But I remember being puzzled. I knew that piece already from a recording featuring organist E. Power Biggs, on which he was playing the Sinfonia from Cantata no. 29, “Wir danken dir, Gott”:
For this post, the penultimate installment of my slowly-progressing
’s reworking of a text took it so far from its original version (to the extent that we can actually know the original) that with just one version before us we would never be able to guess another. This is surely such an example. The solo violin prelude (Bach’s autograph is dated 1720) seems complete, idiomatic, and perfect in itself; and yet Bach returned to it around 1729 and transfigured it—allocating the moto perpetuo to solo organ, and then conceiving a four-part string texture around it as part of a wedding cantata (BWV 120a). Not stopping there, he then expanded it yet again to add oboes, trumpets and timpani for BWV 29 (1731). The new orchestral texture has a motivic integrity of its own, with new ideas that seem like they were all there from the start, but are nowhere implicit in the original violin solo. Thus I knew the third version first, but the first version—once I heard it—seemed entirely natural. I am even tempted to go a step further: because of its novelty to me as I heard it then, the earlier version seemed superior.
We’re accustomed to all manner of cover versions, where one artist takes the work of another in order to recreate it in a new style, putting their personal stamp on it. (I borrow the title of the post from Franz Hasenöhrl’s ingenious quintet arrangement of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche; “yet again, in a different way.”) But here Bach was covering himself. His stylistic mastery was so wide that he could put his personal stamp on both. What kind of mind was this that would transform its own product so completely that it becomes something new, utterly coherent in itself, without any hint that it wasn't alway thus?
Another example that I first came to know entirely in its later (it would seem) version is the Triple Concerto (BWV 1044) in A minor for flute, violin, and harpsichord—the same combination of instruments featured in the fifth “Brandenburg” concerto (BWV 1050). I remember hearing it for the first time sometime when I was in high school, when I bought a mid-price disc on which the concerto served as filler material, supplementing a reissue of two of the orchestral suites in a recording by Trevor Pinnock. As the opening ritornello played, I recall thinking “Why haven’t I heard this piece before?” When we got to the slow movement, I thought “... but I have heard this piece before—this is one of the organ trios”:
|SOURCE: (l.) Organ trio in D minor, BWV 527/ii from NBA Ser. IV Bd. 7, p. 35; (r.) Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord in A minor, BWV 1044/ii from NBA Ser. VII Bd. 3, p. 142.|
|SOURCE: excerpt of BWV 894/i, from NBA Ser. V Bd. 9.2, pp. 56-57.|
Among the remarkable examples of Bach's redeployment of his ideas are the missa settings compiled in the late 1730s and 1740a, drawing largely upon cantata movements of the 1720s, now retexted. A chart in the critical report of the relevant NBA volume is a handy visualization of Bach's sources for the four missae, BWV 233-236:
|SOURCE: Emil Platen and Marianne Helms, eds., Kritischer Bericht for NBA Ser. II Bd. 2 (1982), p. 16.|
Example 1: Gloria from the A-major Missa (BWV 234) and the sixth movement of cantata “Halt im gedächtnis Jesum Christ” (BWV 67)
In the cantata, placid, triple-meter sections accompany a single bass singing “Friede sei mit euch” (“Peace be with y’all,” as this Southerner feels compelled to translate it), while the bustling 4/4 sections set the other three soloists pleading for Jesus to deliver them from all manner of anxiety.
|SOURCE: beginning of BWV 67/vi, from NBA Ser. I Bd. 11.1, pp. 43-45.|
In the mass, the opening ritornello—which in the cantata had received no text—now accompanies the the in excelsis text, while the 3/4 section (which had been about “peace” from the first) is now et in terra pax. It is very effective—and all the more astonishing for not having been originally conceived that way.
|SOURCE: beginning of BWV 234/ii, from NBA Ser. II Bd. 2, pp. 17-19.|
Example 2: the G-major Missa (BWV 236) and the opening chorus of cantata “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” (BWV 79)
This is a very similar example—and rather than taking up space with scans, I will just embed two recordings. In the cantata, the initial vocal entrance on fairly long note-values (where we first hear the text “Gott der Herr”) contrasts markedly with all the activity of the unusually long ritornello that has preceded it. In the mass, that ritornello is merged with the in excelsis clause, so that the long note-values become (as above) an apt setting of et in terra pax. It is hard to for me to grasp that it hadn’t always been thus.
The transfiguring capacity of Bach’s genius boggles the mind. With such examples, it is reasonable to try to look behind any oddity for what might have been a source version. Surely the most notorious example in this regard is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565), which may be the most universally recognizable work of all organ repertoire. Rather like that of Beethoven's fifth symphony, the opening gambit of BWV 565 is known to wide swaths of people who would otherwise claim no familiarity with “classical music.” Of course, they may well not associate it with J. S. Bach. In popular culture it seems associated with the movie cliche of the mad organist... which inevitably brings me back to Vincent Price, even if he was a late-comer to this particular parade:
|SOURCE: Vincent Price as Dr. Anton Phibes in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971); this still from Trailers from Hell|
His character plays a tiny bit from the opening of BWV 565 in the sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972).
None of these questions about BWV 565 bother me very much. I enjoy multiple texts, different translations, various takes on things. The piece can be great on the organ—whether in the rather staid style of E. Power Biggs or the flamboyant approach of Virgil Fox, or in any number of interpretations in between or beyond. It can be compelling on electric guitars or the accordion; the harp or the glass harmonica. In that way it reminds me of some of the issues Ryan Bañagale brings up in his study of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—the almost gravitational pull the work exerts to bring all manner of interpretive artists into its orbit. Consider that Stokowski’s orchestration of it was given pride of place in Disney's 1940 Fantasia. (I prefer Henry Wood’s.)
Even if I don’t listen to it very much—and almost never play it—BWV 565 is a larger-than-life work. It has a cultural presence far out of proportion to its significance among more than a thousand BWV numbers. But when it comes down to it, a host of creative interpretations of BWV 565 are not as interesting to me as Bach’s own covers I discuss above, the product of a single mind. Bach doesn’t even seem to have called attention to the transfigurations he enacted. All in a day’s work, I guess.