The Galaxy – Celebrating Bach, Part 2

Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959), Polish harpsich...

Wanda Landowska (1879 – 1959), Polish harpsichordist and pianist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, we continue our celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach by starting with another landmark recording.  Wanda Landowska was a true musical pioneer, a musicologist whose work helped revolutionize what we now might call the “period instruments trend”. Like many of the great musicologists, she was a critical writer whose opinions went in direct contrast with popular opinion of the day.  She had some rather interesting things to say:

We very rarely hear the genuine music of the Leipzig Cantor. We are compelled to listen to modernized Bach, arranged according to the musical fashions of today, approximated to the conditions of our time. We are within two centuries of Bach, nevertheless his epoch is ancient history vague and totally distinct from that in which we live, different in life, art, impressions and ideas. What we seek eagerly, what we like and what we admire, often did not find favor in those days.

Intensity of expression and breadth of sonority are the qualities now most sought after, most admired in every musical performance. Nevertheless these ideals of contemporary art were not in high favor two centuries ago. In prefaces to their works or in treatises on playing the harpsichord, the authors recommend above all, grace, finesse and precision. “Experience has taught me,” says Francois Couperin, “that the hands which are the strongest and capable of playing the most rapid passages are not those which succeed best in expressing tender sentiment.”  (This study was originally published in The Etude Music Magazine (September 1906): 562-3.  The quote was found at Polish Music Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 2003)

Wanda Landowska.

Wanda Landowska. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her life was just about as interesting as her work.  She was an innovator in the construction of new harpsichords, and she had works written especially for her by Francois Poulenc and Manuel de Falla.  She established the École de Musique Ancienne in Paris in 1925, and her home in St. Leu became a center for the study and performance of old music.  However, when the Nazis invaded France, Landowska (who was Jewish) had to flee France with her assistant and companion Denise Restout, leaving behind all her harpsichords and manuscripts (which were subsequently stolen).  She resettled in Connecticut, and was able to continue her work until her death in 1959.  It is largely thanks to Ms. Restout that her many writings have been translated and archived, and thus preserved for future generations.

As is natural when considering her interest in harpsichords, she had a special interest in the work of the great Baroque masters like Bach.  Her 1931 recording of the Goldberg Variations was the first ever attempt at recording that important keyboard masterpiece.  It is that recording that we hear tonight, as archived from the original 78 rpm recordings.  I find the sound quality to be quite spectacular, given that it was made in 1931.  All in all, a worthy musical experience.

Bass patterns from BWV 582/1, Passacaglia in C...

Bass patterns from BWV 582/1, Passacaglia in C minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Christe – Trio en passacaille from Messe du Deuziesme ton, by André Raison (c.1650-1719). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the Goldberg Variations, we then heard the sole Passacaglia that Bach wrote. It is not known exactly when Bach wrote his Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, a situation that we have with many of Bach’s early works where the original manuscript is lost, a group which includes many of his organ works.  It is believed that the piece was written between 1706 and 1713.  As with all passacaglias, the work centers around a theme (possibly borrowed from André Raison  – the similarities are explored in the figure at right), which is stated with the bass pedals at the opening, at a length of 8 bars.  After the statement of the initial theme, the work explores a number of variations on the initial theme, 20 variations in all.  After the conclusion of the variations, the work immediately, without the usual pause, steps into a double fugue (a fugue with two subjects), again with the same initial melody serving as the starting point, but one can immediately tell where Bach swerves away from the original melody into new heights of organic bliss.  At one point the work becomes a permutation fugue.  The work was quite influential, with Robert Schumann describing it as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.”  Tonight’s recording is a 1979 recording by Peter Hurford.

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in...

A six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the passacaglia, we then heard the Musical Offering, BWV 1079.  The work was the result of a visit Bach paid to Frederick II, then King of Prussia.  During the visit, the king gave Bach a short theme, which Bach improvised into a three-voice fugue on the spot.  He also attempted to improvise a six voice fugue.  After this, Bach promised to set the fugue to paper and have it engraved in copper.  When Bach did this, he added to the royal theme (the “thema regium”) two ricercaris, ten canons, and a trio sonata in four movements.  One of the interesting points to the piece is that this is perhaps the only piece written by Bach for a new invention that the king was showing off, the piano (in its early form, the piano-forte).  The piece is also interesting in that it is written for a quartet combo of violin (changing over to viola from time to time), flute, viola da gamba, and keyboard, with the keyboardist from time to time switching from harpsichord to the new piano-forte.  Tonight’s recording is a 1999 edition by the combo of Gottfried von der Goltz (violin and viola), Karl Kaiser (flute), Ekkehard Weber (viola da gamba) and Michael Behringer (harpsichord and fortepiano).

