Tuesday, March 10, 2015

J.S. Bach Writings for Organ

Have you heard about the Hands & Feet Together: A Festival of the Organ happening this Saturday, March 14 as part of Collegium Cincinnati’s 2015 Bach Festival? Join three world-class organists for a program exploring the national styles that Bach assimilated in his organ compositions. For more information and to get tickets, you can check out this website.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a working musician meaning that he would compose to meet the needs of his current employer. While working in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen as a church organist and Weimar as a court organist, he found himself composing many works for the organ. Often times Bach wrote organ pieces that would be used in Lutheran services such as chorale settings. Bach became familiar with organ music at a young age finding fascination with composers such as Buxtehude, Froberger, and Frescobaldi. Did you know that at one point he traveled 225 miles on foot to hear Buxtehude? That’s dedication!

Bach wrote over 200 chorale settings for the organ. His compiled manuscript collection of 45 short chorale preludes makes up what is known as his Little Organ Book. These chorale preludes served as introductions for the congregation before they joined in singing the chorale during church services. Bach also intended the book to serve pedagogical purposes in teaching young organ students.

Chorale preludes typically would contain one occurrence of the chorale melody line and then each would have various settings beyond that. Settings may include playing the melody in canon or perhaps with added ornamentation, or even reflecting the text through the music. One example of a chorale prelude that reflects the chorale text is Bach’s Through Adam’s Fall BWV 637. In this chorale prelude, the top line contains the chorale melody while the bass contains descending leaps depicting Adam’s fall in Genesis. The twisted chromatic line in the alto is reminiscent of a slivering serpent and the downward pull in the tenor shows Adam as he’s pulled down by temptation. You can listen to this chorale prelude from the Little Organ Book here.

Join me next time as we look at what has become Bach’s most famous organ piece, Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, and its appearances in pop culture. 

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