Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 4: Remarks by Paul Walker (University of Notre Dame), performance by Kola Owolabi (University of Notre Dame)
Johann Sebastian Bach first made his name as an organist, and, although his career later took him well beyond this specialty, he continued to engage with the instrument for the rest of his life. Furthermore, his contemporaries all recognized that his organ works, and his own performance of them, put him head and shoulders above all others of his day, to the extent that complaints were heard that no one but Bach himself could play this music. Organ composition spans his entire career. Long after he died, these works played a major role in the so-called Bach Revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and they remain central today to organ recitals and degree programs world-wide.
All of this notwithstanding, Bach aspired from his earliest years to more than just organist positions. He got his chance halfway through his time as court organist in Weimar, when he leveraged an external job offer to obtain a promotion to the post of Vice-Kapellmeister and thereby added to his portfolio the composing of a monthly church cantata. Once he left Weimar in 1717, Bach never again held an organist post, and a large percentage of his organ works were already written by this time. Probably among the last to be composed before he moved on is his trio setting of the Lutheran chorale Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 664. The chorale on which it is based is one of Lutheranism’s very oldest. Its textual basis is a metrical rendering of the ancient Latin chant Gloria in excelsis Deo, its melody an adaptation of a thirteenth-century Gregorian Gloria.
Bach’s trio is part of a group of chorale settings from the Weimar years that he revised during his later tenure in Leipzig and personally hand-copied into a single manuscript. He gave this group of pieces no title, nor is it at all clear that they were ever conceived as a coherent set. For a very long time the group was understood to number eighteen and was known by the title The Great Eighteen in recognition of the pieces’ ambitiousness. Then a number of years ago the well-known Bach scholar Christoph Wolff argued convincingly that one of the settings did not really belong, at which point The Great Seventeen just didn’t have the same ring to it, so, although the traditional title is still often encountered, the expression The Leipzig Chorales has been gaining in favor, even though all of the pieces were written long before Bach got to Leipzig and many of them, including the one you are about to hear, remain largely as Bach first conceived them.
In 1713 one of the two ducal brothers who ruled the Weimar court returned from a trip to Holland with a copy of Antonio Vivaldi’s set of violin concertos entitled L’Estro harmonico, Op. 3, which had been published shortly before. From that time forward Bach insisted that his encounter with this collection changed his compositional life by showing him what architectural logic could look like in music, more especially what could be made of the system of harmony, established around 1700 by Italian musicians, that we know as tonal harmony. This system, based on chordal relationships pegged to the circle of fifths that provide a means to balance variety with coherence, is still with us today. Bach spent his last years in Weimar exploring the possibilities inherent in this new approach to harmony and its implications for larger-scale structure.
The trio setting of Allein Gott was clearly among those experiments. The piece travels through a veritable laboratory of related keys and modulations, all in impeccably logical fashion. Its texture likewise derives from contemporary Italian music, the so-called trio sonata for two violins and bass. Bach divides the two high parts between the hands while the feet play the bass line. Most of the thematic material is drawn from the opening eight-note phrase of the chorale, which appears in three different guises: in fast-moving sixteenth notes at the very beginning in the right hand, where the tune’s eight notes are placed as the first of each group of four; in medium-speed eighth notes, played three times in the pedal; and, at the end, in slower quarter notes without interpolations, also in pedal. Our trio includes two notable instances of repetition: a significant segment in the middle of the piece, beginning with arpeggiated figures in the two hands, recurs verbatim, after a brief modulatory interlude, in a different key, and a variant of the opening measures returns toward the end to introduce the slow chorale statement.
The two Weimar dukes were very fond of Bach’s organ playing, and he no doubt played most if not all of these Weimar-Leipzig chorale settings expressly for them. Playing this piece now for you is Kola Owolabi, professor of organ at the University of Notre Dame. The instrument, in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on the university campus, is modeled on German organs of Bach’s own time by the American builder Paul Fritts.