Johann Sebastian Bach may have been the Leipzig town council’s reluctant third choice for Cantor, but that says more about the council than about the musician. His technical and improvisatory skills were matters for awe among his contemporaries in central Germany.
“So long as we can be offered in contradiction no more than the mere suggestion of the possible existence of better organists and clavier players, so long we cannot be blamed if we are bold enough to declare that our Bach was the greatest organist and clavier player that we have ever had,” wrote Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola in their obituary article “The World-Famous Organist, Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, and Music Director in Leipzig.” “It may be that many a famous man has accomplished much in polyphony upon this instrument; is he therefore just as skillful, in both hands and feet – just as skillful as Bach was? This doubt will not be considered unfounded by anyone who ever had the pleasure of hearing both him and others and is not carried away by prejudice. And anyone who looks at Bach’s organ and clavier pieces, which, as is generally known, he himself performed with the greatest perfection, will also not find much to object to in the sentence above.”
The awe was most keenly felt by those who had direct contact with Bach, but works such as the four volumes of Clavier-Übung that he published himself – and, as Carl Philipp Emanuel noted, the knowledge that Bach could play masterfully what he had written – carried his reputation far.
Not that the books, astonishingly expensive for the time, sold tremendously well. Indeed, unsold copies were part of Bach’s legacy to his sons. At three reichsthalers, the price for Part III of the Clavier-Übung was more than $200 today. By comparison, Bach’s Jacobus Stainer violin was valued at eight reichsthalers and an “ordinary” violin was worth only two reichsthalers.
“Clavier-Übung” (keyboard practice) was a fairly common title for keyboard anthologies, used by many of Bach’s contemporaries. Despite the title, however, these books were not always – or even often – didactic tutorials; more practice in the sense of business standards than practice as preparatory exercises. Part I of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (1731) consisted of six partitas, Part II (1735) was the Italian Concerto and the Overture in the French Manner, and Part IV (1741) was the “Goldberg” Variations. All of those were for harpsichord; Part III, published in 1739, was for organ.
The full title page is: Part Three of the Keyboard Practice, consisting of various preludes on the catechism and other hymns for the organ. For music lovers, and especially for connoisseurs of such work, to refresh their spirits, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, Capellmeister and Directore Chori Musici in Leipzig. Published by the author.
The book consists of nine chorale preludes for the Lutheran Mass and twelve for the catechism, plus four duets, all framed by a Prelude and Fugue in E-flat. Numerological symbolism is often important in Bach’s construction and formal plans, as it is here. “Three” is a symbol for perfection or completion (and the Trinity, of course). The key of E-flat has three flats, and the Prelude and Fugue each have three main sections and three themes. (The Fugue has been nicknamed “Trinity,” and is also known as “St. Anne,” for the popular hymn tune that may or may not have suggested its first theme.) The celebratory Prelude opens in the style of a French overture, with crisp dotted rhythms. This then alternates, like a ritornello, with a section featuring echo effects and a more lyrical tune, and a quick fugue in the Italian style. Number symbolism and the golden section figure crucially in the epic Fugue, although it is not a triple fugue in the strict sense, since the three themes do not appear together. (The second and third sections of the Fugue, however, do use the rhythm of the first theme in their contrapuntal combinations.) The first fugue, representing God the Father, is in strict stile antico, solemn and eternal. The second section (Christ the Son) is a light and lively fugue for just the manuals, and the third (the Holy Spirit) “is a modern, life-affirming, sweeping gigue in which the theme of the first fugue appears with great power,” as organist Hans Fagius observes.
Chorale preludes were intended to introduce a chorale for congregational singing. The chorale tunes that Bach uses would have been quite familiar to his listeners, and this evening a choir sings the chorale tunes that provide the basis of the Clavier-Übung preludes. The first group (Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie) is also in the stile antico rooted in late Renaissance polyphony, rising to a double fugue for the third setting, and Trinitarian symbolism is again important, as the titles indicate.
Each of these is followed by a smaller setting (without pedals) of the same chorale alio modo, in another way, as little four-part fugues. The chorale “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” is the Lutheran equivalent of the Gloria, and Bach gives it three settings, rising step by step in pitch and contrapuntal elaboration.
Like the Kyries, the Catechism chorales are each set twice, once for the full organ, once for just manuals. The texts concern the Ten Commandments, the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and other prayers, and the music includes strict canons for the chorales, fughettas, and freer styles, including the most modern contemporary practices.
Because they do not have direct chorale connections, the four Duettos have always been hard to explain within the concept and structure of this otherwise highly unified collection. (There are suggestive chorale allusions, however, particularly in the third Duetto, where “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” seems apparent.) Some writers have gone so far as to suggest that these are mistakenly included harpsichord pieces. Although the Duettos do not use pedals, they are now seen as intended for the organ and for this book, perhaps representing the four Apostles and bringing the book up to 27 pieces (3x3x3). In style and method they are similar to Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, employing every type of fugal technique. Bach may have called them duets here to emphasize their dialogue aspect, like the vocal duets in his cantatas.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.