We concluded the evening with a fragmentary cantata, Bach’s Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft, BWV50.  It is believed to be part of a larger cantata that was written for a special occasion, possibly Michaelmas.  The composition is unusual for Bach in that the instrumentation calls for two choirs and a large orchestra, and some scholars have suggested that Bach may in fact no have been the author (the suggestion has been quite controversial).  Tonight’s recording is a 1993 recording by Andrew Parrott, leading the Taverner Consort and Players.

Further reading:

  • Wanda Landowska – A 1996 article that focuses on the reminiscences of Denise Restout,  who was still living and teaching in Connecticut at the time (she passed away in 2004)

WDBX Opera Overnight – Bach

Autograph of the first page of the Johannespas...

Autograph of the first page of the Johannespassion by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our show this evening has a dual-fold purpose.  We have Easter coming in two weeks, and this year the timing coincides with the occasion of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday.  I celebrate both occasions on a yearly basis, given the importance of Bach to the development of musical theory and technique in the Western Hemisphere.  This actually works out pretty well for us, in that Bach wrote a number of pieces for use during the Easter holiday season, and several of these pieces rank among some of the great historical examples of classical music.  So, to me, to spend a few weeks observing the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach does not feel like a limitation, it feels like an opportunity.

So we’ll begin our Easter celebration with St. John’s Passion, BWV 245.  The piece was first written in 1724 for that year’s Good Friday Vespers service  Bach made several revisions to the work, including a 1749 revision done as part of his notable late-life revision project wherein he made revisions to what he considered to be his key works, with an eye towards his legacy. This revision largely returned the work to its 1724 form, with some alterations in orchestration to replace instruments that had largely passed from use (i.e. the viola da gamba).  The Johannes-Passion is the oldest of Bach’s 3 known Passion works; a St. Mark’s Passion was written in 1731 but has been lost, with a surviving libretto having been destroyed in the WWII bombing of Dresden.  In addition to the well-known St. Matthew’s Passion, there is also a St. Luke’s Passion that is not believed to be Bach’s, but which may contain some contributions from him.

Tonight’s performance is a 1993 performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, with Angela Maria Blasi, Marjana Lipovsek, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Robert Holl, and  Anton Scharinger.  Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Schoenberg Choir.

'Berlin' portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

‘Berlin’ portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When one is looking for Easter music, Bach certainly gives us a number of compelling options, especially his great Passion works.  But he did not limit himself to the Passion works.  Bach’s Easter Oratorio (Kommt, eilet und laufet – “Come, hasten and run”), BWV 249, was first performed on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1725 (the year following his St. John’s Passion).    Its composition is a substantial departure from the form taken by his numerous cantatas (among other areas, it is notably longer than most of his cantatas – most of his cantatas run between 24 and 30 minutes, whereas the Easter Oratorio runs in the 40-45 minute range), and in parts is a parody (in other words, a recycle) of a secular cantata that Bach had written a few months earlier.  But Bach’s practice of recycling music was not just a cut and paste job – in many instances, music was rearranged to fit the libretto, instrumentation changed, parts added or removed.  Like the aforementioned Passions, the Easter Oratorio also received several revisions, once in 1735 (when it was given the title of “Oratorio”) and another in the 1740s.

Tonight’s recording is a rather striking rendition by the Bach Collegium Japan from 2005, directed by Masaaki Suzuki.  Soloists were Yukari Nonoshita (soprano), Patrick van Goethem (counter-tenor), Jan Kobow (tenor), and Chiyuki Urano (bass).

Our last selection of the evening is Christ Lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4. It is believed to have been written in 1707, when Bach was 22, and may have been related to his move from Arnstadt to Mühlhausen, possibly being used for his application for the position of church organist.  The chorale portion is based on a hymn of the same name by Martin Luther, which was in turn based on an Easter hymn from the 12th century, Christ ist erstanden (“Christ is risen”).  There are compositional similarities to a work by Johann Pachelbel, which is not surprising given Bach’s young age, Pachelbel’s known influence on Bach (he was a friend of Bach’s family), and the common practice of quoting other composers.  Original copies of the cantata do not survive, but there exists a copy that Bach made for a 1725 performance.  The piece has been recorded many times by many orchestras with many conductors.   Tonight’s recording is a 2003 recording by the Hilliard Ensemble with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Poppen.

The Galaxy – Celebrating Bach, Part 1

Once again, we embark on my annual musical odyssey that is the celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach.  As I’ve done this every year since shortly after I began broadcasting, and since I’ve written multiple blog entries that explore the wonders of his music, it is hard for me to write much without becoming repetitive.  Yet this music is so glorious that it begs for at least some form of mention.

J.S. Bach's The Art of Fugue, breaks off abrup...

