J.S. Bach: Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582
Sonata No. 6 in G major for Organ, BWV 530
The Passacaglia in C minor (BWV 582) stands as an unusual entry in the vast catalogue of organ compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). It is the only one of his works to bear the title “Passacaglia,” although that form—a set of variations based on an incessantly repeating short theme—stands nonetheless at the foundation of a number of his compositions in various genres. It is an astonishing piece, and it displays such mastery in every detail of its composition that it is hard to reconcile with the fact that it is among Bach’s earliest compositions. Between about 1708 and 1713 the composer’s elder brother Johann Christoph copied it out into the so-called Andreas Bach Book, a volume of keyboard works by various composers assembled over several years by the Bach family.
Bach’s Passacaglia is built on a melody that is eight measures long. Sometimes the eight-bar melody is heard in the bass, sometimes in the treble, sometimes in the midst of a busy texture, but it is always present as Bach works his way through twenty variations following the initial, unadorned presentation of the theme. Bach achieves an extraordinary sense of unity and momentum in this set, partly by dovetailing the rhythmic or decorative details of contiguous variations. Generations of analysts have pondered the structure of this particular passacaglia, in which one senses such subtlety that it is tempting to agree with the assessment of the Bach authority Hermann Keller, writing in 1948: “A number of scholars have tried to interpret the design of Bach’s twenty variations; yet its concealed laws cannot be rationally grasped!” An interesting analysis is proposed by Christoph Wolff, a kingpin of modern Bach scholarship, who hears the variations as assembled into groups defined by shared characteristics, groups that consist progressively of the first two variations, then the next three, then four, then two, four, three, two—the whole therefore adding up to a mirror structure centering on the two variations at the center (Variations Ten and Eleven), which are themselves linked in double counterpoint. But the end of the Passacaglia is not the last we hear of the eight-bar melody. Bach goes on to employ it as the principal subject of the ensuing four-part fugue (or “thema fugatum,” as he termed it), which is worked out in masterly fashion, including even a spicy chord right before the final cadence.
Although Bach left only one complete, authenticated trio sonata for two independent melody instruments plus basso continuo—the most ubiquitous chamber genre of the late Baroque—he seems to have lent a collaborative hand to at least three other trio sonatas for various instrumental combinations (BWV 1038–40); he wrote sonatas for violin and harpsichord and for viola da gamba and harpsichord in which the keyboard’s treble part handles one of the two melody lines; and he composed a group of six “Organ Sonatas” or “Organ Trios” that are effectively trio sonatas in which the organists’ two hands trace the solo parts while the bass line is rendered on the pedals. In Bach’s autograph manuscript, each of the six is titled simply Sonata à 2 Clav: et Pedal (Sonata for Two Keyboards and Pedal).
Some of the music in Bach’s organ sonatas had already appeared in his concertos and cantatas, in orchestrations for several instruments. That, however, is not the case with the concerto-like G major Sonata (BWV 530), which seems to lie natively on the organ. In certain details it also seems to be the most forward-looking of the bunch, and we may assume that it was written ca. 1730, which is about when Bach assembled the six pieces into a set. (The paper on which the pieces are inscribed bears a watermark used at the very earliest in 1727.)
The early Bach biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel maintained that Bach assembled these sonatas expressly for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, “who must have used them while studying to become the great organ player he afterwards was.” Although not confirmed by other period sources, this remains a credible claim. Wilhelm Friedemann turned twenty in 1730, and as he had already worked his way through such of his father’s pedagogical pieces as the inventions, sinfonias, and Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier, he had certainly developed the technique requisite to embark on the organ trio sonatas. They circulated a good deal in the mid-eighteenth century through manuscript copies. As late as 1788 they are mentioned in an account that compares the works of Bach to those Handel. The anonymous author, who may well have been the composer’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, had only positive words to say of these pieces, which were judged to be so galant in their flavor that they were still holding up well so long after they were written.
Mozart: Adagio and Allegro in F minor, K.594
During the final year of his life, Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756–91) completed three compositions for mechanical organ: the Adagio and Allegro in F minor, K.594 (in December 1790); the Fantasia in F minor, K.608 (March 3, 1791); and the Andante in F major, K.616 (that May). We owe their existence to Joseph Nepomuk Franz de Paula, Count Deyn von Střítež (1742–1804), who was quite a character. He served as an officer in the Austrian army, fled to Holland following a duel, and returned to Vienna in about 1780, now under the assumed name of Herr Müller. There he opened a gallery where he displayed wax portraits, gypsum death masks of notables, plaster casts of Classical sculptures, automatons, and mechanical musical instruments.
In March 1791, he launched another establishment, a mausoleum (so he termed it) dedicated to the late Fieldmarshal Baron Ernst Gideon von Laudon, a hero in Austria’s recent war against the Turks. People marveled at the lifelike quality of the fieldmarshal’s wax-and-plaster effigy, the result of a colored paste coating of Müller’s invention. “On the stroke of each hour,” Müller advertised, “a funeral music will be heard, a different composition each week, the name of the composer to be announced on posters.” During the first week, the music was to be by Mozart—probably K.594. Mozart accepted the commission for pecuniary reasons, and, writing to his wife from Frankfurt, on October 3, 1791, he complained that even in light of the generous fee he was having trouble finding inspiration composing for Müller’s musical clocks (as he termed them). “Well,” he wrote, “if it were a big clock and the thing sounded like an organ, it would be nice; but instead the organ has only little pipes that sound too childish to me.”
