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
This second disc of Bach’s early organ works opens with one of his most brilliant and deservedly celebrated compositions, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major. Although it is identified only as ‘Toccata’ in the two non-autograph extant sources, I prefer to use as a title the three terms that identify each of its movements—which they bear as subtitles in the two manuscripts—since the work indeed consists of three distinct movements, clearly separated one from the other. Furthermore, it would seem that Bach conceived them at the same time, as part of a triptych. This is clearly displayed in the stunning conclusion to the Adagio, in seven voices (!), replete with dissonances and suspensions (reminiscent of Frescobaldi’s Toccate di ligature and durezze), which establish a harmonic transition from the Adagio’s A minor to the C major of the Fugue. This is the only triptych Bach wrote for organ; the usual toccata and fugue are here divided by an Adagio that sounds almost as if it were transcribed from a violin concerto. Moreover, it is the entire work which seems to be modelled after an Italian Baroque concerto, so much so that the musicologist and first great Bach biographer, Philipp Spitta, thought the title ‘Concerto’ would suit it better than ‘Toccata’! Probably written in Weimar around 1710, the work in fact brilliantly demonstrates a perfect assimilation and synthesis of the Italian and Northern styles. This is apparent in the initial virtuoso passages, followed by a long and very eloquent pedal solo, which itself precedes the introduction of the two motives that are developed in the manner of an orchestral concertante dialogue. As for the Fugue, it employs a long theme interrupted by rests, of a very pronounced rhythmic character and an almost humorous gait… We are accustomed to hearing a conclusion where the different voices gradually dwindle until the end where, with no longer any pedal, descending quavers are discretely punctuated by a final, short chord. I thought it interesting to use here a different version, as is found in one of the work’s two sources, where the pedal holds the tonic low C until the last long chord, marked with a fermata. The Partita—in the old traditional meaning of a Suite of variations, and not that of a Dance Suite such as is also found in the first part of Bach’s Clavierübung—”O Gott, du frommer Gott”, in C minor, along with those in F minor (BWV 766) and (in part) G minor (BWV 768), probably dates from the Lüneburg years (1700–1703), when Bach was clearly much influenced, as he doubtless was also his student, by Georg Boehm, who was an organist in that town. Hence, this is the work of a young man of about 18… And yet, what mastery, what variety and richness of expression! With the great freedom and diversity of its instrumental writing, often quite close to that of the harpsichord, and its neglect of the pedal-board, this Partita plainly shows that, for Bach as well as Boehm, there was no sharp distinction between organ and harpsichord music. It is of note that the number of variations correspond here to the number of stanzas in the hymn. Could this imply that the music is a symbolic translation of each stanza’s text? In any case, it is certainly plausible to regard the descending quaver motive in the sixth variation as expressing the death and entombment of the Saviour, and the following variation’s intense chromaticism as depicting the soul’s sorrow in awaiting His resurrection. As for the last, much longer variation, comprising three sections (the second of which is marked Andante before the final Presto), it can surely render the meaning of the last stanza, referring to the resurrection of the dead, where the Andante expresses the slumber of the hopeful soul, and the Presto the joy of the chosen, of “those who love thy Name”. While the Fantasia in C major BWV 570 and the Chorale “Vom Himmel hoch…” BWV 700 distinctly recall Pachelbel’s influence, thus from southern Germany, the Fugue in C minor BWV 574 is of a definite Northern character, despite the use of a theme by the Italian composer Legrenzi. It is actually a rather strict double fugue whose third section unites the autonomous themes of the first two. Bach concludes with an entirely free and brilliant passage which does not seem to bear any relation to the actual fugue, unless he had had the intention of beginning it with a similar virtuoso overture that is either lost or was finally never composed. A few words now on the Fantasia “Jesu, meine Freude”: a beautiful and expressive theme, treated fugally, envelops the Cantus firmus which passes from one voice to the other two, and the piece ends with a passage in ternary rhythm marked Dolce, a sort of lullaby full of tenderness. Could it be that this Fantasia had served as a prelude to the performance of the famed eponymous Motet? This stroll through the enchanted and enchanting garden of Bach’s youthful works concludes with the Prelude and Fugue BWV 533 in E minor, a diptych at once of great concision and of great dramatic impact, wholly Northern in character, and where the prelude must proceed directly into the fugue which completes it admirably.