J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, breaks off abruptly during Contrapunctus XIV due to his death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week’s show begins with a work that I often feature as a part of these birthday celebration, his Kunst der Fugue, or Art of Fugue, BWV 1080.  He began the work at some point during the early 1740s, and assembled an fair copy manuscript in 1742 that had 11 fugues and 2 canons.  Another assembly of the work was produced in 1745, often referred to as the Berlin Autograph, which contained 12 fugues and 2 canons.  As Bach was engaged in a process of revising a number of what he likely considered his key works (including the two Well-Tempered Clavier sets, the two surviving Passion works, and his B Minor Mass, among others), he also began a revision of Art of Fugue.  All indications are that this revision was largely completed at the time of his death in 1750, with the exception of a “colossal” unfinished fugue that was based on the four letters of his last name, B-A-C-H (a compositional device that he liked to use from time to time), of which he had completed all but the culminating section.  This revision was published by his heirs in 1751.  While attempts have been made to put together a completed version of this fugue, it is often performed as Bach left it, leaving us to wonder what Bach would have written for a coda had he had the time.  Yet this is but the ending to an already colossal work, an assemblage of movements of increasing complexity, all based upon a simple musical figure expressed in the first movement.  As Christoph Wolff puts it (in his excellent book, Johann Sebastian Bach, The Learned Musician – a great read for anyone with an interest in music history), it serves as “an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.”

English: Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in...

English: Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in Bruges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording also has some individual significance.  This 1953 recording by the late keyboard giant Gustav Leonhardt was the first complete recording of the piece.  The relative clarity of the recording is astonishing for a recording from such an early date.  Although there have been excellent subsequent recordings by some tremendous keyboardists, this remains one of the best available.  This also holds an important place in what was then a growing trend towards historically informed recordings of such important works, and it was also part of a series of early recordings that featured the clavichord in performance.  In that regard, Leonhardt was one of the great innovators, and deserves credit for helping establish the clavichord and its early keyboard cousins as a point of interest among fans of classical music.

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by Johan...

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by Johann Sebastian Bach, opening bars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We then continued with a hearing of a lovely rendition of the infamous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, by another excellent keyboardist, the great organist E. Power Biggs.  There is some question as to whether the work was actually written by Bach.  A number of theories have been suggested, both pro and con as to Bach’s authorship, but the reality is that, as so many of Bach’s pieces have been lost to the ravages of time and circumstance, the truth will never be authoritatively established.  But the question of authorship in no way detracts from the extraordinary beauty of the piece.  Tonight’s recording is a lovely 1973 rendition that was made in a rather unique 4-organ installation in the Freiburg Cathedral in Freiburg, Germany.

We finish the evening with another Leonhardt recording, this time with Leonhardt performing the Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 546.  Like with many of Bach’s organ works (see above), the origins of this set are also not entirely clear, although in this instance Bach’s authorship is not questioned.  It has been suggested that the fugue may have been written during his Weimar period (1708-1717), while the Prelude may have been added after his 1723 arrival at Leipzig.  It is a striking example of how essential Bach’s organ compositions are.

The Galaxy – In Celebration of Reformation Day

English: Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther...

Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther, the initiator of the Protestant Reformation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

October 31 is well known for the common celebration of Halloween.  However, there is an event of great historical importance that also occurred on October 31 that I’ve always found to be of great interest.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote (or at least dated) a letter to Albrecht, then Archbishop of Mainz, in which he included his infamous 95 Theses (a dissertation with the title “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”).  He also is said to have posted the dissertation to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany; this fact is disputed, as there is no eyewitness account of the event, but the posting of such things was standard practice for those wanting to post questions for dispute and debate.  This act was an act of extraordinary courage on Luther’s part, as he easily could have been charged with heresy, and he eventually was excommunicated.  But this simple act had widespread implications – it was the opening salvo of what became the Protestant Reformation.

Not only was Luther a theologian of considerable significance, but he was also a prolific songwriter.  Many of his hymns were used as the basis for musical works, both vocal and instrumental, by a number of composers, and a number of his hymns remain familiar with modern church-goers.  It seems only appropriate that we celebrate this notable occasion with a few of his compositions.

Johann Pachelbel

Johann Pachelbel

When hunting down renditions of Luther’s many hymns, it is easy to start with Johann Sebastian Bach.  However, I do like variety, so I started tonight’s show with a hymn, Christ Tag in Todesbonden, in a setting by Johann Pachelbel, not Bach (although Bach used the same hymn as the basis for one of his early cantatas – Bach’s work may have in fact been modeled on Pachelbel’s).  Pachelbel is believed to have written the work sometime during his Thuringian period (from 1677 to 1690), a timeframe wherein he had contact with the Bach family, and he scored the work for 4 voices and a small instrumental ensemble.  Tonight’s recording is a 2004 recording by La Capella Ducale and the Musica Fiata, under the leadership of Roland Wilson.


