2013-02-03 Notes from the Bench

“Praeludium in C Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach
A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

Today’s postlude is the first movement of “Praeludium et Fuga in C Major” (Prelude and Fugue) BWV 547 by Johann Sebastian Bach, a free organ work written while he was working in Leipzig which is among the greatest of his compositions for the instrument.  These late organ works contain a level of depth and complexity rarely encountered in his earlier organ works.

BWV 547 has thematic similarities with the opening chorus of Cantata No. 65, “Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen” (They will all come forth out of Sheba) which was composed and first performed for Epiphany in 1724.  The pastoral effect created by the lilting triple meter (9/8) and the parallel motion of motives in thirds and sixths that is set over the quasi-ostinato bass figure of the pedal part enhance the associations of BWV 547 with Christmastide or Epiphany-tide.  This is a joyous, festive work, among the happiest of Bach’s organ works.

While Bach served as the Kantor for the Thomaskirche and Thomasschule in Leipzig from 1723-1750, his primary responsibilities did not include playing the organ for worship services.  However, he was frequently called upon to test new organs and perform inaugural recitals.  BWV 547 was likely written for such an occasion.  This work is among the last of Bach’s free organ works which were written between 1730 and 1740.  Some scholars point to the year 1744 as the date of BWV 547’s composition.  As is the case with many of Bach’s organ works, very few autograph manuscripts survive and many of his organ works are known to us from copies made by various people.

On a more academic level, BWV 547 demonstrates Bach’s mastery of contrapuntal writing.  All thematic material is derived from the principal section that opens with a chain of four motives, a short, recurring musical idea.  Each motive has distinct rhythmic and melodic characteristics that allow it to stand apart from the other motives within the context of the counterpoint.  This motivic material is highly concentrated throughout this work and each measure has a direct relationship to the opening motives.  This prelude has been described as a “motive fantasia” because of the density of its motivic development.

An unusual aspect of this prelude is the meter, 9/8 and often referred to as the “9/8.”  Bach, a deeply religious person, often incorporated subtle religious symbolism in his works that point to some aspect of his faith, among them signs of the cross, symbols of lamentation, and the crown of Christ.  9/8 meter is organized as three groups of three eighth notes, and has been viewed as a representation the Holy Trinity.  Upon the completion of a work, Bach frequently wrote a Latin phrase meaning, “Glory to God alone”…

Soli Deo gloria

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