Paul Jacobs Plays Bach

Bach’s Organ Music

In the town square of Arnstadt, in central Germany, there stands a modern statue of a slender and well-muscled young man. He’s bare-headed, his shirt is partly unbuttoned and he sprawls on a bench with his legs extended. His right hand droops downwards, while his left is extended to grasp something.

It’s Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) at age eighteen, when he was the organist for Arnstadt’s Neue Kirche. That clears up the mystery of his impudent posture: he’s captured while playing the organ. His extended legs are on the pedals, his right hand is on the keyboard, his left hand is pulling a stop.

Bach considered the organ as his lifelong bailiwick, and with good reason. His technical virtuosity and improvisatory skill elicited undisguised amazement from all who heard him. Nor was Bach limited to merely playing the organ; throughout his career he was in constant demand as an expert on the instrument’s construction, potential ailments, capabilities, and limitations.

While the value of Bach’s organ inspections were limited to his own time and place, his compositions for the instrument are timeless and without boundary. The works of his North German contemporaries, such as Buxtehude, Böhm, and Pachelbel, have largely receded into specialist status, but Bach’s output remains as compelling, as relevant, and as challenging as ever. Much of it dates from the early years of his career in Arnstadt (1704–08), Mühlhausen (1708–09), and Weimar (1709–17), but significant works also date from his long tenure in Leipzig (1723–50), even during his last years as his eyesight deteriorated. 

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Trio Sonata in E minor, BWV 528
Arioso from Cantata No. 156, Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grabe
Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532
Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, from Meyerbeer's Le Prophète
 

Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565

Possibly the most familiar organ work in the repertory, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 would have disappeared altogether were it not for a single manuscript copy from about 1730 or thereabouts, made by organist Johann Ringk. This was the copy that, warts and all, provided the basis of the first published edition in 1833. Felix Mendelssohn’s acclaimed 1840 performance on organ led to piano transcriptions by virtuosi such as Carl Tausig, and a century later to the grand Leopold Stokowski orchestration that opens Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia.

The work dates from the beginning of Bach’s career, and could have been written as early as 1704, when he was still a teenager. The North German tradition of free-form, quasi-improvisatory playing (expressed by the label toccata) is very much in evidence throughout, even in the fluid central fugue with its interludes and relatively casual attitude towards the number of voices. As Bach biographer Karl Geiringer puts it, “The work was written by an organist with so deep an insight into the possibilities of the instrument that he was able to produce the most powerful effects without unduly taxing the player’s technical abilities. In its intensity and exuberance this is clearly a product of Bach’s youth, but there is no groping and uncertainty in it.”

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Trio Sonata in E minor, BWV 528

Bach’s children benefitted from having one of history’s finest music teachers as their father. None was more lavishly trained than Sebastian’s oldest, Wilhelm Friedemann, born in 1710 during his father’s service at the ducal court of Weimar. It was Friedemann for whom Sebastian wrote his Klavierbüchlien für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, which contains early versions of the French Suites, Inventions, Sinfonias, and the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Klavierbüchlein also contains six sonatas for organ, nowadays known as the Trio Sonatas, BWV 525 through 530. The appellation “trio sonata” is excellent, given that the works transfer the overall styles and techniques of the Italian trio sonata—typically for two violins with cello-and-keyboard continuo underpinning—to the organ. Widely disseminated among Bach’s pupils, the trio sonatas combine superb pedagogical qualities with evocations of the Italian galant style that was coming into vogue as of the 1720s.

The Trio Sonata in E minor, BWV 528 dates from Bach’s years in Leipzig. Its opening Adagio—Vivace movement began existence as the Sinfonia that opens the second part of Cantata No. 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God), one of Bach’s earliest Leipzig cantatas. One can easily hear the chamber quality of this movement, with its imitative upper voices unfolding over a bass-line continuo part in the pedal. It is followed by a second-place Andante characterized by pleasantly ear-bending chromaticisms and florid ornamentation of the melodic line. A concluding Un poco allegro is the most noticeably galant part of the work, with its dance-like rhythms and overall courtly demeanor.

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Prelude and Fugue in D minor

Around 1720, while in service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach wrote those magnificent cornerstones of the violin repertory, the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. The Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001 contains a richly-detailed fugue that proves that a single violin can indeed encompass the full polyphonic features of a multi-voiced composition. Bach’s own transcription of that fugue forms the second part of the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV 539 (sometimes nicknamed, appropriately, "The Fiddle"), its harmonies and contrapuntal textures intensified but otherwise unchanged.

The preceding Prelude is written for manuals only (no pedal) and is likely to remind listeners of the preludes of the Well-Tempered Clavier in its ornamented arpeggiations and steady harmonic rhythm. However, it is written in a three-part form that points towards a future when tripartite structures were to become the norm.

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Arioso from Cantata No. 156, Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grabe

Bach wrote Cantata No. 156, Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss in Grabe (I stand with one foot in the grave) for the third Sunday after Epiphany; it was performed in Leipzig on January 23, 1729. As the title suggests, it’s one of Bach’s gloomier cantatas, its dour text concerned mostly with fear, dread, and supplications for relief from suffering.