Still, the pieces he produced did not lack merit. K.594 begins with an Adagio, its mournfulness underscored by themes rich in descending notes and “weeping” appoggiaturas. The ensuing Allegro has a martial quality appropriate to the fieldmarshal. Mozart works through its possibilities in the major and minor modes before revisiting his solemn opening music, now rethought and worked out differently than it was when first presented. Müller would figure again in Mozart’s biography. The composer’s sister-in-law later reported that on December 5, 1791, “Müller from the Art Gallery came in and took a cast of his pale, dead face.”
Ives: Variations on America
Charles Ives (1874–1954) grew up surrounded by musical open-mindedness—or, better put, open-earedness. His father, George Ives, was a Connecticut bandmaster who took pleasure from musical coincidences that most people found revolting—playing the melody of a tune in one key and its harmony in another, for example, or savoring the overlapping sounds of separate bands playing simultaneously on a parade ground. Charles Ives grew up with the resultant polytonality sounding logical to his ears, and at the age of seventeen he composed his own experimental masterpiece Variations on America, which remains much performed today both in its original organ setting and in a symphonic version orchestrated by William Schuman.
One can only imagine what went through the minds of the audience ensconced in the pews of the Methodist church in Brewster, NY, when young Charlie Ives let loose with this piece from the organ loft on February 17, 1892. On one hand, it presents a surface that capably seizes the late-Romantic grandeur typical of organ music at the time. But what could listeners have thought of the material that fueled the five variations on the well-known patriotic tune: the slithering chromaticism, the bumptious rhythms befitting a dance-hall more than a Methodist church, allusions to such musical genres as the march, the polonaise, and the ragtime? The most jaw-dropping passages were the two interludes based on grinding bitonality: the one separating Variations Two and Three offering a conflict between F major and D-flat major, the one between Variations Four and Five operating simultaneously in F major and A-flat major. Ives omitted those bitonal sections when he sent the piece for consideration to a New York publisher, who turned it down anyway. (A dissenting opinion, held by some musicologists, maintains that Ives did not actually compose the interludes until later.) In a memo he jotted in the 1930, Ives mentioned another polytonal interlude, which does not survive: it presented the theme in canonic fashion in three keys at once, and his father forbid him to play it at the premiere because “they made the boys laugh out loud.” Not long after writing Variations on America, Ives went off to college at Yale, where his composition teacher Horatio Parker tried to rein in Ives’s innovative proclivities through the imposition of time-honored classical training. Parker succeeded only provisionally, and Ives would go on to explore the path he had already begun to chart in Variations on America.
Vierne: Symphony No. 6 in B minor for Solo Organ, Opus 59
Louis Vierne (1870–1937) was practically blind from birth. Cataract surgery ameliorated his condition somewhat when he was six, but by 1918 he lost what little sight he had. He progressed rapidly as a young organist, and at the age of nineteen he entered César Franck’s organ class at the Paris Conservatory. Franck died a few months later—far from the first father-figure Vierne had lost by then—and he continued his studies with Charles-Marie Widor, soon serving as his assistant at both the Conservatory and the Church of Saint-Sulpice. In 1900, Vierne was named Organiste Titulaire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, a position he held for almost four decades until he collapsed during a recital there. The New York Times reported that “he finished a passage and fell back into the arms of friends and died with his hands still on the keys.”
He lost a young son to tuberculosis, and another son and a brother died as casualties of World War I. He was twice passed over when the organ professorship fell empty at the Paris Conservatory—a source of bitterness, though he did teach at the rival Schola Cantorum. His pupils included such emerging luminaries as Nadia Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen, Marcel Dupré, and Maurice Duruflé, who played the premiere of the Sixth Symphony.
Vierne is remembered almost entirely for his organ compositions, and especially for his six organ symphonies, which occupied him from 1899 until 1930. He composed the last of them from July 15 to September 15, 1930, while on vacation on the Riviera. It was his penultimate organ work, followed four years later by his Messe basse pour les défunts, which memorialized six of his departed friends. Already the Sixth Symphony has a valedictory flavor. It is dedicated to the Canadian organist Lynnwood Farnham, who died in the year of this work’s composition. Vierne had nurtured their friendship in Paris and then during his own concert tours in the United States, when Farnham attended two of Vierne’s recitals. Wildly virtuosic and intensely chromatic, its five movements encapsulate aspects of the cyclic thematic style favored by the Franck circle while incorporating passages of a seemingly improvisatory character. Much of the Sixth Symphony is enveloped in darkness and mystery (the Scherzo displays a jocular grimness that the composer compared to a smirking gargoyle), but the work ends in a blazing toccata-like Final that brings Vierne’s series of organ symphonies to a jubilant conclusion.—James M. Keller
James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.
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