Official Release: 17 September 2021
“Dem Höchsten Gott allein zu ehren, dem nächsten draus sich zu belehren“: “To the glory of God on high, and to instruct men thereby”. So wrote Johann Sebastian Bach at the beginning of this collection, which was actually conceived as a much more extensive project. Later the composer decided (probably deliberately) to stop after just 45 out of the 164 Chorale Preludes he had planned for his “little organ book” on whose pages he had already written all the Chorale titles following the order of the Church year. Incidentally, 45 corresponds to the number of the Old Testament books, whilst 27 – the number of pieces collected in the Third Part of the Klavier Übung – corresponds to the books of the New Testament. In the initial dedication, Bach’s programme already appears: in every piece, a theological commentary to the Chorales’ lyrics is found, as well as an extraordinary knowledge displayed in the varied ways in which the cantus firmus is elaborated. However, Bach speaks to us also per speculum et in aenigmate, and he delegates to the performer the analysis of the content which is expressed (or hidden) in the form of symbols, numbers, and self-citations.
It is worthwhile to analyze some pieces in the collection, chosen among those which can best exemplify the marvellous architectural skill which never diminishes the pure beauty of music. The first piece in the collection, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 599 (Come, o Saviour of the Gentiles) opens with a “figured” arpeggio, which lets us foretell which figuration will recur most. It is a quadruplet of sixteenth-notes, added by Bach after having already written the second note of the Chorale’s tune (it consists in the rhythmicized and Germanized version of the Gregorian Veni redemptor gentium). It is the figure of the cross: if one unites the first to the third note, and the second to the fourth, one obtains the Greek letter χ, cross-shaped and constituting the initial of Christ’s name. This figuration appears 14 times throughout the piece; if one assigns values to the alphabet’s letters, 14 results from the sum of B (2), A (1), C (3) and H (8). The presence of such a “cross” in an Advent Chorale prefigures the death Christ will undergo; the presence of the composer’s name hidden in it may express, perhaps, the fact that Christ comes for every human being, individually.
Also in the second piece, Gott, durch deine Güte (or Gottes Sohn ist kommen) BWV 600 (God, through your goodness or God’s Son has come) we can find interesting stimuli for reflection. This is one of the few pieces by Bach which have indications for registration. For the manuals there is the Principal 8 Fuss, whilst for the Pedal the Trompete 8 Fuss is indicated. The Chorale displays a canon at the octave between Soprano and Tenor (the latter part is played by the Pedal), illustrating how Christ came to take us with him. Moreover, one should observe that, when Bach entrusts a cantus firmus to the Tenor, he nearly always does so because, in the lyrics, Christ is mentioned as a mediator between God and humankind (the voice of Tenor is found between Bass and Alto). At b. 16, some editions add a natural sign on the first B in the Alto part, whilst actually it is a B-flat in the autograph. If one leaves that note as it is precisely at that point, the notes forming the German notation B (B-flat), A, C, H (B natural) are found.
Among the Christmastide Chorales the most complex is In dulci jubilo BWV 608 in A major, a key frequently linked to Christmas. Within the piece, a canon develops both between Soprano and Tenor and between Alto and Bass. The presence of duplets against triplets raised contrasting opinions regarding the performance of the former: should they be played as they are written or should they be regularized on the basis of the triplets? The answer may be found by considering the piece’s symbology. The piece numbers 37 bars. This number results from the letters composing Christ’s monogram ICHR (also in the B-minor Fugue BWV 544, at b. 37, one can find both a modulation to A major and a change in the expressive style, introduced by a quotation from a Christmas Chorale!). Moreover, one could point out that A major is frequently connected with the compresence of two and three: The Fugue from the Prelude and Fugue in A major BWV 536 has a rhythmical structure which can be interpreted both in two and in three, and in the Fugue in A major BWV 864 from Book One of the Well-Tempred Clavier there is an alternation of accents every three quavers (it is in 12/8) and every two (a kind of hemiola). Therefore, two above three might express the presence, in the same person, of the divine element (three, the perfection) and of the human one (two, the imperfection, the difference).
