, which he entitled Contrapunctus I and II, are written in quadruple counterpoint. Just as complex as it sounds, this basically means that the four voices can be mutually interchanged. In the Evolutio for each Contrapunctus these possibilities are developed: in the first, the soprano becomes bass, bass becomes soprano, alto becomes tenor, and tenor becomes alto. The second Evolutio brings the mirror form: the voices are not only interchanged as in the first example, but are also brought in inversion. Amazingly, even if the listener knows none of this background (or doesn’t care to know. . .you choose!), the effect of the music is utterly sublime and beautiful. No wonder Bach so admired Buxtehude!
Today’s offertory anthem at 11:00 is a choral favorite by the otherwise little-known Italian composer Nicola Antonio Zingarelli (1752-1837). A motet from his larger Christus e miserere, this piece–because of its many tricky choral techniques–has often been used in choral contests. Its slow and very somber opening is a perfect test of choral intonation and expressiveness; it then leads to one of the most exuberant expressions of joy possible to end the piece. For good reason, our choir loves singing this anthem!
Hymn 377, Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore (affectionately known to Westminsterites as "The Lakeshore hymn"), is well suited to this morning’s Gospel message. Cesáreo Gabaráin (1936-1991) wrote both the text and tune in 1979. He had traveled to Galilee and was moved by the experience of being at the seaside where some of the disciples had been called. Upon his return to Spain, he wrote this text as a reminder that Christ still calls disciples today. Gabaráin, a native of Spain, was a Roman Catholic parish priest and then monsignor in Madrid. He was the Spanish chaplain to Pope Paul VI (who claimed the Lakeshore hymn as his favorite); some of Gabaráin’s hymns have been translated into over 40 languages.