A song-book copy of Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott, possibly dating from 1533 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At some point it was inevitable that we were going to have to hear some Bach, given the numerous settings that Bach made of Luther’s hymns.  Luther’s best known song is most likely Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (trans: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God).  Paraphrasing Psalms 46, Luther wrote the song at some point between 1527 and 1529, although some theories have it existing as early as 1521.  While there are a number of theories surrounding its origin, it served as a rallying cry for Protestants for many years, thus resulting in its wide usage by many composers as a basis for their music.  Bach wrote his chorale cantata for the song, BWV 80, between 1727 and 1729 for a Reformation Day observance.  He based it on an earlier cantata that he wrote in Weimar around 1715-16 that is now lost (BWV 80a), expanding it to achieve the current form.  Tonight’s recording is a 1967 recording by the South German Madrigal Choir and Instrumentalists, with the Consortium Musicum, under the direction of Wolfgang Gönnenwein.  The soloists were Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Theo Altmeyer and Hans Sotin.

One of the more interesting things that Bach did with these songs were to use them as the basis for keyboard works.  Bach was a noted performer on the various keyboard instruments, with his fame as an organist spreading far and wide.  He liked to use the original song as a seed for larger works that gloriously elaborated on the original.  Happily, the excellent organist Kevin Bowyer has recorded the complete Bach organ catalog that allows us easy access to these compositions.

Title page of Clavier-Übung III

Bach actually wrote several settings of the hymn Jesus Christus, Unser Heiland (trans: Jesus Christ, Our Savior).  They are found in the Claiver-Ubung III (BWV 688 and 689), a collection of organ works organized according to musical and theological terms that Bach published in 1739, and in the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes (BWV 665 and 666), a collection of pieces that Bach assembled between 1747 and his death in 1750.  The Clavier-Übung III pieces take the form of a trio and fugue, while the two chorale preludes (a more compact musical form) apply different counter-subjects to the cantus firmus.

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist, from the Leipziger Handschrift P 271 (Staatsbibliothek, Berlin)

Also found in the Great Eighteen set of chorale preludes is Komm, Heiliger Geist (Come, Holy Ghost), BWV 651 and 652.  Unlike the more relatively straight-forward settings of Unser Heiland, Bach turned these preludes into a fantasia (the title page of which is shown at right), and then a sarabande (a dance form that was frequently used in music).  We then returned to the Clavier-Übung for Christe, aller Welt Trost (in which Bach inverted the original song’s melody), BWV 670 and 673, before concluding our Bach set with Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 670 and 673, where Bach turns the song into a 2-part invention for two hands.

We close out the show with another composer with Bach connections, Dietrich Buxtehude.  Buxtehude’s Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein (BuxWV 32) uses the final two verses of Luther’s Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein, turning it into a sort of chorale concerto for a solo voice with a small ensemble.  Our recording is a 1997 recording with soprano Emma Kirkby singing with John Holloway and Manfredo Kraemer on violin, Jaap ter Linden on viola da gamba, and Lars Ulrick Mortensen providing bosso continuo on organ.

The Galaxy – a Tribute to Gustav Leonhardt

Tonight we are going to take a few minutes and pay tribute to a great keyboardist, and a musicologist whose research has done much to impact our awareness of how beautiful early classical music truly is, or can be.

Gustav Leonhardt (30 May 1928 – 16 January 2012)

Gustav Leonhardt (30 May 1928 – 16 January 2012) - image obtained from

Gustav Leonhardt was born in Holland on May 30, 1928.  He studied harpsichord with Eduard Miller at Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and made his debut as a harpsichordist in Vienna in 1950.  He worked as Professor of Harpsichord at the Academy of Music in Vienna from 1952 to 1955, and at the Amsterdam Conservatory from 1954 onward.  He began issuing major harpsichord recordings in 1953, with recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Art of Fugue (this being the first ever recording of that work).  Later on he worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt to record the first ever complete set of Bach’s cantatas, an effort which took many years to accomplish.  Among his many awards, he was awarded the Medal of Honour for the Arts and Sciences from the Netherlands in 2009.

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We started the show with a 1973 pipe organ recording of a set of Partitas that Bach based on O Gott, du Frommer Gott (“O God, Thou Righteous God”), BWV 767.  The work is believed to be one of Bach’s early compositions, possibly dating back to 1700, and is an excellent example of Bach’s skill at creating a diverse set of variations upon a simple theme, a concept that Bach would return to repeatedly over the course of his life.  One cannot say that Leonhardt was more masterly at pipe organ or harpsichord – he demonstrated equally great skill on each.  So it is good that we can represent both his harpsichord and pipe organ work, as both were equally important.

Pastel of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach drawn by h...

Pastel of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach drawn by his godson Johann Philipp Bach, currently in the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin (Preußischer Kulturbesitz) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leonhardt recorded a lot of Bach, and most of what I have available to me for tonight’s show consists of Bach.  But we do have some samplings of other composers, including one of the few occasions in which he ventured past the Baroque era in a recording.  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of Johann), a key figure in the post Baroque era, wrote three keyboard concertos in D minor between 1745 and 1748.  Tonight we heard the third of these, Wq 23, in a 1987 recording with Leonhardt conducting an unnamed ensemble from the harpsichord.  The differences between C.P.E. Bach and his father are quite strikingly demonstrated here (J.S. Bach also wrote a keyboard concerto in D minor), yet at the same time the keyboard still rules the day.