A splendid contrasting diptych is represented by the Chorale Preludes for the closing of a year and for the beginning of a new one. Das alte Jahr vergangen ist BWV 614 (The Old year has gone) expresses the load of suffering, grief and worries of the closing year; this explains why the accompaniment to the tune, adorned in an extremely expressive and melancholic fashion, is made of the chromatic tetrachord, in turn derived from a fragment of four diatonic notes from the Chorale tune. The piece is constituted by 12 bars, just as the months of the year; and similar to each month, also in every bar a grief is present (a chromaticism, a particularly intense chord, a figuration with a penetrating expressivity). In dir ist Freude BWV 615 (In Thee is joy) is instead a burst of sincere happiness for the newborn year. The fashion in which the Chorale tune is treated in this piece is very free. The first four notes of the Chorale are heard 14 times, repeatedly proposed by each one of the four voices, similar to a joyful pealing of bells, before the entrance of the second fragment of the cantus firmus. The Pedal reinforces the feeling of great joy, presenting a typical figuration with an ostinato character; the figure coming after a just-happened statement marks the fourteenth entrance. The first twelve bars do not contain added alterations with respect to those in the key signature: this expresses the wish that the twelve months which have just begun will bring no pain or suffering.
Approximately halfway through the collection shines the majestic beauty of the Passion Chorale O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß BWV 622 (O Man, bewail thy sin so great). The preceding Chorale ended on a chord of E major; possibly with the intention of hinting at a bow before mystery, Bach chose the key of E-flat for this Chorale Prelude. It is the most important piece in the entire collection, both for its length and for its expressive profundity. The Chorale’s lyrics, by Sebal Heyden, consist in a narrative of Christ’s life; the music frequently follows their meaning, with an expressivity which cannot be commented in words. Bach wrote, at the piece’s beginning, Adagio assai; at the end, however, in correspondence of an unheard-of modulation, he prescribes Adagissimo, perhaps to point out the eternal value of the word “lengthily” (on the cross).
It is a feeling of serenity, instead, the one which pervades Alle Menschen müßen sterben BWV 643 (All Men must die), in which the cross-figuration is the leitmotiv, almost wishing for the natural acceptance of the ultimate doom of our life on earth. The cross-figuration appears in the Pedal part 29 times: J+S+B.
The collection closes with an aphoristic reflection on the vanity of human affairs. The emptiness of the octave leaps in the Pedal part of Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig BWV 644 (O, how empty, o, how fleeting) may perhaps mirror the idea of uselessness, whilst the flowing sixteenth-note-scales portray the idea of fleetingness, together with the last chord which seems almost to disappear into nothingness. In the German lyrics of this Chorale a fascinating allegory is found: human life (Leben) is likened to fog (Nebel, its palindrome), vanishing just as happens to music at the end of this extraordinary collection.
Liner notes © Enrico Viccardi
Translation: Chiara Bertoglio
Enrico Viccardi: Born in 1961, He received his diploma in Organ and organ Composition with first-class standing from the Conservatory of Piacenza, studying under Giuseppina Perotti. He then perfected his skills with Michael Radulescu at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna. He has also attended numerous Master classes with qualified teacher (E.Fadini, C.Tilney, J.Langlais, D.Roth), especially those held by L.F.Tagliavini at the Italian Music Academy for Organ in Pistoia. His concert performances has taken him to numerous important cities in Italy and abroad (Portugal, Spain, Andorra, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Sweden, Great Britain, Kazakhstan, Uruguay) with a special interest in using and promoting the rich patrimony of historical instruments. He has also worked as a continuo player with prestigious ensembles such as the Italian Swiss Radio Choir, the Ensemble Vanitas, the Sonatori of Gioiosa Marca with conductors such as René Clemencic, Fasolis Diego, Giuliano Carmignola. He has recorded CDs for the labels Bottega Discantica, Divox Antiqua and Dynamics. For the label Fugatto has recorded different CDs, a DVD devoted to organ masterworks of J.S.Bach and began the project of recording in CD of the complete organ works by J.S.Bach on italian ancient and modern instruments (both awarded with five stars by the magazine Musica). Recent is the recording of the Art of the Fugue on the Mascioni organ in Giubiasco for the Radio of Italian Switzerland. He recorded for the dutch label Brilliant the organ works by Tarquinio Merula on the Chiappani Organ (1647) of Mezzana Casati (LO, Italy) and the complete works for organ and harpsichord by Bernardo Storace as well. A CD with compositions by Frescobaldi recorded on the Antegnati (1580)/Giani (2015) organ in the monastery of San Pietro in Lamosa in Provaglio d'Iseo (BS) appeared recently. He has held master classes in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Sweden and Kazachstan. He teaches organ at the Marc’Antonio Ingegneri association in Cremona; artistic director of the Organ Autumn in the Province of Lodi and of the festival “Percorsi d'Organo in Provincia di Como”, is president of the music association Accademia Maestro Raro in Casalpusterlengo. He teaches Organ and organ Composition at the Conservatory of Parma.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.