The central item on both recitals was the same: J. S. Bach’s Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ BWV 769—or rather BWV769a, and that brings up the textual point for this post. The Canonic Variations is a late work, composed in 1746-47 as far as can be determined. It is transmitted in a number of sources, including two authentic sources—the first edition print (usually allocated the siglum Q, as it will be here) and an autograph manuscript generally described as a fair copy (ditto A). Both are now freely available on the web. I have taken the images below from the scans available via the Berlin Staatsbibliothek website (print and autograph), but similar reproductions can be found on Bach Digital and the IMSLP, and other places too.
The relationship between Q and A is not as obvious as one might expect. It would be reasonable to assume that the fair-copy score came first, and the printed edition later—and, indeed, that the fair-copy score might even have been prepared for the engraver of the print. In fact these two authentic sources present very different versions of the piece, so that in Wolfgang Schmieder’s Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis we find the version of Q designated as number 769 while the version of A is 769a. The issue of how Schmieder designated different versions of a work (and the consequences of such designations) deserves another post; some day I’ll come back to it.
Both versions contain five movements, but the sequence and presentation of those movements varies significantly. (For convenience I will use the abbreviations devised by Walter Emery in his study of the work.) In A the movements are:
- I. C8 2-voice canon at the octave in the manuals, chorale cantus firmus in pedal
- II. C5 2-voice canon at the fifth in the manauls, cantus firmus in pedal
- III. CF the cantus firmus in 2-voice inversion canons at the sixth, third, second and ninth, followed by the entire chorale in a stretto coda; the movement starts with three voices, adds an additional voice at the midpoint, and the coda adds two more voices.
- IV. C7 2-voice canon at the seventh (pedal and left hand), cantus firmus + free cantabile line in the right hand
- V. CA 2-voice augmentation canon at the octave in the manuals (+ free left hand line), chorale cantus firmus in pedal
- I. C8 on two-stave puzzle notation (giving only the first few notes of the trailing canonic voice)
- II. C5 ditto
- III. C7 ditto. These first three variations fit together on one “opening”—that is two printed pages, the verso of the cover page on the left, the recto of the next sheet on the right.
- IV. CA in open score (4 staves), requiring two pages—the next “opening” of the print.
- V. CF on three staves, requiring two pages, the final “opening.”
|SOURCE: detail of scan of Kritischer Bericht for NBA Ser. IV Bd. 2, ed. Hans Klotz (1957), p. 88.|
There are a plentitude of textual differences between Q and A, in and his comprehensive studies of this work Butler also convincingly argues that the very concept of a “definitive” version is meaningless in this piece. Butler’s chronology is essentially this:
1. Initial conception: C8, C5, and C7 composed and subsequently engraved. Indeed, these seem at first to have been engraved without even indicating (beyond the signum S) the incipits of the canonic entries:
|SOURCE: cropped screenshots of Q as available at http://digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht?PPN=PPN614768373, pp. 4 and 5.|
2. A new phase: possibly inspired by his work on BWV 1087 (the fourteen extra canons based on the first eight notes of the bassline of the Goldberg Variations), Bach employed the chorale tune itself canonically, thus producing the series of 4 canons + stretto that make up CF. At this point Bach started writing out a clean copy of the work—A—placing this new variation before the cantabile C7. It is possible, indeed, that he considered the work complete after writing out C7, as he drew some final flourishes after the double bar at that point:
|SOURCE: cropped screenshot of A as available at http://digital.staatsbibliothek-berlin.de/werkansicht?PPN=PPN812577051, p. 106. The three flourishes which I have encircled in red) appear only at the end of the fourth variation (C7).|
|SOURCES: composite cropped screenshots of Q and A (as above) with my transcription from Butler B-Jb 2000, p. 18.|
As a performer, I had to commit myself to one version or the other. (As Susan Hellauer once memorably expressed it, “You can't sing a footnote.”) I opted in this recital for the version of A basically using the text as printed in the NBA, but with a few alterations imported from the critical report (and a fistfull of wrong notes scattered here and there, too). Scholars don’t have to commit, though, and as Werner Breig puts it in his new edition of the work for Breitkopf,
What is an appropriate type of close? Whether it is a contrapuntal concentration such as the six-part stretto or a canon in augmentation that points beyond itself, so to speak, through the unfinished canonic imitation in one part—Bach would certainly not have wanted to commit himself to any particular solution. (p. 20)Moreover, as Bach’s habit of not commiting himself was so pervasive throughout his career—and Bach editions in the last three centuries have had to deal with some perplexing variants—with this post I am launching a
’s own Jahrgänge of cantatas in his first years in Leipzig) I will deal with some textual issue relating to the works of J. S. Bach. While the quantity of text-critical work that has been done on Bach cannot rival that done on Shakespeare (still less the Bible), it is a massive body of literature and editions. Needless to say there is no shortage of things to talk about—and I hope that these posts won’t be as tedious as this one might have been.