In the Obituary for his father, C. P. E. Bach writes: “While a student in Lüneburg, my father had the opportunity to listen to a band kept by the Duke of Celle, consisting for the most part of Frenchmen; thus he acquired a thorough grounding in the French taste, which in those regions was something quite new...” The court of Celle was a mini-Versailles, cultivated under the direction of Eleanor Desmier díOlbreuze, a noblewoman of French birth who became duchess in 1675. DíOlbreuze was especially fond of dancing, and it is through the work of French dancing masters working abroad that Germans were first taught to imitate French according to the lofty aesthetics developed by artists in the employ of Louis XIV. The prevailing infatuation with the French style is summed up by Christian Thomasius in his Von Nachahmung der Französen of 1687: “French clothes, French food, French furniture, French customs, French sins, French illnesses are generally in vogue.”
French music and the French manner of playing might also be included in this list. The French overture triumphed in Germany with the compositions of Georg Muffat (c.1653-1704), Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (?c.1670-1746) and Johann Sigismund Kusser (Cousser) (c.1660-1727), all of whom had studied under Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court of Louis XIV. Muffat describes aspects of the French styles of composition and performance in the Prefaces to his Florilegium primum and secundum; Fischer includes an explanatory table of ornaments in his Musikalisches Blumen-Büschlein of 1699, a collections of harpsichord suites based on French dance forms; and Kusser published six theatrical overtures entitled Composition de musique suivant La méthode française. These efforts to propagate French playing styles in the generation before Bach appear to have been effective: both Mattheson and Marpurg express their admiration for French performance practice, and even Forkel, who is frequently scathing in his criticism of French music and musicians, speaks of the French composers whom Bach studied as “masters of harmony and fugue.”
C. P. E. Bach may have provided a source for Forkel’s comment, for he writes in the Obituary that among the music studied and loved by his father were works by “several good Frenchmen.” Although he does not specify the names of these composers, there is evidence to help us determine who they were. Bach copied music by Grigny, d’Anglebert and Dieupart, and his Weimar colleagues J. G. Walther and J. T. Krebs copied much French music, including pieces by Dandrieu, d’Anglebert, Clérambault, Dieupart, Lebègue, Nivers, Laroux, and Marchand. The near-encounter of Bach with Marchand suggests that he knew his music, while his arrangement for organ of a movement from Les Nations attests to his knowledge of Couperin. Bach’s interest in the forms of French music is especially evident in his harpsichord suites, BWV 806-817, and overtures BWV 820 (assuming its authenticity), 822 and 831. The organ works do not demonstrate such obvious dependence on French forms, although certain textures recall those adopted by the French.
The Classical French organ inspired composers to develop musical styles and tessituras that featured specific timbres. This symbiotic link between tone color and music is stressed in the nomenclature of French pieces, where the title of each work is determined by either the range of a solo voice played on a specific stop or group of stops (e.g. Récit de Cromorne, Basse de Trompette, Tierce en Taille), or to choruses of stops (e.g. Grand Plein Jeu, Petit Plein Jeu), often alternating in contrasting sections (Dialogue de Flûtes, Offertoire sur les Grands Jeux). The organs of Thuringia upon which Bach played did not, of course, possess the characteristic timbres of the French organ, and the Protestant liturgy had no use for the short pieces composed by the French for alternatim practice during the Catholic Mass. Nevertheless, Bach gained much from studying French music, and hints of this influence reside in his organ works.
This recording examines elements of the French style in Bach’s organ music, including performances of Bach alongside music by the French composers he admired. Such a program makes enormous demands on an organ, as it requires sounds typical of German baroque instruments in tandem with the rich cornets and vibrant reeds that characterize the French style. One of the few places in the world where these varied timbres converge in one organ is Stanford University’s Memorial Church, where Charles Fisk incorporated salient features of different historical styles into one instrument, creating a historically-informed eclecticism. This instrument, completed in 1984, has become famous for its two tuning systems, a modified mean-tone temperament that is generally well suited to French Classical music and a well-temperament that is appropriate for Bach. In addition, the Stanford Fisk contains reeds that are voiced according to both German and French traditions, adding another vital aspect of versatility in accommodating both repertoires.
The design of the Stanford organ betrays its north-German bias, with separate cases for the four manual divisions following the baroque Werkprinzip. The Great, or Werk, in the large central portion of the case, contains a 16' plenum, with 16' and 8' German reeds that blend well with the principals and mixtures. In addition, this division also boasts a Trompette 8, Clairon 4, and Cornet, stops that vividly capture the fiery Grands Jeux of the French classical organ. In true Werkprinzip fashion, the Stanford Rückpositiv is an 8' counterpart to the Great plenum; its case is divided at either side of the console, like that of the Fritzsche organ depicted in an engraving of Heinrich Schütz conducting antiphonal choirs in Dresden. The Cromorne on this manual was scaled according to Dom Bédos, and it speaks directly into the room with an immediacy that was cherished by the French. The divided case gives its name to the third manual of the Stanford Fisk, the Seiten-(Sides) werk, located in small towers at either side of the Great case. With its silky Cornet and nasal Vox humana, this section of the organ also contributes to the successful rendering of French organ music. The Pedal division contains impressive German reeds: a Contra Posaune 32 and a Posaune 16 with wooden resonators, like the instrument that Bach tested with Gottfried Silbermann at Naumburg in 1746. The Pedal has few independent stops because of space restrictions in the organ gallery, but this aspect of design is in accord with French classical organs, where often the Pedal had only a Trompette 8 and a Flute 8.
