Organ Recital: Kevin Bowyer

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Kevin Bowyer, organ


Bach: Prelude and Fuge in C major, BWV 545

Vivaldi/Bach: Concerto in A minor, BWV 593

Pärt: Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler

Bach: Vater unser im Himmelreich, BWV 682

Pärt: Pari Intervallo

Bach: A Little Harmonic Labyrinth, BWV 591

About This Performance

About the Program
Notes by John Henken

In some ways, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) represent the yin and yang of patterned polyphony. Pärt’s music from the last 30 years is pared down to the most basic elements, while Bach’s music is, well, baroque in every sense. Both, however, are the result of questing minds and deeply reflective study, both are open to musical metaphor and rife with strange loops, and both contemplate spiritual as well as esthetic goals.

Bach, of course, is closely associated with the organ, although he wrote music in every current genre except opera and ballet (and some of his secular cantatas are in fact short comic operas). Bach was best known in his own time as an astonishing performer, an extraordinary virtuoso of endlessly creative improvisation as well as uncommon technical ability.

Because much of Bach’s organ music has its roots in improvisation and exists only in manuscripts, it can be difficult to date precisely. The compact Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 545, is found in several manuscripts and probably dates from Bach’s years in Weimar (1708-1717) and early at that. The Prelude is boldly jubilant, the Fugue noble but in constant movement.

Not all of Bach’s music went unpublished in his lifetime. Bach – who also sold music and books retail – published some it himself, including the monumental Clavierübung, or Keyboard Practice. Part III of this four-part collection was issued at Leipzig in 1739, with the following on the title page: Third Part 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. As this indicates, the volume features a profusion of chorales corresponding to the Lutheran catechism. As Luther made two versions of his catechism, one for adults and one for children, so Bach set most of these chorales in two different ways, an elaborate version for the connoisseurs, and a simpler one (without pedals) for amateurs.

“Vater unser im Himmelreich,” BWV 682, is certainly the connoisseur’s version – indeed, it is probably the most complex of all of Bach’s multitudinous chorale preludes. This setting of Luther’s verse adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer treats the chorale melody as a strict two-part canon in the upper voices. This canon is woven into a trio sonata – another two imitative treble voices over a stoically searching bass line, making five parts in all. Falling motifs, chromaticism, and jagged leaps make for a very intense prayer for deliverance.

Bach’s Concerto in A minor, BWV 593, is a transcription of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins and strings, Op. 3, No. 8, and it also dates from the Weimar period. Prince Johann Ernst returned to Weimar in the summer of 1713 from Amsterdam, then a center of music publishing, with editions of some of Vivaldi’s immensely popular concertos and sonatas, which Bach studied keenly. In this transcription, Bach generally follows Vivaldi very closely, while personalizing details of the harmony and inner voices. He also transferred the Italian master’s bravura string writing to the organ with idiomatic flair, including manual changes and a demanding pedal part.

The Little Harmonic Labyrinth, BWV 591, is probably not by Bach, although it is certainly the type of quirky compositional display that Bach enjoyed. It is now thought to be by the composer and theorist Johann David Heinichen, whom Bach appreciated enough to sell one of Heinichen’s composition treatises. A truly baroque piece in three sections – Introitus, Centrum, and Exitus – this highly chromatic labyrinth is a sort of harmonic distortion field of constant modulation. Structurally, it touches on prelude, toccata, and fugue elements without settling long on any model. The work found a measure of cross-cultural fame in 1979, when Douglas Hofstadter included a playful dialog on it as an introduction to recursive structures in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

One of the great glories of the organ literature, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, is found in several manuscripts known to have been written before 1710. It was probably composed shortly before Bach began his Weimar tenure, possibly in response to the death of Dietrich Buxtehude in 1707. A passacaglia is a form of continuous variations over, under, or around a recurring theme. The first four measures of Bach’s theme are the same as a little passacaglia by André Raison, and also similar to two works, a master of the passacaglia and chaconne forms. [???]

Bach doubles the four-bar theme, however, and then builds 20 variations on it, a symmetrical complex of equal appeal to head and heart. The theme also bears a possible relationship to the beginning of the “Vater unser” chorale, according to the Dutch scholar Piet Kee, who believes that the whole Passacaglia is based on the Lord’s Prayer as elaborated in Andreas Werckmeister’s book Paradoxal-Discourse, which was published in 1707. When Bach seems to have exhausted all the possibilities of his theme in 20 variations, he then takes those first four measures of it as the main subject in an immediately ensuing fugue, with many new countersubjects. For Bach, fugue is never a purely intellectual conceit, but rather a technique for intensification. Beginning as it does with the vast energies already accumulated by the Passacaglia, this Fugue generates explosive climactic power and thrust, relentlessly logical, yet expressively exalting.

Counterpoint has always been important for Pärt – his Symphony No. 1, composed in a serial idiom and rich in canons, is subtitled “Polyphonic.” He has also long been interested in the music of Bach, and as he turned away from serialism, he began to experiment with collage techniques, including several large works, such as Credo and Collage sur B-A-C-H, that quote Bach extensively. (Pärt later fused his current style with Bach obsessions in works such as the Concerto piccolo über B-A-C-H.) At the end of the 1960s, Pärt devoted himself to the study of plainsong and early music, writing little else besides counterpoint exercises. By the mid-’70s he arrived at a new style he called “tintinnabulation.” “Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work,” Pärt has said. “In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation.”

Four pieces for organ from the 1980s distill this already pristine idiom to its essence. Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler (My Way Has Peaks and Valleys – 1989) is an interpretation of a poem (in a German translation) by the Jewish mystic poet Edmond Jabès (1912-1991), in which spiritual seeking is compared to the rising and falling of ocean waves. There are three lines in the piece, like a trio sonata, but all following the same cresting pattern of triadic tintinnabulation, only at different speeds. The bass moves the slowest, with the middle voice twice as fast and the highest part doubled yet again. This sense of steady pulsation suggests American minimalism more strongly than many of Pärt’s other tintinnabuli pieces. The constant motion also suggests the French Romantic toccata, a flamboyant style seemingly at odds with Pärt’s spare eloquence but perhaps a reference to Jabès, who wrote in French and lived in Paris for the second half of his life.

Unlike Mein Weg, which is no more divisible than the tide, Trivium (1988) is clearly divided in three related parts. The first two, a sort of call and response, are built over pedal tones, while the concluding section features a chant in neo-medieval two-part counterpoint, like woodwind passages from Pärt’s Symphony No. 3.

Annum per Annum (Year by Year – 1980), is a little suite of seven short movements, composed as part of the celebration of the 900th anniversary of the Cathedral of Speyer in Germany. (The piece was also used in a very different context in the 1998 film The Thin Red Line.) The title reflects the idea that the church cyclically repeats the same rites in the same places unendingly. The work begins loudly, in a galloping stride that is an important source of energy throughout. This blaring prelude – bare fifths and pure pulsation – dies away as stops are gradually closed. The five following movements reflect the sections of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) and are all basically rhythmic variations, moving from dark to light. The coda reverses the pattern of the prelude, growing in volume with the fifths now triumphantly filled in as brilliant D major.

Pari Intervallo (1981) is perhaps the purest manifestation of the tintinnabulation style. Serenely contemplative, its triads slowly oscillate in interlocking patterns, like deep breathing supporting rapt meditation.

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

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