Portrait of François Couperin "the Great&...

Portrait of François Couperin "the Great" (nephew of Louis Couperin) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leonhardt put a great deal of effort into researching composers who may have slid into obscurity, and over time demonstrated that, with an effective performance, such obscurity was often undeserved.  One such composer that Leonhardt championed was François Couperin.  Couperin (b. 1668, d. 1753) was greatly admired in his day, and J.S. Bach even had copied one of Couperin’s rondeaus into the notebook that he was assembling for his young wife Anna Magdalena.  In addition to his harpsichord literature, he also wrote a book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (1716) that gives us fundamental information about keyboard performance practice of the day.  This book also contains eight preludes, which we heard in a 1987 recording by Leonhardt.  I am particularly struck by the tone that Leonhardt gets out of his instrument here, a particularly beautiful sound that really frames the music quite well.

Gustav Leonhardt in 1972

Gustav Leonhardt in 1972

Not only was Leonhardt a keyboardist, but from time to time he also conducted, often from his keyboard.  Conducting was not his preferred activity, but there are a number of available recordings that Leonhardt conducted (which includes the C.P.E. Bach we’ve already heard).  In the case of the complete Bach cantata set, conducting was probably a creature of necessity, given the amount of time that was required to record the huge number of cantatas that Bach wrote (at one point Bach was writing a cantata each week, which he did for a total of four year-long cycles that were based on the Lutheran religious calendar).  It is notable that Leonhardt did this in cooperation with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who Leonhardt is known to have thought to play too much to popular sentiment – this probably reflects the challenge involved with performing the huge volume of music involved.  Tonight we heard one of those recordings, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt (“Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes”), BWV 151, in a 1985 recording that sees Leonhardt leading his own Leonhardt Consort.  BWV 151 is actually a Christmas cantata, written for the third day of Christmas, and uses a libretto by Georg Christian Lehms.  So, yes, we may hear this one again come Christmas time.

Frontispiece of Bach's Clavier-Büchlein vor An...

Frontispiece of Bach's Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach, composed in 1722 for his second wife (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In preparing tonight’s show, I stumbled upon a recording of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.  I find this quite startling, as I’ve long wanted to see such a recording, dating back to my teenage years.  This “notebook” was a piano exercise book that J.S. Bach prepared for his young second wife Anna Magdalena, whom he had married in the winter of 1721-22.  She was the daughter of a trumpet player in the Zerbst court, and had been active as a singer prior to her marriage to Bach.  There are two known such notebooks, one dated 1722, and a second that was dated 1725, with the title pages in Anna Magdalena’s hand.  The music was in a mixture of Bach’s and Anna’s handwriting, and include a number of his own works, as well as works by the aforementioned François Couperin and a few by son C.P.E Bach.  There are other works that may be from other writers (which may include Johann Adolph Hasse), but in many instances it is quite challenging to establish actual authorship, as Bach did not intend this for public consumption.  From this compilation, we heard a Polonaise in G minor (BWV anh 119), a March in E flat major (BWV Anh 127), a Menuet in G minor (BWV anh 114/115, which is believed to have been written by Christian Petzold), and “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken” (BWV 518), an aria.  Most of this is done solo by Leonhart, while Elly Ameling performed the aria to Leonhardt’s accompaniment.

Main organ of Saint Thomas Church (Strasbourg)...

Main organ of Saint Thomas Church (Strasbourg), by Johann Andreas Silbermann, 1741 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We closed the show with a 1973 recording of one of J.S. Bach’s more monumental works for pipe organ, his E minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV 548.  Believed to have been written after Bach’s 1723 move to Leipzig, the piece is a fine example of organwerke at its finest, both in terms of its composition and in terms of Leonhardt’s performance.  The composition of the work is interesting – while most preludes tend to be relatively free-wheeling while the fugue is locked into technical precision, BWV 548 is the opposite, with a rather strict prelude that then opens up into a fugue of three sections – an initial fugual section, a toccata-like middle, then a third section that includes a complete recapitulation of the first section.

The Galaxy – Demonstrating the art of the fugue

A portrait which may show Bach in 1750

Bach, possibly from c. 1750 (Image via Wikipedia)

I enjoy my annual celebration of Bach’s birthday (he would be 327 years old on March 21st), if for the simple reason that it gives me a convenient excuse to take a good, hard listen to any one of his numerous masterpieces.  The one risk that I run is the trap of unwittingly playing the same pieces every year.  That is hard to avoid, as Bach wrote some of the most easily appropriate music for the Easter religious holiday, which by happenstance usually falls near the 21st (this year’s observance is three weeks afterwards), and several of his works rank among the truly great musical compositions.  So, in the end, while I do strive for musical variety, I don’t worry about it.  If I choose one week out of the year to play some of the greatest music that the world has ever heard, the greatness of said music remains undiminished.