The opening track, the Prelude in E-flat Major, BWV 552, is the first piece in Bach’s earliest publication of organ music, the Clavier Übung, Part III, of 1739. While not strictly speaking a French Overture, the Prelude features elements of the style, with its dotted rhythms, suspension chords, and the contrast of majestic homophonic sections with lighter, imitative textures. While the French Overture has a simple bipartite structure, Bach’s Prelude uses the dotted rhythms, galant echo effects and contrapuntal writing to create a form based on three, perhaps symbolizing the Holy Trinity, according to the following plan: A1, B1, A2, C1, A3, B2, C2, A4.
The elegant Fantasy in c minor, BWV 562, demonstrates Bach at his most French, with beautifully ornamented melodies and graceful slurs suggesting the vocal style of Lully’s operas. The five-part texture, with two voices in each hand and one in the pedal, may have been adopted by Bach following his study of Nicolas de Grigny’s Premier Livre d’Orgue (Paris, 1699). Bach made a complete copy of this source (now Mus. HS 1538 of the Stadt und Universitäts Bibliothek in Frankfurt-am-Main), which attests to the detailed attention he gave to Grigny’s compositional style. The autograph copy of the work (P490) makes explicit Bach’s ornamentation, so there is no question of these having been inserted at a later date by a copyist fond of French agréments.
The following three tracks are excerpts from the Organ Mass in Grigny’s publication, which contained organ verses to be played in alternation with chanted sections of the Mass and hymns for the principal feasts of the liturgical year. The Fugue à 5 resembles the Bach Fantasy in its distribution of voices, slow duple meter, and lyrical use of agréments. The Tierce en taille, with its intricate tenor line highlighted by the pungent sound of the Jeu de Tierce, is the most sophisticated and compelling piece ever written in the genre. Grigny’s Offertoire sur les grands jeux is likewise an apogee in composing for the reed choruses. In typical fashion, it consists of three main sections, opening with an expressive and heavily ornamented melody that is treated in dialogue between the upper (dessus) and lower (basse) registers. The brief central section features short phrases on the cornet alternating with echoes, and this leads into an expansive conclusion featuring rapid exchanges between the Grand-Orgue and Positif reeds and the Cornet of the Récit (Seitenwerk on the Stanford Fisk).
Bach’s acquaintance with the instrumental music of François Couperin is confirmed by his Trio in F Major, an arrangement for organ of section 4 of L'Impériale from Couperin’s Troisième Ordre for two violins and continuo (Paris, 1726). The trio texture adapts well to the resources of a two-manual organ with pedal, and to preserve a sense of the original instrumentation, I have used only 8-foot registers, flutes and quintadenas that were typical of 18th-century Thuringian organs.
Couperin’s Messe des Paroisses may be considered the essence of the seventeenth-century French Organ Mass. Each movement evokes a distinct Affekt through its combination of timbres, meter and tempo. Composed in 1690, when Couperin was a young man, his Mass settings suggest the vigor and originality with which he accompanied the liturgy at Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position that he held for most of his life. In his l’Art de toucher le clavecin, Couperin writes that one must reveal the inner spirit, or “cadence,” of his music through a judicious control of rhythm and articulation.
The Tierce en taille might have inspired the opening seven bars of Bach’s c-minor Fantasy, BWV 537, where the entrance of the solo tenor line is anticipated in the upper voices over a pedal point. Another similarity is the 6/4 meter, which was often adopted by French composers for the Tierce en taille, as heard in the Grigny example above (Track 4). The spacing of the five-voice texture with two voices in each hand and one in the pedal might also suggest French influence, but the lively repeated notes of the fugue subject are reminiscent of the Italian canzona.
No exploration of Bach and the French style would be complete without a reference to Louis Marchand, the famous French organist who agreed to engage in a musical contest with Bach in Dresden. The time and place were set, but Marchand evidently had cold feet and left Dresden very early in the morning of that same day by a special coach. Bach’s first biographer, Forkel, betrays his nationalistic bias when he speculates that Marchand’s muzettes for Christmas Eve would have been no match for the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach. The following excerpts from Marchand’s organ works prove him to be a master of the keyboard, which he treats with verve and sensitivity. As for complexity, his Quatuor requires the organist to play four voices, each on a different sound, so that one hand is playing on two keyboards simultaneously!
Bach's Fantasy in G Major makes reference to the French style in several ways. The French title, Pièce d’orgue, is given to it in several sources and in bar 94, there is a low Bb pedal note that would have been found only in the long compass “en ravalement” of French organs. (I have tried to “create” this note on the Stanford Fisk with a quick stop change to the 32' on that note only.) The work has a middle section in five voices with harmonic progressions of seventh and ninth chords, similar to the flowing pulse of suspensions and resolutions in the French Plein jeu. The concluding section of the Fantasy expands the use of dissonance with broken acciaccatura chords, where short notes are added outside the consonant notes of each chord. Although there existed French, Italian and German traditions of acciaccatura chords on the harpsichord, Bach may have been influenced by d’Anglebert’s recommendations for the realization of such chords in his small treatise on continuo accompaniment (Pièces de clavecin, Paris, 1689).
Of course, it is misleading to isolate specific features in a piece to show a particular aspect of influence on Bach’s compositional style. It is the synthesis of many ideas that makes his organ music so original and timeless. This recording serves merely to acknowledge Bach’s debt to “several good Frenchmen” and to revel in the elegance and bon goût that they brought to writing for the organ.