December 2016) was to start each month for a year with a Bach post. Life got in the way of that, so it has taken me eighteen rather than twelve months to complete. In any case, this will not be the last Bach post. As I have already written, the pre-history of this blog was a Bach episode; more than that, as I have been acquiring cheap secondhand copies of the critical reports of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe in the last two years (now 56 and counting), I expect to return to Bach textual issues for years to come.
’s impossible notes. I don’t mean notes that are unplayable (that is, that the technique that is required is truly prodigious, like Schoenberg’s claim that he was willing to wait for evolution to produce a violinist with a little finger long enough to play his concerto properly), but rather notes that are beneath the range of the instrument. For most instruments, it’s difficult to say there is an upper limit to the range; along comes a player who can top it.
One of these impossible notes has puzzled me for years—the low B in b. 94 the Pièce d’orgue (a.k.a. Fantasia in G Major), BWV 572. It is a note which did not exist on the pedalboard of any organ Bach is known to have played. (Linked here is a great resource about the organs of Bach’s milieu, and also access to free recordings of the whole corpus on preserved instruments of Bach’s time.)
|BWV 572, bb. 89–95a; SOURCE: cropped scan of NBA Ser. IV Bd. 7 (ed. D. Kilian, 1984), p. 133.|
|The extended pedalboard of Marshall & Ogletree Op. 8 (2013); SOURCE: photo cropped from Cameron Carpenter’s website; my highlighting added.|
|SOURCE: P 288 Fas. 2 f. 3r; cropped from Bach-Digital|
The Kellner copy—indeed all of the eighteenth-century copies, and Bach’s default layout in his organ works—transmits the work on only two staves (rather than the three staves we expect of organ music now). Often these sources will indicate “Ped.” at certain points, although the absence of the instruction to play on the pedals need not imply that an organist wouldn’t use them. I am intrigued, though, to see the suggestion in Breitkopf & Härtel’s new edition of the organ works that—despite the title Pièce d’orgue, transmitted in many early sources—this music may have been originally intended for the harpsichord, which by Bach’s time generally had a compass extending down to the G or F below the bottom C of the organ [p. 18]. The five-part writing is playable with two hands alone (albeit awkwardly at times), but—in my hands, anyway—becomes unplayable at about b. 178.
Peter Williams (p. 170) reports the startling fact that this low B is not unique in the texts of Bach’s organ works. It appears, for example, in Kellner’s copy of the C major transposition of the E Major Toccata, BWV 566—and doubtless it is the downward transposition that explains its presence there. Indeed, Kellner writes the B almost apologetically in parenthesis, and doubled the octave above [below left, for example]. A low B is called for in the manuals in a copy (also Kellner’s?) of the C major Toccata, BWV 564, where it is the last note in the final cascading figure before the final chord [below right]. In that instance it makes good musical sense; it just can’t be played—even by Cameron Carpenter (unless he took the whole piece up a half-step--a gimmick he has been known to use).
|SOURCE: cropped scans of two pages from D-B Mus.ms. Bach P 286: (L) from Fasc. 3, BWV 566 bb. 209b–210a, cropped from Bach-Digital; (R) from Fasc. 5, BWV 564/iii bb. 140-41, cropped from Bach-Digital|
|BWV 572, bb. 157–175; SOURCE: cropped scan of NBA (as above), p. 135; my highlighting added.|
This expansion happens over a long dominant pedalpoint, and again the register change in the pedal appears as if Bach might be avoiding an impossible note:
|BWV 572, bb. 176–185; SOURCE: cropped scan of NBA (as above), p. 135; my highlighting added.|
|Marienkirche in Rötha; SOURCE: www.blockmrecords.org|
Browsing through the sets of performing material for the much-revived early cantata “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis,” BWV 21, I note that the various sets of performing material are inconsistent about this sort of problem: in an early version, a cello and organ are both given a non-existent low B-flat [top row, left and right respectively, the last note in the images]; in a later transposed version, the copyist of the cello part (transposed up) has an erroneous D when C would have been reachable [bottom row, left—the wrong note is circled]; and a copyist of a basso continuo part (transposed down for Chorton pitch) replaced corresponding non-existent low A-flat up an octave [bottom row, right].
|SOURCE: Composite of original parts for BWV 21/viii b. 14 (and context) all in D-B Mus.ms. Bach St 354 (sigla from the NBA Ser. I Bd. 16 critical report linked to corresponding Bach-Digital image): top left A12; top right A13 (autograph); bottom left A19; bottom right A26|
|SOURCE: composite of cropped scans from NBA Ser. II Bd. 3 (ed. Alfred Dürr, 1955); top, BWV 243a (p. 46); bottom, BWV 243 (p. 108)|
The cantata “Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?,” BWV 155, yields a puzzle that would truly flummox us if we lacked contextual evidence. In the bassoon obbligato for the second movement duet (a movement that always has me thinking that Horace Rumpole is about to enter), at one point Bach reaches down for a low G, fully a minor third below the B-flat that is conventionally the bottom note of the instrument. Notice here—the very last note of the top staff—that in the autograph score Bach has taken pains to clarify what note he has written, marking it “G” directly above the note with the three ledger lines:
|SOURCE: f. 2v. of D-B Mus.ms. Bach P 129, the autograph score for BWV 155/ii bb. 34–37, cropped from Bach-Digital|
Or not. None of this answers the most important question for the player hired for the gig: How do I play this? The advice in the NBA regarding BWV 31 seems almost absurdly obvious: “die zu tief liegenden Töne . . . des Fagotts müssen durch Stimmknickung umgangen werden” (p. vi). Roughly “you have to get around the bassoon notes that are too low by tampering with [more literally bending] the part.” So we bend the truth just a bit. My guess is that only the conductor needs to be told that.