Improvisation: Prelude on Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland—Johann Sebastian Bach BWV 599, from the Orgelbüchlein (1685–1750)
Prelude and Fugue in d, BWV 539—Bach
Improvisation: Chorale Fantasy on Vom Himmel hoch, da kom’ ich her
In dulci jubilo, BWV 729—(Kirnberger) Bach
Improvisation: Dance Suite on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Improvisation: Chorale Prelude on O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden
Fantasia and Fugue in a, BWV 904—Bach
Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, BWV 721—Bach
Improvisation: Fantasia on Christ lag in Todesbanden
Improvisation: Fugue on Jesus, meine Zuversicht
Improvisation: Theme and Variations on Pentecost Baptism
Fantasia super Komm, Heiliger Geist, BWV 651—Bach from the Leipzig Chorales
Total Time: 56:22
Improvisation, or inventing music at the moment, was one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s trademarks. His pupils and biographers attested to his astonishing skills in improvisation. The term “invention” is a suitable description of improvisation because invention implies that the inventor creates something based on her knowledge of and experience in that field. For many, improvisation has been associated with a mysterious gift that drops from the sky upon a few people and misses others, like the rapture-in-reverse. In reality, for those who learned to play repertoire first, improvising is akin to learning a foreign language: one must study grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. The only way to master the language of improvisation is to practice it regularly by reading, speaking, listening, and writing (composing). For Bach and most musicians of his time, improvisation was assimilated in his earliest musical training, along with composition, instrument tuning and maintenance, technique, reading music, and performing in ensembles.
This CD represents an application of my book, Bach and the Art of Improvisation. Select compositions of J. S. Bach, and improvisations based on ideas found in Bach’s works and stemming from genres he most commonly used, center around the liturgical year. C. P. E. Bach stated that Bach’s students “had to begin their studies by learning pure four-part thorough bass. From this he went to chorales . . .” (ed. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, rev. Christoph Wolff, The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents). The use of chorales played an enormous role in Bach’s pedagogy, in his employment in various Lutheran churches, and in many of his cantatas and organ works. In fact, the chorales may have even influenced his free and non cantus firmus-based works.
Several authors note similarities between Bach fugue subjects and German chorales. For instance, William Renwick, in his book Analyzing Fugue: A Schenkerian Approach, observes that Fugue 4 in C# minor, WTC I, resembles “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” a German chorale derived from “Veni redemptor gentium.” Pamela Poulin notes in her accompanying introduction to Bach’s Precepts and Principles for Playing the Thorough-Bass or Accompanying in
Four Parts that the subjects of two of Bach’s fugue exercises in the Vorschriften und Grundsätze, 1738, compare to the Orgelbüchlein fugue subjects of “Christum wir sollen loben schon” and “Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott.” Naturally, Bach, a Lutheran church musician, composed a number of fugues based on chorale tunes; for instance, for the third part of the Clavierübung. Were psalm tones and chorale tunes so integrated into his ear and musical practice that he, either deliberately or inadvertently, used them as generating forces for his compositions?
Improvisation: Prelude on “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599
Prelude and Fugue in d, BWV 539
Many of Bach’s preludes open with extended figuration or pedal solos based on the tonic triad. The tune “Wachet Auf,” like Psalm tone V, opens with a tonic triad, which makes it ideally suited to prelude treatment. As I practiced various ideas for inventing a prelude based on “Wachet Auf,” I began to wonder whether Bach derived his Prelude in C, BWV 531, from this tune and Psalm tone V.
“Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Savior of the Nations, Come”) is designated for the first Sunday in Advent. Bach set this chorale as the first piece in his Orgelbüchlein, which is ordered according to the liturgical year. Interestingly, the opening figure of a descending leap followed by an ascending step is the same pattern found in the last phrase of “Wachet Auf.” In musical rhetorical terms, this pattern has been associated with the cross.
Bach adapted his organ Fugue in d, BWV 539, from his violin sonata, BWV 1001. The repeated note subject is punctuated with chords, or double stops for the violin, and rests, giving the fugue a breathing quality.
Improvisation: Chorale Fantasia on “Vom Himmel hoch, da kom’ ich her”
In dulci jubilo, BWV 729
Bach excavated the incredibly fertile compositional material contained in the chorale tune, “Vom Himmel hoch,” in his Canonic Variations on the same tune. Bach’s free fantasias are almost exclusively composed in minor keys. However, he set “Komm, Heiliger Geist,” featured at the conclusion of this CD, as a chorale fantasia in a major key. In “Komm, Heiliger Geist,” Bach placed the cantus firmus in long note values in the pedal and composed perpetual sixteenth-note patterns in the manuals. In the improvisation, I transfer Bach’s chorale fantasia blueprint to “Vom Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”). Bach's setting of "In dulci jubilo," BWV 729, with its dense chords, bold harmonies, and jubilant improvisatory interludes, contrasts greatly with his sublime Orgelbüchlein setting of the same chorale.
Improvisation: Dance Suite of “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”
Although he was not a court musician, Bach composed six French suites, six English suites, and the Clavierübung I partitas. In addition, he set many chorales to dance rhythms and set several of his fugues as gigues.
An allemande is a French word for a German dance. The allemande usually serves as a prelude to the suite and features duple meter and broken chords, called stile brisé. The courante is in triple meter and stems from the same root as the English word “current,” as in a flowing water stream. The sarabande most likely has Spanish origins, and was often originally played on the lute or guitar, or on the harpsichord lute stop. The sarabande is in triple meter, with a characteristic emphasis on the second beat of approximately every other measure. The minuet is in a quick triple meter and the gigue features a compound meter or triplets. The gigue is patterned after Bach’s Gigue from Partita I from Clavierübung I.
Improvisation: Chorale Prelude on “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”
Bach used the tune “O Haupt voll Blut undWunden” as a recurring chorale in his St. Matthew Passion. Although he did not set this tune in his Orgelbüchlein, the tune is well-suited to his succinct chorale prelude treatment in that collection.
Improvisation: Fantasia on “Christ lag in Todesbanden”
Improvisation: Fugue on “Jesus, meine Zuversicht”
“Christ lag in Todesbanden” is a text filled with the contrasts of death and life. Of all of the free works of Bach and his contemporaries, fantasias bear the most contrasts in style and abrupt changes in the middle of the pieces. As mentioned above, Bach’s fantasias are typically in a minor mode. The melodic contour and mode of “Christ lag in Todesbanden” allow for improvisational treatment with influences derived from Bach’s Fantasia in g, BWV 542.
The first phrase of the tune “Jesus, meine Zuversicht” contains some intervals common to Bach fugues. Typically, when Bach paired a fugue with a fantasia, the concluding portion of the fugue returned to fantasia-like elements as it does here.
Theme and Variations on Pentecost Baptism
Fantasia super “Komm, Heiliger Geist,” BWV 651
I composed a hymn entitled "Pentecost Baptism" for my son Anders' baptism on Pentecost, 2003. The variations here are improvisations on that hymn tune.
The text of “Komm, Heiliger Geist” includes images of God the Holy Spirit as light and fire. Bach set the tune in the pedal with rushing wind-type swirls of sixteenth notes in the manuals.