So it is with that very lack of reservation that I bring out Bach’s Art of Fugue for this year’s birthday show, even though I think I may have done the same last year.  The very brilliance of the work makes the suggestion hard to refuse.  A little background: Bach began the composition of the piece at some point during the early 1740s, although it could possibly have been earlier.  This was a period where Bach was writing pieces that encapsulated everything that he had done up to that point (i.e. The Musical Offering), or revising earlier pieces so that the craft would be to his satisfaction (the two Passion works, Wohltemperierte Clavier, B Minor Mass).  One might say that Bach saw himself as having reached the sunset of his life, and he wanted to have made a grand statement.  He was quite successful, as he was able to produce, either through revisions or through original composition, three truly epic masterpieces within the three years prior to his death: The B Minor Mass, St. Matthew’s Passion, and the Art of Fugue.

The basic subject of Bach's Art of Fugue

The basic subject of Bach's Art of Fugue

While each work has its own special qualities, the Art of Fugue is quite interesting, from a compositional standpoint.  Bach started with a simple musical phrase, seen above, which is stated unequivocally in the first section.  He then ran through all of the different potential ways that he could rephrase and reorganize the statement.  What he did (I use here Wikipedia’s excellent discussion of the compositional methods Bach used):

1. Contrapunctus I, and

2. Contrapunctus II: Simple monothematic 4-voice fugues on main theme, accompanied by a ‘French’ style dotted rhythm motif.

3. Contrapunctus III, and

4. Contrapunctus IV: Simple monothematic 4-voice fugues on inversion of main theme, i.e. the theme is “turned upside down”

Counter-fugues, in which a variation of the main subject is used in both regular and inverted form:

5. Contrapunctus V: Has many stretto entries, as do Contrapuncti VI and VII.

6. Contrapunctus VI, a 4 in Stylo Francese: This adds both forms of the theme in diminution (halving note lengths), with little rising and descending clusters of semiquavers in one voice answered or punctuated by similar groups in demisemiquavers in another, against sustained notes in the accompanying voices. The dotted rhythm, enhanced by these little rising and descending groups, suggests what is called “French style” in Bach’s day, hence the name Stylo Francese.

7. Contrapunctus VII, a 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem: Uses augmented (doubling all note lengths) and diminished versions of the main subject and its inversion.

Double and triple fugues, with two and three subjects respectively:

8. Contrapunctus VIII, a 3: Triple fugue.

9. Contrapunctus IX, a 4 alla Duodecima: Double fugue

Contrapunctus X, a 4 alla Decima: Double fugue.
11. Contrapunctus XI, a 4: Triple fugue.

Mirror fugues, in which the complete score can be inverted without loss of musicality:


Contrapunctus 12 (Image via Wikipedia)

12. Contrapunctus XII, a 4: The rectus (normal) and inversus (upside-down) versions are generally played back to back.

13. Contrapunctus XIII, a 3: The second mirror fuguein 3 voices, also a counter-fugue.

Canons, labeled by interval and technique:

14. Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu: Augmented canon in inverted motion.

15. Canon alla Ottava: Canon at the Octave. The two imitating voices are separated by an octave.

16. Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza: Canon at the tenth, counterpoint at the third.

17. Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta: Canon at the twelfth, counterpoint at the fifth.

An arrangement of Contrapunctus XIII, see below.

18. Fuga a 2 (rectus), and Alio modo Fuga a 2 (inversus)

J.S. Bach's The Art of Fugue, breaks off abrup...

J. S. Bach: unfinished last fugue from "Kunst der Fuge", last page. Source: Deutsche Staatsbibliothek Berlin, Mus. ms. autogr. Bach P 200 (Image via Wikipedia)

Unfinished quadruple fugue:

19. Fuga a 3 Soggetti (Contrapunctus XIV): 4-voice triple, possibly quadruple, fugue, the third subject of which is based on the BACH motif, B♭ – A – C – B♮ (‘H’ in German letter notation).

The aforementioned unfinished quadruple fugue was quite the fitting capstone to the piece.  One must understand how interested Bach was in numerology and musical symbolism – there are a number of pieces where Bach spells out his name musically, such as he did here.  But this is just the beginning of how brilliant the fugue is.  A number of modern musicologists have suggested that Bach may have intended to use a restatement of the original theme as the fourth, missing section.  This may be, and is certainly logical, but we shall never know.

