Friday, 1 February 2013

Hallowed be their names...

Felix Mendelssohn has long been honoured for reviving the great name of Bach in the early Romantic era and it's not surprisingly to find him composing works of his own that are imbued with the spirit of that great Baroque master. 

Felix's Six Organ Sonatas, Op.65, for example, are clear homages to the six Organ Sonatas BWV 625-630 of Johann Sebastian. The Organ Sonata No.6 in D minor is a favourite of mine from the set and opens with a Lutheran chorale, Vater unser im Himmelreich. Though the text of the chorale is by Martin Luther (not that we hear it here, of course!) , it appears that the great reformer didn't write the melody himself, merely choosing instead to fit a pre-existing tune around his words:

Vater unser im Himmelreich,
Der du uns alle heissest gleich
Brüder sein, und dich rufen an
Und willt das Beten von uns han:
Gieb dass nicht bei allein der Mund,
Hilf dass es geh von Herzens Grund.

What Mendelssohn does in the first movement of his D minor Sonata is to write a set of chorale variations, just as J.S. used to do. Listen to how he first presents his theme - simply and in D minor. I'll come to some of Bach's harmonisations later, which will allow you to compare the two composers' takes. You will then hear hear just how "simply and in D minor" Mendelssohn harmonises the hymn here. Five variations follow, each presenting the chorale itself with little modification but varying its context. The gentle first variation sets it against flowing figuration and a bass-line notable for its unpredictably long pedal notes, all in a trio sonata manner in keeping with the tradition of Bach. The more forthright and lilting second variation has a highly mobile, very Bach-like bass-line which drives it on. The central variation (another 'trio sonata') has a gorgeous counter-melody. The fourth variations is flamboyant, with toccata-like flourishes swirling around the grandly-presented hymn, and the final variation brings the section to a brilliant conclusion. It is wonderful music. 

One of the most often made criticisms of Felix's music is that it is harmonically unadventurous - timid, conservative, a bit bland. When we come to some of the Bach harmonisations I suspect you might even be tempted to agree, given that some of those sound far more harmonically daring, surprising, shocking even than Mendelssohn's harmonies in this organ sonata. Still, listen to the way the not quite synchronized parts of the first variation create little harmonic surprises and please listen also to the artful and pervasive use of suspensions in the central variation. This may be conservative harmony but it's subtle and satisfying conservative harmony. 

The next section of Mendelssohn's Organ Sonata No.6 is a fugue. "How very Bachian of him!", you might say. Its theme is also derived from Vater unser im Himmelreich. What do you make of this fugue? Is it as exciting, as vital as a Bach fugue? 

What follows, however, is very different and carries us very much into the composer's own time, being a Romantic song-without-words. The D minor mood lifts and we can relax in the comfort of a particularly warm-sounding D major. Vater unser im Himmelreich is quietly put aside.

I've read that this finale is instead based on the old English hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (which was my grandmother' favourite hymn, incidentally). I can hear similarities, especially in its second phrase but I remain a bit sceptical about the connection though. For some tastes, this closing section might seem too sweet, too sentimental or perhaps the sort of thing the late Charles Rosen meant when he described Mendelssohn (in The Romantic Generation) as "the inventor of religious kitsch in music", sensuously evoking the atmosphere of a church service. I don't mind a bit of religious kitsch, especially if it sounds as lovely as this movement. 

Are you sitting comfortably? Now please take a listen to Leit uns mit deiner rechten Hand, the closing chorale of J.S.Bach's Cantata BWV 90.  Please listen out in particular for the harmony on the syllable highlighted in red below:

Leit uns mit deiner rechten Hand
Und segne unser Stadt und Land;
Gib uns allzeit dein heilges Wort,

Behüt für's Teufels List und Mord;
Verleih ein selges Stündelein,
Auf dass wir ewig bei dir sein!

Now even though I prepared you for it a bit in advance, that was still quite a harmonic shock, wasn't it? It certainly isn't the sort of thing Felix would have done. Ever. 

