The Power of Melody – RPC Music Notes Sun 15 Dec 2019

Choral Prelude on ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’, BWV 650 – J.S. Bach
Ton Koopman, Silbermann organ

With the possible exception of the Gregorian chant-descended hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel” no tune better captures the spirit of the Advent season than Martin Luther’s 1523 composition (both tune and words), Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland (Now, come, Saviour of the Nations). Our service today offers no fewer than six unique settings of this tune.

Three of those settings are the triad of organ preludes from Bach’s Leipzig Chorales, BWV 659-661. The haunting BWV 659, perhaps Bach’s most sublime setting of any melody for the organ, is written in a style known as alio modo, in which imitative voices in the left hand and an ornamented solo line in the right are united, phrase by phrase, over a simple independent ‘walking bass’ in the pedal. BWV 660 is a more academically- oriented trio in which left hand and pedal trade references to the first musical phrase of the tune, while the right hand presents the entire tune, again well-ornamented. BWV 661 is a grand and vigorous full organ setting in which the pedal presents the entire tune while the right hand offers a three-voice fugue based more loosely on the tune material.

The other three settings of the tune appear in the latter part of today’s service, first a duet and chorale taken from one of Bach’s four Advent Cantatas, BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor. The duet Brooke, Nancy and I offer today, originally scored for two oboes d’amore and continuo, presents the tune richly ornamented by both voices, the two solo instruments, and the continuo line in roughly equal partnership. The chorale that closes Cantata 36 turns out to be the exact words of our usual Doxology, but, you guessed it, set to our “Melodie von heute.”

Briefly, what is it about this tune, which continues to appear regularly in hymn books 500 years later (although, alas, not our Book of Praise)? It has a few unusual properties, most obviously that the first and fourth phrases are identical. And though to our ears it lies solidly in the key of G minor, it skips the all-important raised leading note (F#) we usually like in minor keys (if your ears are trained and tuned in to this sort of thing you might notice that today’s many Bach settings, despite the difficulty voices have in singing it before the B-flat that must follow, often add it).

The unusual structure of Nun komm’ (the last phrase being the same as the first) might be as simple as helping illiterate 16th century congregations in learning, let’s remember, mostly for the FIRST time EVER, to sing hymns at all, especially in their own spoken languages. The F-natural on the third note of the first and last phrases suggest the musical time Luther lived in, not yet by any means moved on to the more recent major/minor hegemony that seemed to abolish the older church modes except as a theoretical abstraction. Also, it’s not hard to see why simple intervals (like the perfect fourth from F-natural to B-flat) would be easier and more intuitive to help get the Church’s first real foray into full-congregational singing.

Finally, I have added an ‘Amen’ setting to my series composed for the RPC Choir. In it our wonderful altos, who so often suffer with simple and repetitive parts while others enjoy singing the real tune, are given the tune throughout, while the other parts add an ornamental tapestry befitting the entreaty of a coming Saviour.

-CD

“A Confused Homage” – RPC Music Notes, 24 Nov 2019

Acclamations “Suite M├ędievale” – Jean Langlais, performed at St-Clothilde, Paris
performed by Olivier Penin, Langlais’ third successor at that famous organ.

Here’s a question: What are the most common words in the Bible? The answer to this question is of course highly translation-dependent, but let’s assume the New International Version (NIV) of our pew Bibles at RPC, and leave out the articles, prepositions and other structural words which tend to be the most common in every text ever written in, or translated to, English.

The top ten ‘contet’ words include ‘Man'(#6) and ‘Men'(#8) – and though the gender-neutral ‘People’ beats out both at #5 another male term, ‘Son’ beats the lot at #3 (unsurprisingly female nouns fail entirely to appear). ‘Israel'(#7) and the more general concept ‘Land’ (#9) are there, along of course with ‘God'(#2). ‘Jesus’ squeaks in at #10, although to be fair he’s included in #2 above, and though prophecied several times earlier he doesn’t make an appearance by name until the New Testament.

If you’ve been keeping track you are probably wondering about #4 and certainly #1 – they are, respectively, ‘King’ and ‘Lord,’ two terms that might seem quaint or even irritating to us today, but which were commonplace and have clear associations with the life and culture of Biblical times.

What does ANY of this have to do with music? The last Sunday of Ordinary Time, now mostly known by the title “Reign of Christ,” brings us face-to-face with the image of God’s and Christ’s kingship, almost as if to prepare us for the traditional carols that will do echo it in the coming weeks. As with many other historic but less-current images to modern life the musical response is – a bit confused.

There is no shortage of grand, powerful, kingly pieces like the famous ‘Christus Vincit’ acclamations of today’s postlude in the sacred music tradition, but because our understanding of this particular view of Christ is now somewhat more nuanced there are other responses. Today’s Prelude, for example, despite its size and nickname “Little,” is one of the best-known and best-loved of Bach’s Fugues for the ‘King of Instruments’ – not the most clever connection, but perhaps the point is made in its dignity and calculating eminence, rather than the sweeping scale of larger works.

The text of both of today’s choral pieces, settings of Psalm 117, speak an imperative for any loyal subject, ‘Lobet den Herrn’ in German or ‘Laudate Dominum’ in Latin. Both initial words mean mean ‘Praise’, a word I would have picked for the ‘top ten’ above, and though apparently it didn’t make that achievement it surely can’t lie that much further down the list. Yet it would be hard to imagine two more different musical responses to setting the same text. Bach’s setting is earnest, vigorous and exuberant; Mozart’s is serene and personal, the soprano soloist supported and upheld by the choir, which only joins her half-way through her exquisite personal statement.

In the church we are sometimes bothered, but also often struck by the grandeur, dignity and power of arcane images such as the Kingship of Jesus. But Jesus is not changed by being called ‘King’: rather, being King is transformed by the person of Jesus the kind, the just, the self-sacrificial. Measure and consider, we should, the kings of the earth and our idea of kingship itself by the King of Heaven, not the vice-versa.

-CD