Further Reading

Tonight’s recording, made by Gustav Leonhardt in 1953, is also special in and of itself, as it is the first full recording of the piece on harpsichord.  When he made the recording, there was some argument as to whether it was actually written for harpsichord (the autograph score does not specify).  Now, there is little doubt, but this is probably in some part due to the work of performer/musicologists such as the eminent Leonhardt.  Leonhardt culminates the discussion thusly:

“The Art of Fugue has been written with an extraordinary knowledge of the technical possibilities of ten fingers on a keyboard.  The work does not only show Bach on his immense creative height, but also as the grandiose master of the keyboard.”

English: Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in...

Gustav Leonhardt at the MAfestival in Bruges (Image via Wikipedia)

(postscript: I am utterly aghast to read, during the writing of this blog piece, of the passing of Gustav Leonhardt back in January.  The contribution that Mr. Leonhardt made to music in general, and to our understanding of the brilliance of Bach, cannot possibly be overestimated.  Leonhardt was brilliant on both organ and harpsichord, and he has been the subject of many Galaxy broadcasts over the course of the 16 years that I’ve been broadcasting.  He would have a place in musical history if just for this one recording that we’ve played tonight, but his career went far beyond this one recording.  Mr. Leonhardt, you will be missed.)

Related articles

For our second piece of the evening, we heard a cantata for solo voice, BWV 82, Ich Habe Genug (trans: “I have enough”).  The cantata was written for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and sung on the feast day, February 2, 1727.  This was during his Leipzig period, the height of his career, and came during an extended period of amazing output (at one point he was writing a cantata every week; in this manner he wrote three complete cycles of cantatas to cover the Lutheran calendar).  Tonight’s cantata is unusual, one of a select few that he wrote for solo voice, without other soloists or choir.  It was first written for solo bass (that version in C minor), but in later years Bach revised it for other voice types – for soprano in E minor in 1730-31, and for alto in C minor.  He also revisited the cantata at some point in the 1740s, bringing it close to the form of the original.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Image from

Tonight’s recording, from 2002, also features a special talent, Lorraine Hart Lieberson.  She passed away from cancer a few years later, but left behind some gorgeous samplings of her ability, of which this is one (and a particularly beautiful one at that).  I don’t know if the selection of the specific cantatas was purposeful, but the libretto makes quite a statement for someone experiencing such an illness:

Ich habe genug,
Ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der Frommen,
Auf meine begierigen Arme genommen;
Ich habe genug!
Ich hab ihn erblickt,
Mein Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze gedrückt;
Nun wünsch ich, noch heute mit Freuden
Von hinnen zu scheiden.

I have now enough,
I have now my Savior, the hope of the faithful
Within my desiring embrace now enfolded;
I have now enough!
On him have I gazed,
My faith now hath Jesus impressed on my heart;
I would now, today yet, with gladness
Make hence my departure.

WDBX Opera Overnight – Some appropriate Christmas music

English: First page of the libretto of the Chr...

First page of the libretto to Bach's The Christmas Oratorio (Image via Wikipedia)

We started this week’s edition of WDBX Opera Overnight with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248.  It was assembled for usage during the 1734 Christmas season, and belongs in a group of three works that Bach wrote during that time frame for major feast days, the others being the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11) and the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249).  All three works “parody” (a musicological term for recycling – yep, Bach was a green composer!) earlier works, but the Christmas Oratorio is by far the longest and most complex of the three.

The oratorio was written in six parts, each part intended to be performed on one of the six feast days of the Christmas season:

  • Christmas Day,
  • Dec. 26, which celebrates the Annunciation to the Shepherds
  • Dec 27th for the Adoration of the Shepherds,
  • New Year’s Day for the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus,
  • the first Sunday after New Year’s Day, for the Journey of the Magi
  • Epiphany, January 6th, for the Adoration of the Magi

Given all this, the oratorio ends up being 2 hours 46 minutes in length, making it one of the longer of Bach’s compositions.

Bach frequently recycled older material (especially material originally written for secular purposes) for use in his later material, and the Christmas Oratorio includes portions of four earlier works:

  • Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Hercules at the Crossroads), BWV 213, performed in 1733 for the 11th birthday of Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony.
  • Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!, BWV 214, performed in 1733 for the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony
  • Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen, BWV 215, performed on 5 Oct 1734 for the coronation of the Elector of Saxony, August III, as King of Poland.
  • Part six is believed to come almost entirely from a lost church cantata, BWV 248a.  There is also an aria in Part V, Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?, that is also believed to be from a lost source, while a chorus from Part V is believed to have come from the lost St. Mark’s Passion, BWV 247 (a major loss, given the significance of the two surviving passions as among the greatest of Bach’s compositions).

