Bernard Lagacé is a native of Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. Since the 1950’s, he has been a leader in the revival of the classical organ in North America. He is an internationally known performer and teacher, [...]
They spoke about it
Orgelbüchlein — also known as Little Organ Book — is the title Bach himself gave to this collection of organ works which were written to illustrate the lyrics and music of 164 lutherian cantatas. Unfortunately, he had more urgent tasks to attend to and only wrote 45 (the Smieder Catalog lists 46, because it accounts for two pieces, the very similar versions of Chorale no. 35).
In the original manuscript, currently at the Berlin Library, Bach wrote: “… in which it is given to the beginning organist to perform chorales in every kind of way, and to perfect himself in the study of the pedal, inasmuch as in the chorales to be found in it the pedal is treated obbligato. To the honour only of the Supreme God and for the instruction of the neighbour.”
Back then, a beginning organist already mastered harpsichord and was well trained in the arts of harmony and composition. Much like the Inventions or the Well-tempered Klavier, these works have an educational value to them, which is to give structures of composition and technical studies for the instrument. In the mind of the composer, this educational aspect of his work did not mean diminishing its beauty, but rendering an even more perfect result. After writing these elaborate specifications, Bach signed his named and added (in Latin!) “Cappelmeister for the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen.” This would imply that the chorales were written between 1717 and 1723.
However, recent musicological research demonstrate that most of them (for no. 15 was written around 1740, which proves that Bach was very serious in completing his work) were actually written in Weimar around 1714. It was during this mature period of his life that the composer wrote the most important part of his organ works. The majority of the chorales are very short (between a minute or two), but they are of a rare density, an ingenious variety and a very rich expression. They wonderfully illustrate the popular saying which states that a genius is recognizable if he is able to create a whole universe in only one page… Albert Schweitzer was the first person of our era to applaud the richness of this collection and its importance, in his fabulous book J.S. Bach, the Poet-Musician (1905). For him, it represents a bible of Bach’s symbolic language.
Let me give a few examples: This symbolism can be descriptive, like in no. 9, where the ascending and descending scales paint the movement of the angels between Heaven and Earth, or in no. 38, where the falling 7th intervals translate the fall of Adam. But the symbolism is more often used in a spiritual manner, such as illustrating joy with a rhythmic formula (in numbers 7 and 18), or nostalgia and pain, which are described using chromatism in numbers 16 and 22. This symbolism often has theological ideas behind it, with its descending figures (especially in the bass): the numerous Christmas chorales (nos. 1, 4, 5, 6 or 13) show very clearly that God himself has come to Earth in human form. Even the most technical procedure such as the canon takes on a symbolic aspect, at times very clearly “translating” words (no. 10 and no. 35).
The 45 chorales of the Orgelbüchlein are, in their own way, poems full of emotions and lyrisism (nos. 16, 43 and 24 in particular). Organist-Composer Charles-Marie Widor once said that “they must be among the most beautiful things ever written.” They reach a summit of perfection comparable to the poetry of Ronsard, Shakespeare or Mallarmé. For more than 40 years now, I have lived in the familiarity and the intimacy of these 45 chorales — I have taught them and, of course, I have performed them several times. I can honestly say that throughout these years their emotional power has never ceased to grow in me. They were concieved in Bach’s heart, and they come to light through the musician. May they reach the heart of the listeners. In any case, I invite everyone to share the joy and fulfillment they have given me.
Since the timing of these two records allowed me to add something, I thought about surrounding the chorales with two of Bach’s gigantic works. First, the Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547, which was probably written in Leipzig towards the end of Bach’s life, and which introduces wonderfully the Christmas chorales with its rhythmic motives. And, last but not least, the huge Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, which was written around the same time as the chorales, and whose 20 variations are crowned with a superb fugue, which takes the role of the 21st variation, only bigger and even more magnificent.
© Bernard Lagacé, Montréal, Sept. 7, 1993