Those words above come from a text written by Martin Moller several decades after Martin Luther: Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott. The words may be different but the melody is exactly the same. The chorale melody of Vater unser im Himmelreich was fitted around several later Lutheran texts written by writers other than Luther himself, not just Moller's. Bach's Cantata BWV 101Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, uses these alternative words  and that same tune. Moller's words are, however, far grimmer - "Take from us, you faithful God,/the heavy punishment and great distress,/which for our countless sins we/deserve to have all too often./Protect us from war and costly times/from plague, fire and great misfortune." 

If you were taken aback by that harmony on "lein" from BVW 90, then just wait until you hear the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 101. I will freely admit that when I first heard the Harnoncourt performance linked to in the preceding paragraph, I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, thinking that it was one of those rough early "authentic performances" where out-of-tune playing abounded, albeit to an extraordinary degree. It is, of course, no such thing. The "out-of-tune" harmonies in this great and glorious movement are entirely Bach's doing. He was so out of this time in the adventurousness of his harmonies - and surely there can be few works where he was so out of his time and adventurous. Gesualdo and Schoenberg might have gasped at some of the dissonances - and the sheer intensity of dissonance - in several passages (especially those where the chorus enter.) The world of the final movement of Mendelssohn's organ sonata couldn't feel further away. The piled-up dissonances join up with a little, wriggling worm-of-sin type of figure to convey the unpleasant things mentioned in Moller's text. The chorale melody Vater unser im Himmelreich shines through this dark, agonised (yet very enjoyable) fugue. 

The second movement of Cantata 101, the tenor aria Handle nicht nach deinen Rechten - a movement with obbligato violin (or flute) -  uses lots of word-painting, leaping up on Höchster ("highest") and falling) and descending on vergehen ("passing away") for example, but it doesn't use the chorale melody. In that it's the exception, as every one of the other remaining movements does. The two recitatives (No.3 and No.5) ingeniously use the chorale rather as a priest quotes from the Bible as he delivers his sermon - dry recitative punctuating by the chorale phrases. The bass aria Warum will du so zornig sein? (No.4), with its delightful woodwind writing (a movement I prefer to the tenor aria), also uses this "quotation" idea, with the bass quoting the opening line of the chorale and the oboes playing the chorale in the central passage. The beautiful soprano-alto duet Gedenk an Jesu bittern Tod! (No.6), a movement in the old pastoral form of the sicilienne (in 12/8 time), interweaves the the chorale melody with a lovely, expressive melody, exchanging the themes between a solo flute and a solo oboe de caccia.  The cantata ends with a simple chorale harmonisation which offers none of the shocks on its opening movement - or its equivalent in Cantata 90. It ends, you will doubtless notice, on a Picardy third

This cantata, suggestively, was among the very first that Mendelssohn got published, thus beginning the great re-awakening of interest in the Bach cantatas (an interest that took a long time to build thereafter). 

Going back to the organ, finally, and to Bach's own organ works based on Vater unser im Himmelreich, there are four chorale preludes to bring you yet more delight. BWV 737, uncollected, is the dourest of the four - and the most old-fashioned, recalling the organ works of the preceding generation of German organ composers. BWV 636, from the Orgelbüchlein, is short, gentle and rather Mendelssohnian! Its harmonisation, however, admits modal elements and has many a passing dissonance. It's a lovely piece. BWV 682, from the Clavier-Übung, Part 3, is on an altogether larger scale piece and even better -  a beautiful heart-easing piece, full of canons, chromatic touches and rhythmic kicks, with an independent-minded bass line. It is one of the great Bach organ pieces. BWV 683, from the Clavier-ÜbungPart 3, is much smaller in scale but scarcely less captivating. The 'soprano' sings the chorale in full while scale-based figuration flickers beneath it. Gorgeous!

Hallowed be the name of Bach...and hallowed be the name of Mendelssohn. Amen.

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