This method of recycling earlier works was not motivated by the intention of cutting corners, or by a need to churn out volumes of material.  Rather, as the noted musicologist Christoph Wolff wrote, his desire was to rescue good material from single-performance oblivion and to put it to good purpose.  Indeed, his manner of recycling was by no means simple, as he rewrote many sections, transposing into new keys, writing new recitatives and arias, and setting the music into new meters.  Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach, Johann’s son and himself a noted composer, wrote about his father’s recycling method thusly:

“As to the church works of the deceased, it may be mentioned that he worked devoutly, governing himself by the content of the text, without any strange misplacing of the words, and without elaborating on the individual words at the expense of the sense of the whole, as a result of which ridiculous thoughts often appear, such as sometime arouse the admiration of people who claim to be connoisseurs and are not.”  (Wolff 384)

Not only is the oratorio historically important, so is the recording that we are hearing tonight.  It is a 1965 recording by the Munich Bach Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Karl Richter (himself once an organist at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach had once been the kapelmeister during the height of his career), with quite an impressive lineup of German singers:

  • Fritz Wunderlich

    Gundula Janowitz– one of the preeminent sopranos of the ’60s and ’70s, who sang primarily German-language works.

  • Christa Ludwig – one of the major mezzo-sopranos of the middle of the 20th century.  We’ve played several of her recordings on WDBX Opera Overnight already.
  • Fritz Wunderlich – In 1965, Fritz Wunderlich was an up-and-coming tenor with a powerful voice, who was already noted for his recordings of Schubert lieder (his Dichterliebe is highly regarded among lieder recordings).  He had just recorded a well-regarded rendition of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote with Karl Böhm, and was even branching out into some minor Wagner roles.  But he died on 17 September 1966, just short of his 36th birthday, after falling down a flight of stairs.  I think that, had this not happened, he might have eventually become one of the great German tenors of the 20th century.  He definitely had the voice, but simply had not learned the full repertoire yet.  Even so, a 2008 poll in BBC Music Magazine ranked him 4th among the greatest tenors of all time.  Pretty good for one with such little recorded evidence.
  • Franz Crass – a bass, known for his Wagnerian roles and his performances in various Mozartean roles.

Heinrich Schütz

After Bach, we heard Heinrich Schütz’s telling of the Christmas Story, titled Weihnachtshistorie.  Schütz, who was born in 1585 and died in 1672, is considered one of the major German composers of the early Baroque era, a primary link between Giovanni Gabrielli, Claudio Monteverdi (both of whom he studied with) and Bach.  He is believed to have written the first German opera (Daphne, which is now lost, as is much of what Schütz is believed to have written; Schütz did not publish most of his work).  However, his surviving work is almost entirely religious in nature, and there are no surviving works that are purely instrumental, even though he is said to have been a fine organist who helped establish the North German organ tradition from which came Bach and his immediate predecessor Dietrich Buxtehude.

Tonight’s recording is a 1989 Harmonia Mundi recording, with the Concerto Vocale under the baton of René Jacobs, and soloists Martin Hummel, Maria Cristina Kiehr, Susanne Norin, Hanne Mari Orbaek, Susanne Ryden, Andreas Scholl, Akira Tachikawa, Gerd Turk, Matthias Widmaier, Werner Gura, Andreas Lebeda, Ulrich Messthaler, and Franz-Joseph Selig.

Hector Berlioz, c. 1850

After Schütz, we heard a work by Hector Berlioz with a most interesting pedigree.  His L’Enfance du Christ is an oratorio that was written, one section at a time, between 1850 and 1853.  He started with an organ piece, L’adieu des bergers (The Shepherds’ Farewell), which he turned into a choral piece.  Berlioz premiered the chorus under a nom de guerre in 1850 (directing it himself, as he was so influential a conductor that he is considered to have influenced an entire tradition of French conductors that continues today).  Berlioz was pleased to find that people who generally hated his music liked the piece, with one comment being “Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and charming as this little piece…”  He then added a piece for tenor, Le repos de la sainte famille (The Repose of the Holy Family), and preceded both movements with an overture to make a piece he called La fuite en Egypte.  This was then published in 1852, and performed in 1853.  He was encouraged by friends to expand it even further, which he did by adding L’arrivée à Sais (The Arrival at Sais), which included solo parts for Mary and Joseph.  Thinking that the result was unbalanced, he then added a section prior to the existing music, Le songe d’Hérode (Herod’s Dream).  So, over a period of three years, he took a simple organ piece and expanded it, piece by piece, into an oratorio that provides an hour and a half worth of music.

It is interesting to note that, while writing music such as this, Berlioz was in fact an atheist.  He may have been Catholic at one point in time, and he held a lifelong admiration for Catholic church music (an influence that is quite evident in this work).  But by 1850 he had lapsed, and was referring to himself as an atheist.

Tonight’s recording is from 1987, and features Anne Sophie von Otter, Gilles Cachemaille, Jose Van Dam, Jules Bastin, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Rene Schirrer, Michel Fockenoy, Phillippe Bernold, Gilles Cottin, Chantal Mathieu, with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre de L’Opera de Lyon, with John Elliot Gardiner conducting.