2014-01-12 Notes from the Bench

“Praeludium in C Major” (BWV 547) by Johann Sebastian Bach

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate

This weekend marks the beginning of the annual Arizona Bach Festival; a series of concert events featuring the works of one of the greatest composers who is among the most influential musical geniuses of all time. The types of works performed during this year’s events include works for keyboard, small instrumental ensemble, concertos, cantatas, and, of course, organ masterpieces. All Saints’ will host two of the concert events for this year’s festival. More information may be found in the narthex or online at arizonabachfestival.org. For today’s postlude, I thought it would be fitting to play Bach’s “Praeludium in C Major” (BWV 547), one of his great organ works.

BWV 547 was composed while Bach served as the Kantor for the Thomaskirche and Thomasschule in Leipzig from 1723-1750. Although his primary responsibilities did not include playing the organ for worship services, he was frequently called upon to test new organs and perform inaugural recitals. This work was likely written for such as occasion. There are thematic similarities between BWV 547 and 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 the feast of Epiphany in 1724. As with all of Bach’s music, BWV 547 demonstrates his mastery of contrapuntal writing techniques. 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.

The meter, 9/8, is somewhat unusual for compositions of this period, and this prelude is 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 eighth-notes (triple-triple meter), and has been viewed as a representation of the Holy Trinity. The pastoral effect created by the lilting triple meter 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.

Bach frequently inscribed on the last page of his works the Latin phrase “Soli Deo Gloria” (Glory to God alone), a testament of his faith and deep trust in God.

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