Nevertheless, it contains one of the most beguiling and lovely movements in all of Bach’s 200 some-odd surviving church cantatas, some of which open with instrumental movements that Bach had repurposed from earlier works. For the opening Sinfonia of Cantata No. 156, Bach adapted the slow movement of a now-lost oboe concerto in D minor that he later transcribed as the middle movement of the Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, albeit with extensive added ornamentation. Transcriptions and arrangements of this charming movement abound, quite a few of them for solo organ.

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Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532

In 1709 Bach was hired by Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar as a member of the court orchestra (violin) and as a court organist. It is this period of his career—eight years, from 1709 to 1717—that he created many of his greatest organ compositions, including the Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532.

Nowadays we tend to think of The Well-Tempered Clavier in relation to the pairing of prelude with fugue, but the organ preludes and fugues are anything but mere predecessors or signposts along Bach’s developmental path. There is really nothing in the Well-Tempered Clavier that corresponds to BWV 532’s lengthy and multi-sectional prelude—perhaps E-flat major in Book 1 comes close—or the unbuttoned virtuosity of its fugue.

It is perhaps that extroverted bravura that endeared this composition to late-Romantic pianists, two of whom (Ferruccio Busoni and Eugen d’Albert) gifted posterity with roof-rattling transcriptions in the full-court-press Lisztian manner. But those piano transcriptions, marvelous though they may be, can only hint at the impact of Bach’s original played on a superb organ. Perhaps only Ottorino Respighi’s dynamite 1929 orchestration—it requires just about everything but the kitchen sink, including four-hand piano duet—approaches BWV 532’s native sonic splendor, but its ear-candy munificence is much more twentieth than eighteenth century.

Bach lays out the Prelude in three contrasting sections. The first of these features brilliant scalar runs in the pedals set against arabesques in the manuals, culminating in a ceremonious half-cadence in the relative key of B minor. That leads to the alla breve middle section, a spritely dance-like affair that reflects the Weimar court’s fascination with the robust and colorful Italian style of the era. A concluding Adagio returns to the North German style of the opening, ending in an appropriately grand final cadence.

The fugue is based on a bustling subject, all glittering sixteenth-note filigree marked by the insertion of an intriguing, and unexpected, three-beat silence. Towards the end, sizzling passagework in the pedals led one early copyist to add a suggestion to the player: “Note well: in this piece one must really let the feet kick around a lot.”

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Liszt: Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, from Meyerbeer's Le Prophète

We know Franz Liszt (1811-86) as a monarch among pianists, but he was also an enthusiastic devotée of the organ. With more than forty works to his credit—some of them massive indeed—he stands among the finest composers of organ music in the nineteenth century, along with Mendelssohn, Franck, Vierne, Widor, and Reger.

Merseburg, Germany, near Leipzig, lies about sixty-eight miles due north from Weimar, the ducal seat where Liszt lived from 1848 to 1861. Merseburg’s exquisite Gothic cathedral dates back to 1015, although it was twice modernized, first in the high Middle Ages and later during the Renaissance. The cathedral’s organ was substantially upgraded in the mid-nineteenth century at the hands of master builder Friedrich Ladegast. Organ aficionado that he was, Liszt found the emergent new instrument fascinating and composed his Prelude and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H (i.e., the notes B-flat, A, C, and B-natural) for the organ’s inauguration. Unfortunately he failed to complete that work in time, and so the Liszt composition that actually christened the mammoth instrument on September 25, 1855 was his monumental Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, from 1852, performed by organist Alexander Winterberger, for whom Liszt had originally written the work.

Chorales are usually to be found in Lutheran church music by way of Bach cantatas, but in this case the source was an opera—Le Prophète by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), to whom Liszt dedicated the Fantasy and Fugue. The chorale, heard in its entirety well into the work’s duration, is short at only eight measures. Nevertheless, it thoroughly permeates the half-hour work, clearly showing the influence of Liszt’s epochal Piano Sonata in B minor in its focus on a single theme throughout.

Liszt’s organ writing is, on the whole, orchestral and symphonic rather than contrapuntal in the Bach manner. Except for the fugue (which is, by definition, polyphonic) the Fantasy revels in arpeggios, fast keyboard runs, and octave passages reminiscent of Liszt’s grand virtuoso piano style. The pianistic nature of the work was clear to both Liszt and his successors; Liszt himself worked up a piano-duet version that was published concurrently with the original, and in 1897 the acclaimed pianist Ferruccio Busoni produced a staggeringly difficult piano transcription, described by Liszt biographer Alan Walker as “one of the pinnacles of twentieth-century virtuosity.”

Even if the Fantasy and Fugue is structured in one unbroken half-hour span, it is nonetheless divided into three distinct sections: Introduction—Adagio—Fugue. Both outer sections share an emotional path in common, as each opens gloomily and gradually rises to a thundering climax. The inner Adagio is a meltingly beautiful passage in F major, offering abundant opportunities for varied organ color effects.

Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

(March 2018)