Friday, April 21, 2006

Ruminations on Bach, a.k.a. Theme and Variations on BWV 668

Lately I've been obsessing about a short piece of organ music by Bach, one of a group of compositions known as the "Eighteen" or "Leipzig" Chorales. Vor deinen Thron tret ich, BWV 668 (Before Your Throne I Stand) has long been one of my favorite short pieces, and it's a measure of Bach's bottomless profundity (or my particle-board density) that I can return to, and obsessively re-scrutinize, a piece with which I've been well familiar for 25 years.

It's probably an exercise in futility to try and explain what I hear in Bach, especially from my perspective as someone without a formal musical education. I really don't know what I'm talking about in any scholarly sense. And it's probably even more pointless to attempt to sell, in writing, an abstract piece of music to an unfamiliar audience (if I weren't on Blogger I could do what the Retropolitan did and get a player for my site where folks could just sample what I was talking about). But, but, but. I can speak my piece just the same; I retain that freedom.

About half of Bach's output for organ--a total of some 300 pieces--consists of chorale preludes, which are free fantasies based on a hymn tune, pieces which in Bach's day would precede the singing of the hymn by the church choir. BWV 668 is one of these. The other half of his organ output is made up of comparatively secular, artistic pieces of many styles and characters. This large number of chorale preludes reflects Bach's employment at church-related musical duties for most of his adult life, and his close association with the Lutheran hymnal. In some of the larger and more elaborate chorale settings--the Chorale Partitas particularly--we have clearly moved from liturgical assistance to a purely artistic or concert endeavor, so the line between the chorale prelude half and the artistic composition half of Bach's organ output is not always distinct. But no matter.

I must make this disclaimer: I'm aware that Bach's reflection in music of Lutheran texts brings a dimension of his genius that people of faith might appreciate--I'm thinking of Albert Schweitzer's instruction that the key to understanding the varied character of the chorale preludes in Bach's Orgelbuchlein can be found in the texts of the hymns treated--and this is one aspect of Bach in which I have no knowledge or interest. When I think of the onion-like layered aspect of Bach's genius, I'm aware that there are faith-centered aspects that might add yet another layer of depth to what is already an unfathomable and multifaceted musical genius. (I think some essence of Bach's art can be found in his use of / overcoming of restrictions and constraints to birth something beautiful. Many of his greatest works involve the strictest forms of counterpoint. If the greater restrictions yield greater art, then this observance of the textual meaning of a hymn must be acknowledged as another screen for Bach's genius to grow up through.)

But--call me a freak--my interest is in music as an abstract expression, as its own language (it is said that the same centers in the brain are stimulated for both linguistic and musical endeavors); thus, I think the introduction of any "program," however natural and rational, tends to weaken or derail the musical expression. Or maybe it's better to say that it just takes music to another place, a place of collaboration where the musical expression must share the stage with other competing things. So my favorite music, of any genre, is instrumental, and if there must be singing I tend to like things without words or maybe words in a language I don't understand.

If they must mix, then this relationship between seed stock of the Lutheran hymn and the child of the chorale prelude seems a good one. The hymn provides what is often a compelling and bedrock-like tune, and the words may serve to set a stage mood-wise that the prelude then plays upon, purely instrumentally, in harmonious or contrasting ways. And so it is with BWV 668. I have a great organ recording of the Eighteen which includes a reading by a first-rate choir of each hymn (often in an harmonization by Bach from one of his many cantatas), a reading which is then followed by its corresponding prelude (rather the reverse order of what one would have experienced in Bach's church). Often the hymns themselves are wonderfully moving and succinct, with a lovely part-writing interplay between voices. Over the years I've had the experience a couple times of getting to know a chorale prelude very well long before I knew the hymn tune itself (which is almost never stated verbatim in Bach's chorale preludes), and these sung chorales were, when I first heard them, a bit like meeting a relative for the first time--they look familiar and you've heard all about them and there's just a bit of a deja vu thing going on.

