The weather is fright’ning—
The thunder and lightning
Seem to be having their way;
But as far as I’m concerned,
It’s a lovely day.
Even with that epigram, this is the ninth installment in my now-slowed-down-but-still-appearing
I have mentioned in passing that I am an organist, although this is very much an avocation. I don’t really keep up my organ playing as I ought to, and for the first time in 15+ years I’m in a job where (with no organ on campus) I can’t just walk down the hall to practice. I need to make more effort, and to make time for it. But I do occasionally fill in for various congregations when the organist has to be away. And so it happened one Sunday (25 October 2015, to be exact) that I was on the bench of a big downtown church in Greenville, SC for both morning and evening services. I had a busy afternoon in between, so I had to choose music that I could pull together on minimal practice time. Usually for me this means Bach, as you can pull the stops and go: you don’t have to work out complicated registration changes unless you want to. As on that day the church was celebrating Reformation Day (about a week early), Bach was a natural choice anyway. I had learned from experience that this congregation didn’t listen to the postlude, so I chose something short and to the point for the evening service: one of Bach’s settings of Luther’s German paraphrase of the Gloria, “Allein Gott in de höh sei Ehr.” There are a quite a number of Bach settings extant, but I chose BWV 715, one of the easiest, flashiest, and most striking. It is one of the six (extant) so-called “Passaggio chorales” which probably manifest something of the sort of chorale playing that got Bach in trouble with his congregation in Arnstadt in February 1706 after his Buxtehude pilgrimage:
“Reprove him for having hitherto made many curious variationes in the chorale, and mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the Congregation has been confused by it.” [trans. in The New Bach Reader, p. 46]In these works, the chorale is stated with a dense and aggressively dissonant in-your-face style harmony, with interspersed flamboyant runs and arpeggios. (Hear Ton Koopman performing this work here.) Think Jimi Hendrix playing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but in a high Baroque vocabulary.
That morning between services as I was running through the music for the evening, it occurred to me that the dense chromatic writing would make good fodder for an exam I would be giving on the following Tuesday to my Theory II students. Then I had an extra credit idea: spot as many sets of parallel fifths/octaves as you can. And would my students notice the disguised B-A-C-H in the last two bars?
|SOURCE: conclusion of BWV 715; cropped scan of NBA Ser. IV Bd. 3 (ed. Hans Klotz, 1961), p. 15.|
|SOURCE: the same passage; a marked-up cropped scan of the BG edition (1893), taken from the scan available on the IMSLP. Those parallels in the NBA text that do not appear in the BG text are indicated in red (although I have not marked other variants here). The parallel octave that remains is indicated in blue.|
|SOURCES: (left) Carl Seffner's 1908 statue of Bach in Leipzig, photo from wikimedia commons; (right) Bernd Göbel's 1985 statue of Bach in Arnstadt, photo from wikimedia commons.|
There are six extant passaggio chorales attributed to Bach:
- Allein Gott in der höh sei Ehr, BWV 715
- Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BWV 722
- Herr Jesu Christ dich uns zu wend, BWV 726
- In dulci jubilo, BWV 729
- Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich BWV 732
- Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her, BWV 738
|SOURCE: (left) detail of Kellner's score, from Bach-Digital; (right) my Finale transcription|
|SOURCE: as above, this time arranged vertically|
All of this warrants further discussion, and this summer I was at work on an article about the editing of these works over nearly two centuries, but I had to put it aside when a new source for BWV 715 emerged. It appears in a practical notebook of 154 pieces (mostly chorale settings) described on its label as being from the repertoire of Bach’s student Johann Christian Kittel (1732-1809—an exact contemporary of Haydn). This notebook is dated 1800, and is the work of one Johann Christoph Bach (1782-1846), an organist in Bindersleben. Speaking of eccentricities, this Bach copies some of the pieces across the full spread of an opening (verso and recto), so that there are only four systems in image below, with the gutter of the binding crossing through each of them:
|SOURCE: BWV 715, in my composite of verso and recto digital scans from the Saxon State and University Library, Dresden|
- It lacks the harmonic eccentricities of Kellner’s copy,
- While the number of voices is inconsistent (including the disappearance of the bass line entirely in the fifth phrase—was this ever played from this score?!?), there are never fewer than three in the harmonized sections, and there very often more than four (five, six, and at one point eight), and
- While such a thick texture means that parallels are inevitably present, the parallel fifth in the final cadence which had been eliminated in BG is here eliminated by means of precisely the same strategy—arriving at the tenor C early, echoing the cadence which had concluded the fourth chorale phrase.
Nevertheless, these pieces have been tainted in some of the Bach literature as unworthy of the master. On that rainy October morning, one of the first commentaries I pulled off my shelf was candid:
I have much more to say about these pieces, and eventually I need to get around to writing that article, if it doesn’t get scooped. In the meantime, I reflect upon the strange intersection between weather and career: if it hadn’t been raining on that Monday morning, all of the subject matter of the blog would have remained for me just items of idle curiosity, and you wouldn't be reading this now.
Long as I can be with you, it’s a lovely day.