BWV 668 was reputedly written by Bach on his deathbed. These final compositions--specifically, this piece and the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080)--came into this world stripped of absolutely everything non-essential. This is his art at its purest form, coming from a man whose immense output was already characterized by the absence of fat. One of the great joys of listening to Bach is understanding at the outset that nothing is in a piece frivolously, and it becomes the listener's task to try to figure out how a turn of phrase or key change or whatever got put in where it did, or to do a musical "where's Elmo?" and try to figure out where the theme (or its derivative) is in a given passage. At the time of Bach's death he was the last proponent of the Baroque in music (indeed, the date of Bach's death--1750--marks the end of the Baroque era in any music textbook), and while he lived he was much more widely known as an organist and improviser than as a composer. His own sons had left his aesthetic world behind for newer, hipper things, and his eldest son, Carl Phillipp Emanuel, was more famous than his father. But in history it is the father's compositions which live on like an eternal supernova, illuminating every scrap of Western music written since. Here we meet Bach the elder at the very end, this human repository of the arcane rules of counterpoint, putting pen to paper for these final things which yearn to see the light of day before he is gone. Like with writing and so much of art, there are many ways in music to be brilliant or adept or profound. But few people in musical history have spoken their piece in such an earth-moving and ingenious way as did Johann Sebastian Bach.

BWV 668--I'm too easily sidetracked--gives us a perfectly digestible four minute distillation of so much of this genius. It is based on a deliciously dour tune, Wenn dir in hochsten Noten sein (the good Christian phrase translates as "If be we in the highest miseries"), BWV 431. This chorale provides just the perfect simple heartbreaking skeleton on which Bach hangs the sparest and most effective of clothing, following simplicity with devastating simplicity (it's worth noting that the chorale itself is a minute long, so Bach's development of it is kept to a bare minimum). The inherent moods and turns of the chorale are amplified and built upon in the most disciplined way, so that from austerity and almost suffocating regimentation emerges this quietly heartbreaking beauty. The chorale itself has four phrases, and Bach seems to fixate on the last one, as it can be heard in various guises over and over throughout the piece. The final minute, which gives itself over to an exhausting and little-disguised statement of this final phrase, chokes me up each time I hear it. Still, after all these years.

I recently bought a fantastic CD of the group Fretwork playing several of Bach's organ pieces transcribed for a small ensemble of viols (antique bowed stringed instruments popular before the rise of our modern violin family). The CD features several of my favorite pieces: the Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor (BWV 582), the Fantasy in G Major (BWV 572, which Bach is believed to have written after the death of his first wife, and is the saddest nominally major-key piece ever written) and our lab rat, BWV 668. I have many organ versions of all these pieces, but the viol transcription emphasizes the part-writing, by assigning each line to a distinct voice. All of us naturally from years of practice take these individual parts and construct them in the mind into harmony; we hear a single whole rather than hearing all the individual sounds that go into the mix. But with practice we can do just this deconstruction, sussing out the individual parts of the whole like looking at an exploding diagram. This viol transcription is a great way of exploring the counterpoint that is the cornerstone of all of Bach's writing. Each of these parts could be listened to separately, but how they fit together, jigsaw-puzzle-like, is a source of continuous wonder. The little ornaments and turns of phrase flow from voice to voice like a beach ball batted about, each doing its part to push the piece inevitably towards its heartbreaking conclusion.

Yeah, I could write all day and you'd still have only a glimpse of my enthusiasm for the piece, but nothing of what it sounds like. I guess I need another language for that. Or some way to post the MP3 files.


Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure that I don't have anything to add to this, I just hope there won't be a test later.

-- Jeffy

Esbee said...

Word to Jeffy's mother.

Dzesika said...

My new flatmate is just now discovering Bach; he's also reading Hofstadter's book 'Godel, Escher, Bach' and it's been interesting to re-discover both of these as well. I'd never seen (ditto with Viennese classical) the beauty in the logic, the freedom between those well-placed, methodical notes, until now. Funny, that.

wunelle said...

I tried to read Hofstadter a century ago, but the mathematical part caused my brain to explode into a series of tiny, useless pieces. I've only partially recovered, in fact.

I've always wondered how much of what some people chalk up to numerology in Bach's music is in fact only the mathematical nature of the physics our world obeys. One could lay out a deck of cards randomly and interpret the order to find "meaning."

But hey, I couldn't even read the book, so what do I know?

Dzesika said...

Everyone I've talked to about any Hofstadter book has decided, completely independently, that to read him you really have to take a week or so off of work ...

I barely made it through GEB. I think I was on sick leave!

wunelle said...

Well, if you passed the first third you've beaten me in the Hofstadter Classic!